Annie Lai, Photographer
Although she has spawned romantically engrossing editorials for independent, cult magazines such as OE, Teeth and Sicky which many tender, fashion pioneers keep on their nightstands, for Annie Lai, London does not yet feel like home. By birth, home was beside the sea, in a picturesque, little town in China's countryside. But by choice, Annie moved to London to attend university at the London College of Fashion to study fashion photography. Knowing no one upon moving, her mixed accent gave her away as being not of this place, she carried the feeling around like subconscious baggage, hesitant to unpack completely. She lived in a hostel for the first couple of days, sleeping in a state of impermanence, dreaming on a strange bed. She people watched until her classes started, mystified and a little rattled. Since then, Annie’s bleached her hair, got published, turned friends into family and found herself falling in love with all that this city holds. When she returns home to China for holiday, she is now the one others separate out for her difference. She has become a cultural nomad, moving fluidly between the cultures and context that make up her identity. While Annie would like to stay in London, she in lieu has found home now to be behind the lens, for it is there that this feeling of fruition will endure.
Lindsey: Jumping right in, you’re in London now right? So if you could just start by talking about your childhood, growing up and how you got into photography just to start?
Annie: Okay sure. Basically I was raised in China but I was born in New Zealand and I also finished my high school in New Zealand as well. In terms of photography, I think I kind of just — let me think… when I began, I used those kind of small cameras to take photos of grass or close-ups of friends and family because my mom used to take photos of me with film cameras when I was little as well so I kind of was influenced by her. When I when to New Zealand, I took a photography course but it was more like fine-art and began with fashion photography after I came to London.
L: Would you say that being in London itself is what influenced you to get into fashion photography just because of the history of fashion there in general?
A: Yeah in a way, because when I was in New Zealand I kind of felt limited. There’s not a lot of creative sources to help you create — I mean, they have a beautiful landscape but in terms of fashion, it’s more limited. I’ve always known that London is more of a fashion capital and they’re a lot of creatives here and I’m happy that I can be here too.
L: Have you always been interested in fashion? What was the reaction of your parents when you began to seriously pursue a career in it?
A: My parents have nothing to do with art or photography. My mom works in business and so does my dad. My mom kind of has art talents but has never got to use them so I’m happy that my parents, compared to general Asian parents, they’re more free-spirited. They kind of let me do what I wanted to do so they’ve been pretty supportive and that’s why I could get into this area of a creative pursuit.
L: When you say, “general Asian parents,” can you explain that stereotype a little? I feel like those who aren’t Asian, have a preconceived notion of what that stereotype means without any real context or a place of understanding and empathy.
A: It’s funny because I’ve never experienced it because my parents were a bit different but a lot of my Asian friends have been told what to do by their parents their whole lives; even their parents decide which university they go too and which courses they need to do. Even if you tell Asian parents that you’re going to an art school, even a top art school, some of the more, traditional parents would assume that, oh you’re not going to study, that’s why you’re going to study fashion. It’s kind of pathetic in a way but I think it’s changing a bit by bit nowadays.
L: My parents are engineers so I understand what you mean. I know you’ve worked with a lot of smaller, independent publications, so if you could talk about that? How you got your foot in the door etc.
A: Oh yeah, sure, so at the beginning I started off with my friends because we all came to London. We did a shoot and kind of herd from people that you can submit the shoot to magazines and then we started doing that. There have been a lot of rejections. It got better the more shoots I did, the more I did, the easier it became and yeah, it’s been quite a good experience in general.
L: How did you deal with the rejection?
A: I actually can’t recall it that much but there’s one thing that I do remember really clearly, when I asked for a model from a modeling agency in London, I don’t even think they were that well known, but they wrote me back and said that, my portfolio wasn’t strong enough and that they couldn’t provide me with any models. That was quite frustrating to hear that, but it kind of gave me the motivation to work harder.
L: In London, the scene seems so diverse. What was your first impression of coming to London from a smaller place like New Zealand?
A: It was a bit intimidating, because I literally knew no one in London when I first arrived and I remember living in YHA hostel at Kings Cross and I was literally looking at all the people passing by. I think London is always exciting and then, it’s great to work with all those creative people and it kind of helped me to push forward as well.
L: So wait, you were living in a hostel? That seems so brave of you, I give you a lot of credit.
A: I was living in a hostel when I first got here for a few days because I didn’t have a flat to live in and then I spent two days there and I couldn’t find a suitable place to live and so I moved into like a commercial, student accommodation for the first year.
L: Are you still in school?
A: Yeah at the London College of Fashion.
