Benita Leong: A Kitsch-Obsessed Photographer Questioning Sociopolitical Structures

To paraphrase George Orwell, if there's hope for the future, it probably lies with the next generation. Cynics may dismiss this as the rosy idealism of youth but hey, that can invigorate the imagination like nothing else. We spotlight seven up-and-coming Singapore students from different artistic disciplines whose works make us dream once more. 

Here, we talk to Benita Leong, a 21-year-old photographer who is currently majoring in History and Political Science at the University of Toronto.

benita leong Profile photo courtesy of Christopher Sim

What would you like people to know about your work?

“I’m currently working on a long-term visual project called Pax North Americana which explores the continent’s disproportional influence on the rest of the world and the apparent ambivalence to that fact by its natives. It’s also a look at post-culture shock where there’s a sense of humour and initial unease that the environment and culture isn’t what we expected it to be as an immigrant. Real life here ironically feels like a parody of the media it supposedly represents – as though stuck in a constant feedback loop. My work thus feels artificially rendered and self- referential involving my friends and suburbia as subjects. It’s also a mischievous spoof of counterculture media’s representation of the continent and obsession with images of what youth looks like – such as those you see in i-D or Dazed magazine that (typically) feature young white lithe girls in underwear lying in their bedrooms. There’s a constant production of the image of culture here that I find fascinating.”

benita leong

benita leong

What would you say are common themes in your works?

“The feeling of belonging, and familiarity found in artificial surroundings. I’m obsessed with kitsch and overproduction (so much so that) I always feel like my photographs seem more like anime storyboards.”

benita leong Describing her aesthetic as “a dream sequence that almost steps into uncanny valley territory”, Leong’s work is inspired by a constant volley of sources, though she says one has to understand existing sociopolitical issues before embarking on new work. Other creatives she cites as inspirations include feted American photographer Nan Goldin and closer to home, rising artist and lensman Christopher Sim, who shot her profile photo for this story.

Who or what inspires and informs your work?

"I’m constantly being fed so much new knowledge and ideas by virtue of still being in school and just turning 21, that its hard for me to pinpoint what I’m influenced by, although it’s a question that’s constantly in the back of my head. This might be an incoming word vomit to say the least.

I’m firstly aware of how privileged I am as a Singaporean Chinese girl who is studying overseas solely because of mental health issues, despite qualifying academically to stay in the country. Studying history and political science with a focus on diasporic communities and the region of East Asia and the Middle East, whilst undertaking a personal project on belonging in North America (which has such a vast degree of diversity) and the projections of the continent’s cultural impact that its own people are unaware to the scale of, means that I have to be aware of theories of Orientalism and colonial/empire studies with texts by (Edward) Said and (Gayatri Chakravorty) Spivak, to (Roland) Barthes."

benita leong

"Studying in Canada and being an outsider, while being part of the majority in Singapore that disproportionately reap benefits from state institutions that have Western values structurally embedded in them (whether or not we like to discuss it) from 377A to our national identity vis-a-vis the international stage that see Asian values only as conservatism and hard work to support Western capitalism, I guess in my work or identity as a creative I’m trying my best not to fall into the trap of self-exotification or disingenuously representing myself and my subjects who tend to be my friends, family and spaces intimate to me.

It might be subliminal or minute at times but I am an amalgamation of my surroundings good or bad, and I think being aware of sociopolitical structures that form our daily framework in which we even begin to conceive ideas and understanding is something that pushes me to grow in my work and creative output.

This might be overkill and hamper me at times in creating images that seem ‘real’, but seeing photographs from Tina Barney or Alex Prager who both despite their staged scenes, (still manage to) elicit sincere feelings of familiarity and wonder - that encourages me. At the same time I’m inspired by Nan Goldin and my dear friend and artist Christopher Sim who seem like the opposite in process, seamlessly photographing their friends or distant subcultures as close to the moment as a photograph can represent and leaving you with an immediate feeling that there was a genuine relationship between the photographer and the subject that we can be privy to."

What is your approach to creating new works?

"I feel like while I'm very intentional in feeling and the philosophies underlying my photographs, I'm sporadic in the actual creation process. I think of an idea usually in day to day transit where I spend a bulk of my time and immediately start planning it and completing it within the next month, with the time frame being extended by me trying not to annoy my friends with too many impulsive messages asking them to being a part of a new image.

Most recently I went on a solo road trip across New Mexico and Texas for my project with only a week's planning and booking of Airbnbs the night before I arrived in each city, and I travelled mostly by Greyhound and a lot of walking as I don’t drive. It was interesting at times being the only pedestrian in town and the added surrealism of America where public utilities of transit don’t exist or where I stick out like a sore thumb because of my race, accent or dressing."

What is the biggest challenge facing your field?

“The extent that images are now tied up with corporatism, not the fault of photographers since corporate jobs and advertising sometimes seem like the only ways to survive and earn a living. Even editorials which give more freedom to create pay less or don’t pay at all compared to a fast fashion store’s lookbook. Survivability is a concern in every industry but the importance of imagery in shaping culture to our own regulation of mental health always makes me feel like there’s an ethical responsibility in the production of images that cannot be given up to the free market.”

benita leong

How do you think you can contribute to your field?

"Being open to my process - it helps makes photography more accessible. While it's becoming more affordable every year to join the field, I think it's disingenuous to still claim that everyone can pursue it as long as they put in the effort or chase their dreams. I’m easily intimidated and too shy to meet anyone I look up to even through something as informal as an Instagram DMs - whether to show appreciation or to get into a peak of their creative process, and sometimes it’s a stupid question of what lens filter they had to achieve a lighting effect. I’m open on social media about my mental health, life and photography and just receiving messages from people who are interested in picking up photography asking about my editing flow or my intention behind a photograph makes me feel happy that there’s comfortable engagement with the field and a lowering of unnecessary mystery."

Do you have any upcoming projects that you'd like to share?

"I’ll finally be sharing the first physical products of my Pax North Americana project in a zine and limited prints."

This article first appeared in the March 2020 print issue of FEMALE. 

This article is originally published on Female Singapore.

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