Brash, brazen and unapologetic, Wing Shya is an artist that crosses seamlessly between film, art and fashion. He’s known for his devil-may-care attitude and creativity against convention (perhaps you can already tell this by his trademark long hair), but also known for his humility. From being Wong Kar-wai’s still photographer to shooting for Vogue, Wing Shya’s career is finally getting its long-deserved spot in the limelight.

Wing Shya

This November, Shya is presenting for the first time an expansive retrospective exhibition at the Shanghai Centre of Photography (SCôP), as well as debuting a set of three photography books, with only 1,000 limited edition box sets available. The exhibition showcases over 100 iconic and unseen photographs from his projects over the years alongside videos and multimedia, all featuring the recognisable faces of Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Shu Qi, Daniel Wu, and plenty more. The books are each edited to reflect a different aspect of Shya’s body of work; these include cinematic pursuits, an homage to oriental beauty, and a take on Shya’s personal scrapbook.

At his studio in Chai Wan, the esteemed photographer shares with us his thoughts on his past 25 years of work, his accomplishments, annoyances, and his passion for capturing the abnormal.

Wing Shya’s exhibition Acting Out runs from 8 November through to 10 January, 2018 at the Shanghai Centre of Photography (SCôP). The book sets are available for HK$2,388 from Forward Assembly.

How did the book project and this retrospective exhibition come about? Did you have a hand in curating and editing?

I actually didn’t participate in any of the decisions for the books and the show. Everything in the books was decided by Shelly Verthime, the editor. Actually, when I look back at my old photos I get really bored. Not saying that I’m unsatisfied with this retrospective and book set, but this project is Shelly’s baby, so I’ll just sit back and let her enjoy it. I owe all the credit to her. I’m just not the type of person who likes to look back. The past is in the past. If you ask me to put together my own show and my own book, I won’t have the urge to do it at all. Instead, I have more motivation to wonder what my next shoot tomorrow will be.

How it happened was that I bumped into Shelly a lot of times at Vogue parties, and she would say how much she wanted to put together a book for me. My response at first was, “You actually know about me? You’ve seen my works?” She said she was familiar with my work from magazine editorials. I thought she was just being flattering. But she kept on asking me to collaborate for two years. One time when we were having coffee at a hotel and she was rushing to catch a flight, I don’t know what hit me, but suddenly I said “Wait for me.” I sped home, gathered all my photos and gave it to her. She brought the photos back to London, and spent a year putting together the book. She really enjoyed the process. It’s true, typically when you look at other people’s works, you tend to enjoy it more. And she was someone who could offer a fresh eye.

Wing Shya - Acting Out
Artist Michael Lau

As for the exhibition, it was all Karen’s idea. Karen Smith is the Committee Head and Chief Curator at SCôP. I just gave her all my photos, and she thought of everything else, including the name of the exhibition, ‘Acting Out.’ I personally don’t ‘design’ how my work should be looked at, so whatever other people say or however they organised my work for this retrospective, I am fine with it. In actuality, this time Karen has held me up to such a high standard I feel I am almost inadequate. These two women are incredible, bringing what I do to a whole other level. I personally haven’t been able to see that myself. I start to feel a little bit of this greatness after seeing what they’ve done with my work.

When was the moment you started seeing yourself as a true professional photographer?

Even these days, I don’t view myself as a photographer. I don’t even know how to turn on a lamp. If you ask me where the switch is, I have no clue. I am always bringing this sense of ‘not knowing.’ I actually enjoy this feeling of not being an expert. I’m just a freelancer; a jack of all trades, master of none. But I love being like this. I’ve had this mindset since I was young, and in the first six years of my career, I kept on getting told off that I didn’t know anything. Even my assistant would badmouth me and say I didn’t know what I was doing. I feel like with every shoot I’m still just messing around, experimenting. I still get jobs though, so it feels like that’s always enough. I don’t want to be a professional, it’s too stressful.

What are you most proud of in your work from the past 25 years?

To be honest, with this show, I finally feel like I’ve established something of myself. Even though I have such a disorganised mindset, I’m actually quite alright. After all these years and being able to have a show at SCôP, it feels like a prize.

And your strongest regret?

