A Malaysian Photographer with an Eye for the People

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Malaysians are a creative bunch, and fittingly, the country has no shortage of aspiring artists. Editor Chad Merchant meets one such hopeful who has taken her photographic talents to a new level – from ambition to reality – and is carving out a niche for herself in a tough market.

In some ways, Michelle Lee might be considered an anomaly, though in others, she strolls down a well-trodden path. Having grown up in Kuala Lumpur, she left Malaysia to study abroad, as a fair few youngsters here tend to do. Some never return, finding happiness or success on foreign shores. However, plenty of Malaysians do find their way back home, and bring their newfound knowledge, training, and skills with them. This willingness to leave the nest, grow as a person, then return to the fold is a real part of what makes Malaysia so special, so uniquely diverse, and Michelle, pictured above in both whimsical and serious modes, is a living testament to that reality.

Laying the Foundation

With a photographer father, Michelle and her two sisters grew up with something of a determination not to find themselves in the same industry. Yet, as fate – “or genetics!” Michelle quips – would have it, all three daughters ultimately followed in their father’s footsteps. Michelle left Malaysia and studied photography in Melbourne, though that wasn’t her plan. “I was actually doing a course in Multimedia Design,” she explains, “but on the side, I was actually interested in photography, too.” Perhaps today, with the proliferation of camera phones and the ubiquitous “selfies” inundating the digital world on a daily basis, snapping one’s own photo doesn’t seem at all unusual. But only a few short years ago, it wasn’t quite so. Michelle laughs, “Believe it or not, I started photography by taking self-portraits and using a light box as my light source. Of course, back then, it never occurred to me to get someone else in as a model and have a team of make-up and hair stylists helping out. I probably couldn’t have assembled a team anyway! So I just used my own clothes and did my own make-up started photographing myself with my camera and little light box.”

Michelle explains that even though the world was starting to transition from film to digital when she was starting to get serious about photography, she still learned on film. “In university, we started our first year shooting entirely on 35mm film cameras and 4×5-inch large-format cameras. I think it’s good to start off with film. You tend to have a stronger understanding about your camera and lighting and every click is a conscious – and conscientious – one! There’s a real cost associated with pressing the shutter, unlike with digital cameras, and especially with the large-format cameras, you actually hold your breath when you press the shutter release!”

Moving Back, Branching Out

Fast-forward a few years and shift the scene from Australia back to Malaysia, and you’ll find Michelle no longer practicing self-portraits on the side while working as a designer, and today, of course, she uses digital cameras for commercial work. And her sisters? Well, they’re no longer working in their earlier fields as a copywriter and a pharmacist, either. Nowadays, the Lee girls are all in the same line, one as an executive producer, one as a digital imaging artist, and one as a commercial photographer. Genetics are funny that way. Michelle reckons her dad must be proud of his girls, “but I think he secretly still holds out hope for a doctor, architect, or lawyer in the family!”

As Michelle transitioned from design to photography, she worked as an assistant, and over time, started to freelance here and there. At the time, her colleague was approaching her with some freelance advertising jobs. It didn’t take long before Michelle began to realise that freelancing carried its own unique set of challenges, and she felt it would be difficult to continue with an increasing freelance workload without proper production support. So that former colleague, Amanda Lee, became her business partner and producer. At the same time, Michelle had another ace in the hole: a friend she had met in university, another Malaysian named Ravin T, also a talented photographer. They felt that their relative interests and strengths – Michelle specializes in photographing people while Ravin shoots products and still life – would mesh well in the commercial photography arena, so the three decided to form their own company.

Michelle explains that the process of naming their new company took some thought. “We wanted a name that was approachable, young, fun, and relatable. We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves with a name that was specifically photography-related, either, because we actually do branch out into other areas like video-making, too.” So in the end, the trio decided to name their new company The People Establishment, or The People, for short. “Really, that’s what we are,” Michelle asserts. “We’re just the people who are here fulfilling our passions while striving to do a good job for our clients.” Having a family who all do their work in the same industry must make for some interesting family get-togethers, but Michelle takes it in stride. “It definitely helps that almost my whole family is in the same line of work,” she chuckles. “I go to all of them for advice and skills set improvement tips.” Of course, there’s also the flip side of that particular coin, as she adds: “At the same time, it’s quite a bit of pressure on me to do a good job because they’ve been in the industry for a long time, and I’m still fairly new.”

The People Person

Seeing Michelle in action, it’s evident that she’s found her niche and enjoys what she does. As for what she enjoys most about being behind the camera, she explains, “I like to craft this whole other world when I shoot. I admire photojournalists and documentary photographers, but for me, I use photography as a portal into a different world. That’s the reason why I started studying and practicing fine art photography in university.” She goes further: “The message behind a particular image might be quite serious or somber, but I still try to inject colour into the image and make a pretty picture… it’s art, after all. I also really like how a team of models and stylists help each other to create a strong image. It’s so interesting how the synergy makes everything come together in a single image. When you’ve got a team that works very well together, it’s magic. You leave the set feeling happy and satisfied.”


Michelle’s primary role on the team at The People, and indeed her core strength, is photographing people, rather than objects. I asked her what her method was for successfully interacting with models or other folks she might be shooting, and she relayed a story from her earlier days of learning the skills. “When I shot my first model many years ago, a friend of mine who was watching the shoot told me later that I had treated the model about as personally as a shampoo bottle!” She laughed sheepishly, in her typically selfdeprecating way. “I felt so bad after that! I realised early on that it’s very important to put the models at ease, and of course it always helps to have a smile on your face when on the set. There’s nothing worse than a bad mood lingering in the air during a shoot, so jokes, smiles, and music help a lot! I also talk to the models about the storyline or ‘character’ they’ll be playing in the shoot before we start. I’ve found that when you give them a role or a mood that you’re after, it really helps them to come alive in the images.”

That fun-loving persona isn’t confined just to working hours, of course. I asked Michelle what she liked shooting for her own enjoyment, when there wasn’t a paycheck attached to the work. She laughed, ever the light-hearted photographer, and exclaimed, “Instagram pictures! Is that a bad habit?”

To learn more about Michelle and her partners, you can visit their website at www.the-people.asia

Source: Senses of Malaysia January/February 2014

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