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No nudes please, we're Asian: Leslie Kee tests Tokyo's photographic ideals
With his new book, "Super Tokyo", one of Asia's most celebrated, but controversial, photographers hopes to appeal to Tokyo's liberal side
Getting time to sit down with celebrity photographer Leslie Kee during his utterly hectic schedule to speak in detail about his career was the easy part: getting him to stop speaking requires a trickier sleight of hand.
The Singapore-born and Tokyo-based Kee has a thick resume, photographing such uber-celebs as Ayumi Hamasaki, Zhang Ziyi, Kumi Koda, Choi Ho Jin and Beyonce among countless others for magazines, books, posters and commercials. Recently, his proclivity for taking photos of subjects unclothed and au naturale has sent shock waves through conservative Asia, but Kee sees it as a revelation and hopefully a revolution in an entertainment and fashion industry that lacks aesthetic diversity.
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Kee was born in Singapore to a prostitute mother who died when he was 13, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother and aunt. Japanese entertainment, especially music idols such as Seiko Matsuda, appealed to Kee and he came to Tokyo as a student to learn Japanese and photography, working two, sometimes three part-time jobs at a time to survive.
“Those were the hardest years of my life. I came from a home in Singapore that subsisted on the roots of sprouts that were cut off to be prepared for the elite class. I was the first in my family to attend college. The hardest part was always wondering if I would be approved for a visa or not,” says Kee.
Kee graduated in Tokyo and got his break by taking photos for modeling agencies who hired him for jobs and introduced him to clients. Since then, the name Leslie Kee has become synonymous with crossing Asian borders in a whirlwind, leaving kitschy, provocative, and buzz-worthy work in his wake.
“Being Singaporean afforded me the opportunity to have the ability to speak Chinese and English, and then learn Japanese fairly easily. So in that way I actually feel privileged, since I can converse with so many people throughout Asia.”
Challenging the media
The 16-year journey to success for Kee certainly hasn't been a smooth bullet-train ride. But the stubborn quality he possesses has gotten him thus far, and it now gives him the gall to challenge the status quo in the rigid entertainment industry.
“In Japan, it’s the celebrity’s agency that gets to choose which photos are published from a shoot. But I have to make the agency believe that the photos I will choose are going to be the best. Even if it takes 50 years for them to agree, then OK, let it take 50 years. They’ll come around.”
Going up against the almighty talent agency is not the only way Kee has ruffled feathers. In 2006, he published a book called “Super Stars” that featured 300 of his closest friends -- who happened to all be top Asian stars -- in which proceeds went to victims of the 2004 South-east Asian tsunami. In many of the photos, stars were semi-nude, leaving very little to the imagination. The book was subsequently banned in Singapore.
“I was upset for a few days but then I got over it. I can't do anything about the Singaporean laws. It comes down to my cup of tea being different from the government’s cup of tea.”
Then this January 1, Kee traveled to India to shoot a risky nude photo collection for a magazine.
“It was nighttime and we were on a little boat on the river, and you’re definitely not supposed to be nude there. Even my guide was freaking out and I had to tell him to be brave. I took the photo as fireworks were shooting off in the background. The resulting shot was so beautiful, we cried.”
He continues, “A lot of people, in Asia specifically, won’t say what they want to through art because they are so afraid of the media. But the media can’t physically stab you and a hypothetical stab won't kill you, you know? They can't hurt me.”
Presenting 'Super Tokyo'
Armed with a new sense of purpose and an established reputation for charismatic shots peppered with Tokyo kitsch, Kee published his latest book in April of this year as a tribute and thank you to Tokyo called “Super Tokyo”, which benefitted the UN’s Safe Motherhood Initiatives campaign. In it, 1,000 people who represent all facets of Tokyo’s creative industries frolic happily unclothed, with only illustrations of Hello Kitty and the occasional cartoon bubbles to keep it legal under the non-genitalia laws of Japan.
“Doing these books, I have realized that people in Tokyo are a lot more willing to step out of their comfort zones than anyone might imagine. I think they feel freer. So I just turned 40 and I've decided to self-publish a book every year until I turn 50.”
Kee has come a long way from being the young Singaporean artist with a dream to garner enough cachet to take his career anywhere. And yet, he chooses to stay in Tokyo, where he still jumps through hoops, trying to nudge at his industry to lighten up.
“Simply put, I feel there is love here. I will make my grave in Tokyo. I actually wish I had two more lives to live here because I feel that one is not enough!”