Michelle Watt explores the complexities of Asian-American identity through her surreal photography

There are people who take pictures and people who take pictures, to paraphrase the legendary photographer Ansel Adams.

Michelle Watt is certainly the latter. Her richly hued, surreal compositions – whether she’s shooting a magazine cover or working on a personal project – are brought to life through elaborate productions involving teams of set designers, wardrobe stylists and makeup artists.

For Watt, creating these intricate images is a form of therapy—a way for her to process trauma and personal experiences.

“It’s not so much an inspiration, but a compulsion to work it out,” she told CNN in a recent interview. “The deconstruction through staging and storytelling and storytelling in these symbolic ways ends up being a really healing way of dealing with those things.”

An image from the series by Michelle Watt "Moon Geisha."

An image from Michelle Watt’s “Lunar Geisha” series. Credit: Michelle Watt

Her portrait series “Lunar Geisha”, published in Blanc Magazine, is an exploration of Asian-American female identity. Using the geisha as a metaphor for the hypersexualization of East Asian women, the photos follow the metamorphosis of a young girl from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. In the first image, the girl is playfully sprawled across a sofa, with fruits and white blossoms in the frame radiating innocence. As the girl in the following photos grows into a young woman, the use of bold red hues evokes menstruation and sexuality.

Watt, who is Chinese-American, says the series explores how East Asian women are perceived by society, how they are prompted to play certain roles, the ways in which they become complicit in those stereotypes, and the ways in which they oppose them. revolt.

An image from the series by Michelle Watt "Moon Geisha."

An image from Michelle Watt’s “Lunar Geisha” series. Credit: Michelle Watt

“It’s complicated because you want to play that part because you want to belong,” she said. “But you don’t really like that part either, so you don’t really want to play that part. It’s kind of confusing. Codependency is a huge theme there.”

These are questions and contradictions that Watt struggles with in her own life. When she shoots subjects that aren’t Asian-American women, she says she wonders how much her racial and gender identity determines their interactions. When she’s assigned to work on projects for clients, she wonders if she got the gig to meet a diversity quota.

“Was I hired because I’m being used as a token? Is that okay? Am I going to fight that?” said Watts. “It’s complicated. I always feel like I’m asking these questions.”

An image from Michelle Watt's photo series "The wait," starring Ami Suzuki.

An image from Michelle Watt’s photo series “The Wait”, starring Ami Suzuki. Credit: Michelle Watt

Another series titled “The Wait”, also published in Blanc Magazine, explores the concept of liminal spaces. Inspired by the furniture collection of the same name by design studio Atelier Aveus, the series situates its protagonist in eerily ethereal waiting rooms. In several images, the woman sits upright in a chair and looks on wistfully, surrounded by soft shades of sea foam green and pink. As time goes by, the woman’s patience seems to wane and her demeanor becomes decidedly less restrained. One photo shows the woman stretched out on the floor, her head against the armrest of the chair.

“This one is about being in this space where it’s kind of unclear whether you’re stuck in space or whether you’re putting yourself in that space — whether it’s a choice for you to be there,” Watt added.

Watt is all too familiar with this ambiguous intermediate state.

“I often find myself in these liminal thresholds in different areas of my life, especially with regard to identity,” she said. “Not being quite Asian, not quite American, or being a woman who wants to be presentable and look good, but also not be controlled by it.”

An image from the series by Michelle Watt "fish food," a project with Sony Alpha Universe.

An image from Michelle Watt’s “Fish Food” series, a project with Sony Alpha Universe. Credit: Michelle Watt

While many of Watt’s projects are permeated with a sense of gravity, there is also plenty of levity to be found. ‘Fish Food’, a campaign for Sony Alpha Universe, encompasses the colors of the rainbow and is playful, even in its exploration of codependency. The fashion series “Eat Me Drink Me”, created for Schön! Magazine, is a visual feast of lavish outfits and objects, as the subject seems to fluctuate between feeling trapped by its environment and curious about it.
In creating her dramatic masterpieces, Watt draws inspiration from paintings and films to architectural renderings. (“My inspiration comes from everything and everywhere at once,” she says, referring to the surreal science fiction film whose subtle exploration of Asian-American identity bears similarities to her own work.)
Rémy Martin's 2022 Lunar New Year Campaign, Shot by Michelle Watt

Rémy Martin’s 2022 Lunar New Year Campaign, Shot by Michelle Watt Credit: Michelle Watt

Once she has a vision of what she wants the photo to look like, the painstaking work of creating it begins. Materials are made, sets are put together, outfits are put on. With the physical elements in place, Watt can begin to identify what finishing touches are needed to give it that signature, fantastic quality. Here is the liminal space where she thrives.

“After a little breathing space, I’m starting to see the magic of that unknown,” Watt said. “That’s where the post-production process is really fun, because I start to see things that I didn’t see before. Then I can improve on those things that I couldn’t imagine before.”

Top image: Morning Scene, from Michelle Watt’s series “The Wait”

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