Sean Lee Davies on tycoons, rhinos and Hollywood dreams

Updated on October 9 2014

Journalist, filmmaker, photographer, activist — we’re still not sure what to call Sean Lee Davies — but then again, neither is he.

“I can’t decide what title I should have, that’s the problem,” said Davies, who started his career in the world of film for Sony Pictures Entertainment. He then sidetracked into magazines, working as features editor for Prestige Magazine before becoming editorial director of Asia Tatler, all the while cultivating his passion for photography.

“Photography has always been my key to the world,” he said. “I can go anywhere with a camera, as well as a pen. With a pen and camera, you can do anything.”

A few years and career milestones later, we met Davies (now founder and director of Activis Media Group with several successful TV features, such as Tycoon Talk, under his belt) at his “Home Heroes” exhibition for Landmark to discuss childhood dreams, environmental initiatives and photography.

GURUS Home Heroes Exhibition Work by Sean Lee Davies
Like owner, like dog: Sparky poses like a pro for the Home Heroes exhibition, Davies’ latest photography project.

LifestyleAsia (LSA): How do you actually do so much?

Sean Lee Davies (SLD): One of the things I learned from the tycoons is the earlier you get up, the more likely you are to be successful. I get up at 6:30am and take 30-60 minutes to do something for myself, be it meditating, reading or working out. It’s the only time of the day where I don’t have my phone buzzing and, funnily enough, it’s probably the time I come up with my ideas — that and in the shower.

LSA: What did you want to be growing up?

SLD: I never really knew what I wanted to do and thought there was something wrong with me. Funnily enough, life chips away at the superfluous stuff and you find out who you really are and what you want to do. When I was younger at boarding school, I always dreamed of being a travel photographer for National Geographic. You know Sean Penn in Walter Mitty? That’s what I wanted to be when I was younger — that and a film director.

LSA: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced?

SLD: Kilimanjaro, which was for my environmental initiative Project C:CHANGE. Getting that started, taking six models up Kilimanjaro at minus 20 degrees over six days and making everyone look pretty — that was tough. But every creative project is a challenge. Trying to get people to believe in your idea, fund it and get it out there is very difficult, so I would say my work is my greatest challenge.

Sean Lee Davies
Whether he’s driving through Southeast Asia on waste cooking oil or sitting in a Maserati, Davies doesn’t take himself too seriously.

LSA: What is your proudest achievement?

SLD: The Project C:CHANGE work. My exhibition in December will showcase four to five year’s worth of work. We did some pretty crazy stuff to get to this point, like filming my girlfriend in a 10 foot dress swimming with whale sharks or filming with lions. All the problems with the shoots, it’s worthy of a book — if anyone would buy it.

I’m also quite proud to have done something like Tycoon Talk, which has really reached people. I didn’t know people would like the show that much, so if they’re switching on the TV and watching it, I think that’s a great achievement. And if people feel energised and pumped to go make a successful business, to me that’s worthwhile.

LSA: As founder of Project C:CHANGE, what’s one change you’d like to see in the world?

SLD: The campaign for Project C:CHANGE that I’m launching this year is on endangered wildlife and the core message is to stop ivory poaching, rhino horn poaching and the shark fin trade. I think my major change would be for us all to start considering the environment as an externality, we can’t just use the environment as an infinite resource to consume.

We have to change our relationship so that we respect it more and don’t completely deplete it, which is what we’re doing now. If rhinos get wiped out tomorrow, it’s not the end of the world, but if we can’t stop the rhino poaching — since really there’s no need for a rhino to die for its horn — if we can’t stop them from disappearing, then how are we going to stop the small things, like bees, from disappearing?

LSA: From all the things you do, what are you most passionate about?

SLD: Finding beauty in simple things in life — trying to create beauty through photographs and films and to capture the pure essence of being alive and human and telling beautiful stories. Obviously my other passion is trying to conserve the environment for future generations. People say, “You’re not a humanitarian, you’re an environmentalist,” and well, I think that’s rubbish — we’re tied to our environment so if our environment disintegrates, humans will go with it.

Tai Ping Home Heroes Exhibition Work by Sean Lee Davies
Davies’ Home Heroes exhibition showcases some of Landmark Prince’s iconic home pieces in a humorous way.

LSA: What is your biggest source of inspiration?

SLD: I’ve always loved the surrealists, so everything I do has a sense of humour to it. You can’t take yourself too seriously — if you have a sense of humour or a quirkiness to your work, it’s just that much more engaging. I’m also a big fan of the great film classics such as China Town as well as the great directors such as Hitchcock and Kubrick. In terms of photographers, I’ve always been a massive fan of Guy Bourdin, Mapplethorpe, Avedon and, of course, Hemut Newton.

LSA: If there was anyone or anything in the world that you could photograph, what would it be?

SLD: A blue whale under water. I’m really into free diving now so I’d love to dive with a blue whale.

LSA: What’s next?

SLD: I haven’t directed a major Hollywood feature film, so that’s next. I always knew that I would go through each step before I got to that point and I’m hoping that maybe after a few more TV shows, the next big project will be a film feature.

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