I regret it after every shoot. I always look back at the photos and I’m like “damn, why didn’t I do this?” Always full of these types of regrets. When I’m working, I tend to not eat dinner until after the job is done, and afterwards I’m starving. It’s always when we go for late supper in the middle of the night with the team where I’m constantly sighing about what I just did or didn’t do. It’s always different. It could be bad technique, or I wasn’t fully aware, or I wanted to do something particular but the moment passed because I was hesitant. That’s how mistakes happen. That still happens, even yesterday.

Wing Shya - Acting Out
The late singer and actor Leslie Cheung
How do you keep experimenting in your work yet still maintain a recognisable signature style?

Something a professor said when I was at Emily Carr influenced me a lot: He said, “Did you know that when you interviewed for this course, I had 6,400 applicants? I only accepted 20. What was your way to make me pause on your application?” From then on I knew I had to be different. It became habit for me to try to be different to those hypothetical 6,400 people. That’s why I always hold onto that student mindset, of wanting to try different things.

Have experiments ever gone wrong for you?

A lot. But I don’t get angry at myself. Sometimes I think it’s fate, it’s just in the stars that I won’t be able to shoot this person well.

Are there particular subjects you find that are impossible to photograph?

Let’s just say, there are some that are just fated to be impossibly photogenic: even if I mess around, the result still ends up looking fantastic. It’s very surprising. Back when we were using film, you just couldn’t tell and just had to trust in the feeling. And when I look at the contact sheet it would exceed my expectations. This happened quite a lot when I was younger, and I think it was fate. That said, I was usually more calculating with the setting and colours where I knew it would work. These days, I get lucky as well, even when I break all the rules. Sometimes I snap a few photos even without looking, or I’m very offhand with the lights, but it turns out beautifully. That’s why these days I rarely plan. I like the spontaneity.

Wing Shya - Acting Out
Actress Tanya Ng
Do your assistants find it hard to learn from you in this way?

It sucks for them. I once told one of them to open the camera every few shots to expose the film just for a split second, then close it again. They got so scared that they would expose it too much. My work is all about happy accidents and clashes. Eventually, we got one that exposed just right.

You use the grittiness of old Hong Kong in a lot of your work, which more and more people are doing. Are you ever afraid that using such elements will become clichéd?

Maybe back then I was clichéd already. But back in the day when I was shooting for a London-based magazine, of course I would want to shoot on a tram. I started looking for more old things, like herbal tea shops, fruit markets, and yes, they are more geared towards a gweilo audience. I don’t mind that people photograph these things, it’s just all about how you do it. It depends on what the project is about, what model you’re using, and so on. Everyone can use the tram, but how can you make the entire scene feel completely new? Once I know what I’m working with, it’s like cooking a dish — everyone can make fried pork chops with onions, but it depends on what your tastes are. If you want a bit of curry flavour, that’s what I’ll add.

Wing Shya - Acting Out
Leslie Cheung in still from the 1997 movie “Happy Together”
What kind of subject do you find the most difficult to work with? Shy people? Non-models?

Usually, campaign models are very cooperative. But new models might find it hard to look natural. They’re already super nervous and inexperienced, so you have to think of clever ways to dismantle that. But that’s kind of a fun challenge, to guide them through their roles and tell them what emotions they should be feeling and expressing.

Once, I got a job where the client wanted me to shoot a commercial with an old lady in the wet market, happily holding some vegetables. I said to the lady, “can I film you smiling at the camera?” She didn’t smile. The entire crew was just standing there, quiet. Then I told everyone to move aside. I opened my wallet and took out a HK$500 bill — and immediately, her mouth widened into a grin. I managed to do just one shot. After that, we all wrapped up. That was great.

You mainly photograph humans -- do you find it hard to shoot landscapes and buildings?

No, but I need there to be something happening in the frame. I don’t want it to be completely lifeless. An empty photo that has a cigarette butt on the ground would feel like there would be a story there. A street scene with a bra lying on the ground will make you wonder what happened there. If there’s a purse lying next to it, it might make you imagine it’s a crime scene and someone left their bag behind. The photo has got to have something in it that makes you ask questions, but doesn’t provide all the answers.