L: What’s that whole experience been like for you? How do you balance having your own aesthetic and going to school? Often the balance between structure, themes, relevancy etc. can be a bit off-putting.
A: To be completely honest, I did work quite hard for the first year but now I am trying to weigh more of my personal work and collaborating outside of uni to be greater because, we do one project each term. I try to be more devoted to one specific project so for the uni projects, I try to make it more like my personal projects to where I can put more ideas and more effort in one specific project to make it more like storytelling and narratives. You know when you collaborate with people, maybe you’re not the creative director and sometimes the shoot you’re doing is more about looking cool and stuff — but for my own, personal projects, I tend to make it more conceptual I would say.
L: To what extent would you say that emotion plays a role in your photography? When I look at your photos they’re so dreamy and romantic, and they have a certain look to them, so as a photographer, how do your emotions affect what you’re trying to convey?
A: That’s a hard question haha. Let me have a look at my own photos. At the moment, emotion sometimes inspires me in a way because sometimes I use my current day inspiration to create a project but it’s more like a personal project that I mentioned before.
L: When you say, your every day, is that just based on your surroundings or does that mean based on more of an intimate look at your own personal life?
A: I think both, for example, the project that I’ve just done for this term, is based on human interaction, so like how people need to learn to face solitude with the time they’re spending alone, by themselves, and they’re also celebrating being independent and it’s kind of based on a true story — also the surroundings as well.
L: What kind of narratives do you enjoy telling the most? Because I feel like when you think of fashion photography, like you were saying, a lot of the time it’s just about ‘looking cool,’ but as a photographer, you yourself want to be more conceptual, in terms of having the photograph actually tell a story.
A: Ooh, I think for more storytelling editorials, there’s more control in it, there’s a lot of research; like before the shoot, well for me at least, I do a lot of preparation. Sometimes for each image, I plan the kind of pose or the setting and I have the image in my mind before I take it so it will make sense and the whole story will flow together. I’m not saying that for an editorial, if it’s just pretty or the model is cool, is not good, I enjoy that part as well but I think once in awhile, it’s kind of good for me to get out from there and do something more with a narrative.
L: When you do research, can you walk us through that process a little bit? Do you use Tumblr?
A: I actually don’t use Tumblr! I use Instagram a lot though, on a daily basis. All the accounts that I follow, are posting editorials from big magazines and big photographers and also I look at magazines like i-D and Dazed, and also models.com for researching specific photographers because they’re more like an archive.
L: Do you find that when people are looking at each other’s work so often you kind of pull ideas from others and vice versa, do you think that the original concepts are becoming lost with social media?
A: I think more or less a little bit if you’re on Instagram to be honest. Because you get influenced by what you see and then you can’t really avoid seeing them if you’re not on Instagram and then even in uni, one of the processes of our project is referencing. It helps you to raise up the level of your aesthetics but you have to find a balance of avoiding plagiarizing and copying each other’s work.
L: Looking at the images you posted most recently, can you just walk us through your thought process a little for those? Just so we know how you interpret your own work. I really love the red one with the model in the chair, a part of the “Beautiful Chaos” series.
A: Oh you mean the most recent ones? That one, I did it for a competition, it’s organized by Dazed and Stone Model Management, and it’s about youth in London in general like we were able to interpret it in the way that we wanted. I used to live in West London, but I feel like there’s a really big difference between the West and the East. Some people might think East London is a bt dodgy but I really enjoy how chaotic it is in the East, I find it quite beautiful in a way, that’s why I named it “Beautiful Chaos” because that’s how I feel about East London.
L: I noticed that for a lot of your work, you have titles. When people are looking at your photos, do you want them to know what you were thinking or do you enjoy having people interpret things for themselves?
A: I don’t mind either way. I think it’s quite interesting, people don’t understand that much and when I try to tell them it comes out more like a blurred idea.
L: Do you ever find it frustrating or restricting when you’re working inside a theme? It’s so subjective really, do your images ever not come out the way you want them to?
A: Always. I’m never 100% happy with my work. After I’m done with it, I’ll be like happy for a day and after that I’m always looking at it like I could definitely do better than that.
L: How do you know when you’ve got “the shot”?
A: It makes me feel good, very good, I would say. I kind of hate re-touching so one of the processes that I enjoy the most is the moment where I feel like we got the image, we can move onto the next one.
L: As a photographer, if you’re always happy with your work you don’t improve.
A: Exactly. That’s what everyone tells me but I think nowadays I kind of learnt to deal with it but before, sometimes I got depressed because I was trying to improve too much but now I feel like I found a balance point in a way.
