A skewed view
Wing Shya's is the art of the wrong. The Hong Kong celebrity photographer shoots the famous, the glamorous and the beautiful with a surface of noir-ish sensuousness and yearning romanticism - but it's a facade that's cracked, dislocated, skewed. The great joy of his work is that in the space beneath the surface, he finds beauty in things that many wouldn't think of as beautiful.
A photographer, filmmaker and lots of other things in between, Shya's multi-disciplinary oeuvre is about to get an airing in a couple of particularly fitting places. First, his work will be featured in the Hong Kong edition of genre-hopping self-styled festival of cultural diplomacy Liberatum; next month, he's one of the contributors to Daydreaming With ... James Lavelle, an audio-visual collaboration between the British musician and visual artists at ArtisTree in Taikoo Place.
Shya's glitzy but glitchy take on the photographer's art was catapulted into the mainstream a decade ago when he became exclusive set photographer for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. The association has continued to this day - and all of Shya's work has a cinematic feel. But it's the work's uplifting griminess that sets it apart from the crowd - the result, says Shya, of consciously trying to be different, and embracing all forms of difference, even when they look like mistakes.
'My thinking comes from the fine art side,' he says. 'It's about daring - daring to try. You make mistakes sometimes, but you still find something interesting when you do so. Every time I want to try something experimental. I try not to be normal. When people go left, I go right.'
Shya - full name Shya Wing-hong - started out on that contrarian path when he went to study at Vancouver's Emily Carr University of Art and Design. After graduating, he started a small company in the Canadian city and worked there for a year. 'The company was me and six other people, who had all been my classmates,' he says. 'One day I went to [Vancouver's] Chinatown and bought a magazine from Hong Kong, and I thought: 'Oh wow - they're still in the 80s. Should I go back there?' I was doing really cool stuff in Vancouver, and I was wondering if I should go back and do some stuff to help my city. It only took me one week to make the decision and move.'
Once back in Hong Kong, however, 'I had a little bit of regret. The way people treated designers was really bad - it was all about money. No one really cared about quality, just about how cheap you could go.'
His fortunes started to change, he says, when he landed a job at advertising agency J Walter Thompson. 'The people there were really good, but the problem was that advertising is really advertising. I graduated in fine art, I am a fine art person, and I found it really difficult to do things to please people. I was used to pleasing myself, but in that year, I had to do so many jobs for clients. I was so unhappy - it's just not what fascinates me.'
Fortunately, Shya had friends working at Commercial Radio, and one asked if he'd be interested in joining. This, he found, was an entirely different proposition from working in an advertising agency. 'I was doing CD covers, newspaper ads, posters, concert space design, T-shirts, award trophies, music magazines - I was doing the whole thing. And my team was only two people. It was crazy. I stayed in the office every night.'
The job's genre-melding eclecticism stirred something in Shya, however: he started to design album covers as a freelancer, and take photographs for magazines of actors he'd met on the job, in what was to become his signature style: high concept, high art, yet unconventional and deliberately rough around the edges. And then came the moment that launched his career into the big time: 'A friend of mine told Wong Kar-wai: 'This guy's a bit weird.' My reputation was for doing not normal photography. I met him and I said: 'This is what people don't like. Would you like to see it?' And he loved it. He was the one who accepted all my so-called mistakes. I was working for him the next day, and we've worked together for 10 years,' Shya says.
'I sold my pictures of Happy Together to him even though they were not in focus. It's all about how to accept mistakes. Of course, I don't see it as a mistake - I see it as an experiment.'
One reason for the success of the relationship with Wong, Shya thinks, is the freedom he's afforded by the director's unconventional modus operandi. 'He always has a concept in mind, but when he communicates it with you, it's abstract, it's one word. You have to find your own way of working out what he means. For In the Mood for Love, all he said was: 'red colour'. I went to Japan and bought some film, and it came out reddish. It was from a company in New York. I rang them, and they were closing down, so I bought all the film they had for US$500. It was low quality, but the reddish colour was really sexy.'
His work for Wong, he says, has led to a lot of requests to shoot videos ('The MTV side of it was really good fun - the commercial side, not so much fun'), something that's intensified in the past two years since he shot an abstract promotional film for American fashion brand Rodarte. In 2010, he even co-directed an ensemble cast of stars, including Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Nicholas Tse Ting-fung and Vivian Hsu Jo-hsuan, in the film Hot Summer Days.
'Video was very different for me at the beginning. When you're doing photos, one click tells the story. With video, it's about how you see that moment continuing. People say: 'You're so different when you do photos and movies', but movies themselves are different; you have to find a main focus - a subject.'
The democratisation of photography in the iPhone era actually works in his favour, he says. 'Nowadays everyone has a great camera so how you stand out is your style. It's become more about content, about how you see things.'
Of all the people he's shot, his favourite is actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. 'Every time she's just completely different. She's both a model and an actress. Sometimes models don't understand the need to act, to perform, and sometimes actresses just don't do clothes, but she can do both. Also, she always has a concept.'
Shya wants to work with more actors from overseas, but more than that, he says, 'I want to work with more new and young people. They give me energy. I want to learn their language.'