Wing Shya - Acting Out
Maggie Cheung
What new subjects or mediums are starting to interest you these days?

I do take a lot of photos of just blank spaces. So many, but I haven’t had the right platform to showcase them. I also love nature. I shoot a lot of forests and plants, but I’ve just been keeping it to myself. In the past few years, I’ve really started to like photographing real, everyday people. I’ve been to India to photograph monks, the people living in poverty, or I typically try to follow people for an extended period of time to catch their best moments.

Do you typically ask for permission when you take these portraits?

No, that’s why I get scolded a lot. In Tokyo, I got chased by the yakuza. Once when I was coming out from the washroom, I caught a glimpse of a girl wearing almost schoolgirl attire, and she was applying lipstick. It was gorgeous — something about the light at the moment as well. I instantly snapped a photo, but I instantly got caught by the boss and nearly got beaten up. These things happen to me a lot. I photographed native Americans pissing on the street, and got chased down nine blocks. I went to a rave where I took photos of people smoking drugs, and that time, my camera really got smashed. But if you stop to ask for permission, that moment is already gone. It’s easier now with iPhone. But the feeling you get is different.

Is there ever any subject or scene that’s too outrageous for you?

No, I don’t really avoid anything. I even photographed a dead person once. It really just depends on what you’re doing. And I wouldn’t do anything meant to disrespect anyone. Some photographers use their title to chase girls. They might force someone to shoot in the nude just because of their name. I can’t and won’t do that kind of thing. My bottom line is that I don’t want to make the person uncomfortable. Even when I do a nude shoot, I make sure they’re fully okay with it.

Wing Shya - Acting Out
Part of Book III, showcasing oriental beauty
What is your dream photoshoot?

If you ask me right now, if I had the chance to shoot in space, that would be my dream right now. I would photograph anything and be happy. The ground, Earth, anything. I have a friend who wants to do a project shot in a plane where it’s so high up you start to float. I would love to join in on that. They haven’t thought of which celebrity to bring up there yet.

Out of all the artists and masters you’ve worked with, what was the most significant thing you think you learned?

I’ve worked with a lot of greats, like film editor William Chang Suk-ping, who was fantastic at creative direction, or the amazing guys at magazines like the editor in chief at Vogue Italia, or Wong Kar-wai — the most valuable thing I learned from them wasn’t how to put together a project. Instead, it was how to be a person. Chang Suk-ping is probably 60 years old now, but he’s still got so much patience, still so professional and serious even if it’s a tiny project. I really admire his attitude to life. Wong Kar-wai’s perseverance to finish a shoot even when it’s raining hard. His persistence, in not sleeping for four days and still clinging onto a cigarette just to brainstorm about work. What I’ve learned from them is that passion and seriousness towards our work. I really cherish these lessons from them, and I feel like I’ve only achieved 20% of what they are able to do.

I think they are the way they are because it was so difficult to get to their position. The harder it is to achieve something, the harder you work towards it. But maybe people care less nowadays. Back then when I had to design a movie poster for Wong Kar-wai, I would make 100. These days when someone presents poster ideas for me, they make four. I’m like, can you make a couple more for me to choose? Back in the day we had so many sleepless nights of working nonstop. We were all serious because they were serious. Everyone cares less nowadays, but I’m not mad about it. I’m not always thinking of the past. Maybe before the way we did things resulted in us forgoing our friends and family. Lack of seriousness creates a new attitude in work these days. It’s just different, and I can appreciate that.

What do you think of using phone cameras as a medium for art? Has the prevalence and ease of snapping photos in our daily life undermined the art of photography?

I don’t really judge this, if it so happens I only have my phone with me, then it’s still a photograph. If I’m looking at amazing quality photos every day, then one day I see a bad iPhone photo, I would think this photo is very precious. These days we see photos shot by film to be very precious. Obviously it’s because there’s just endless digital photos. When you use different tools when it’s not appropriate, it makes the whole thing more special. I once filmed an entire commercial using an iPhone. I put three iPhones in place and was hands-on for the whole thing myself.

And a final, burning question: what shampoo do you use?

I actually just use water. Or those handmade soaps. I don’t like using products with chemicals.

Evelyn Lok
Managing Editor
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.