L: Depressed with your own work you mean? When that happens, do you choose to work through it continuously or take a step back from it at all and not shoot?
A: I did both ways. When I got depressed before I just had a getaway trip for two or three days and it helps sometimes or just trying to relax, hang out with friends so you can get away from the whole fashion world for a bit because it’s really competitive in London because everyone is so talented and hardworking at the same time.
L: Where do you want to end up with your career or what do you see yourself doing after uni? Being a staff photographer somewhere perhaps or do you enjoy freelancing?
A: Because I am not from Europe, I’m hoping I can stay in London after. It’s quite hard for non-Europeans, but one of the ways to stay is to get signed with agencies so I do wish one day that could happen, that would be great.
L: If that didn’t happen, would you go back to New Zealand?
A: I might try America or back to China where I grew up.
L: Oh right, can you talk about growing up in China a bit too? Especially if you grew up in a smaller town and now you’ve made the transition into being kind of a more well-traveled, worldly fashion photographer.
A: The city that I grew up in China is not a metropolitan city as well, it’s like a sightseeing city beside the sea and it’s really beautiful. It’s similar to New Zealand as well. It’s quite different. The city that I grew up in was really slow-paced and people are always enjoying their lives but they’re kind of conservative in a way. Everyone has really similar aesthetics and for girls, it’s big eyes, pale skin, skinny and everyone dresses really simply and sometimes you might get judged if you dress differently or if you wear too much make-up or dye your hair. Even now, if I go back to visit my family with bleached hair, people would be staring at me or asking me why I did it.
L: Is your family all in China still?
A: My mom is still in China and my dad is in New Zealand. He’s visiting me on the weekend so I’m really excited.
L: That’s always the best. That must be exciting for your parents to see you really growing as a person in a city like London, I mean with all the stuff that happened with Brexit and stuff this year, what was that like?
A: Brexit? I know non-Europeans, Europeans, are all quite frustrated and upset about that, at least the people around me. I still don’t know how it happened, it’s quite unbelievable for me. I’m curious about what’s going to happen next as well as London won’t be the same for sure. What makes London so good is the diversity and all kinds of people getting together.
L: Do you feel at home in London? You've had so many different homes throughout your whole life.
A: I can’t 100% say that I belong to London or that London feels like a home to me but at this stage, I would love to stay here for another few years just to explore either like London as a city or the fashion in London.
L: What part of it makes it not feel like home to you?
A: Well I’ve been here for three years now but it’s more like — I don’t know if it’s okay to say it but for me, it’s hard to fit in completely. We hang out with Europeans or Asians but sometimes I can still feel the subtle divide between different culture.
L: How does that affect you? This is a place you came to pursue your passion.
A: It doesn’t make me sad, not really because like my friends are quite diverse but it’s quite a sensitive subject I would say because all my friends are coming from different countries and we’re making a home altogether in London and it’s actually quite a good feeling.
L: I’ve found that it’s always about the people you surround yourself with.
A: Definitely, definitely. I’ve made the best friends in London so I do feel really grateful.
L: What about photography fascinates you? Today I feel like photography is part of the greater society’s lives just because of social media and especially Instagram. Everything is happening so fast and photography now often seems like a way to make time stop almost.
A: I agree with you. I think first of all, photography is quick to see, you can browse through it and it’s also an easy access point so like if you get a camera, you can sort of call yourself a “photographer”.
L: Does that annoy you though? Your photography seems to resemble art more so and that differs from someone who takes pictures of grass, like you were talking about earlier.
A: I think I’m okay with it. When I look at people who call themselves photographers but are really kind of amateur, I just look at it, like it and it doesn’t bother me that much because they’re allowed to do it and entitled.
L: Do you think that “stepping up” comes when you begin to see photography as a means of storytelling? Does having a concept then make it art?
A: Not really, because I do enjoy looking at photography that is really spontaneous or just a snapshot because it can also be really amazing even though it is a bit random and unexpected, it’s a different form of expressing yourself as a photographer. I do admire people who have the ability of doing that as well.
L: Photography is just a form of expression would you say?
A: Yeah exactly, that’s what I feel like.
L: When people are looking at your photos and going through your work what do you want them to feel?
A: I don’t really know, I guess I never thought about it. I do hope that they’ll remember the pictures after they see it. I don’t even mind if they don’t like it or what.
L: Yeah that’s the thing with photography nowadays too, it’s so fleeting. You see it on Instagram once and if people didn’t “like” it or screenshot it, did they really see it? It’s kind of gross. We’re bombarded with content every day.
A: Yeah everyday it’s literally everyday. It’s hard to define your own style visually or conceptually.
L: When you say conceptually, can you talk about your definition of the latter when you’re editing. Your photos have a certain romantic flair in terms of temperature and color hues.
A: Oh, a lot of people say that but I’m not really that happy with my editing. That’s why in the past two months I began using analogue cameras and I’m totally in love with film.
L: What do you love about using film? It is already dreamy as it is.
A: Film helped me to elevate a little bit. Not just because of the outcome you mentioned, but the process of taking photos with film because everything became way slower. With each frame that you take, you put a lot of thought into it. Because sometimes before for a shoot with 6 looks, I would take 800 pictures. I kind of just kept going on even if my brain was blank, even if I was dry with ideas, I kept going. With film, I think a lot when I take the picture and that does help a lot in terms of the outcome.
L: Yeah because you only have 36 shots on a roll and it’s damn expensive.
A: Very! For the medium-formats, it’s 16 frames per each roll.
L: Oh my gosh.
A: Haha yeah, so it’s even more expensive. But I really, really love film.
L: I started shooting with my mom’s old Canon 35mm about three years ago haha.
A: Same with me and my mom haha!
L: Yeah I remember using it for the first time and shooting with it and being really excited but yet very worried, I didn’t even know if the thing worked! I was scared I was going to lose all the images but also very intrigued by the fact that they might even be brilliant.
A: It’s so exciting! I get it developed at uni but I scan it myself so even the process of cutting the film you know and putting it in the sleeve or getting the scan, waiting for it to come out even, it’s quite fun and exciting for me.
L: For a lot of your projects on Instagram, it seems like you work with a rather large group of people from the creative directors to the models, what have you found to be the most important part of collaborating?
A: I would say communication. I also think it’s important to work with people who have similar thoughts to you. It’s really hard for commercial jobs, you just have to compromise. I shoot quite a lot with the same stylists, I like to stay with stable teams and work with new ones too.
L: Are there any new themed projects you’re working on? I know you mentioned you like working within the theme of human interaction.
A: Yeah one that I’m working on is one that will be based around pressure and insecurity so it has a lot to do with psychology in a way, I don’t really know why but it kind of draws me, this kind of issue.
L: So much of it too I feel like has been created subconsciously through Instagram likes and being aware of your body image and stuff. As a photographer, how do you view the body?
A: I find the body to be a beautiful form. It’s a really natural thing for me. The photos that Harley Weir took for the CK ads, it became so viral on Facebook. I thought it was a nice shot but it became such an issue, people were arguing about it.
L: People always say that there aren’t enough plus size models, there’s not enough diversity. Do you find that to be true?
A: I actually do think it’s true, I think it’s getting better and better but the stereotype remains. When you look at the website for modeling agencies, for each one you can usually find 3-4 Asian models and some agencies don’t even have plus size models. There a lot of creatives who would work with more diversity in terms of body size so it is getting better to some extent.
L: That’s the whole problem with the mentality, we don’t see beauty to exist in more than one form.
A: Yeah exactly. I think being unique is what makes it more special and interesting, not being pretty. Sometimes a bit of controversy is good as well.
L: How often do you go back home and when you do, do you feel like you’ve changed a lot?
A: Yeah yeah, I used to go back maybe twice a year but now it’s like once a year because I want to spend more time in London. When I went back, I felt quite strange and out of place at the beginning because it’s really different and it’s quite opposite I would say. In London everything is so fast paced. When I go back home, it’s more for holiday and there’s not many things going on. It’s like if you go away from London for two months and then you come back and so many things have already happened but for home, it’s more consistent I would say? It’s more like a haven, it’s like a safe place to go when you’re tired.
L: That’s how I feel about Hawaii and New York too haha it’s slow in Hawaii.
A: Hahaha when I heard you were based in Hawaii, I was like, hmm, I wonder how this happened.
L: The last question I have I guess is to ask you what the best advice you got from someone was?
A: Oh my god, lemme think about that. Best advice… I can think of one but it has to do with uni again haha. When I applied for university, I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to do fashion photography because people around me, either back in New Zealand or China, they influenced me, they were like, it might be risky, if you’re freelancing you might be starving and all that. I took my portfolio to see the interviewer and he was like what do you want to apply for, I was like, umm fashion photography but maybe fashion management as well. He was like, come on, you’ve got to be kidding me, you should do fashion photography. I guess he did help me to choose the right path.
L: Do you have any doubts?
A: When I feel depressed, especially last year, I did feel like quitting but I knew that I’m doing the right thing. It was just like too tiring for me but I’m 100% sure that this is what I want to do and I do feel like I’m improving as well. I’m happy with where I am now.