A Fresh Voice in PhotographyWritten by Christy Chiu
Budding photographer Wanjie Li is on a mission to redefine the notion of beauty in Singapore’s photography scene, and all before he turns 18.
While many of his peers are still struggling with school, 17 year old Wanjie Li is conquering the Singaporean photography scene with his own set of ideas and presentations of beauty. Humbly referring to himself as an ‘Instagram photographer,’ Wanjie first stumbled into the world of making images when he got his hands on his family’s Canon camera back in 2014, quickly becoming a dedicated amateur before morphing into a photographer covering fashion, fine art and music, with a large social media following and his own distinct aesthetic.
Scrolling through Wanjie’s instagram feed, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that the images are the works of a photography veteran, rather than a teenager. Over the past two years, he has carefully put together an assemblage of whimsical portraits that inspire his over 7k followers. They’re not the only ones who have responded to his intimate shots – he’s also been featured on the international digital art channel NOWNESS and had his recent work with Singaporean model Mei, shown on Vogue Italia’s website.
This is all the culmination of years of development. ‘Before I did photography, I started with around 500 followers’, he recalls. ‘Looking at my feed back then, my photos all had similar colours and the composition was very fixed, so I tried to switch things up. It’s a constant struggle for photographers to make their work distinctive, and keep on maintaining that style’. For Wanjie, the central issue that feeds his own perspective is his take on beauty. ‘I don’t want to perpetuate the narrative that only girls with lighter skin should be in front of cameras’, he declares. ‘There’s definitely an effort on my part to try and diversify.’ To that end, it’s not surprising that he draws a lot of inspiration from fashion brands leading the way in this field. ‘Before I loved photography, I loved fashion,’ he explains. “And a lot of what I think comes from editorials and campaigns of major brands, including Saint Laurent, Acne Studios, Jil Sander, so on and so forth. I take a lot of cues from the styling and fashion trends I see in magazines and find a way to incorporate the silhouettes, textures and stories I like into my shoots.’
He also likes to delve deeper than mainstream luxury brands, looking to other territories such as Korea and China for newer ideas. ‘The looks and aesthetics of the Korean and Chinese fashion industry have a rawness and primacy in them, and that is very fresh and exciting. I’m talking about Chinese and Korean photographers such as Renhang and Min Hyunwoo, and brands like Esc Studios and Nodress. The unique sensibility that these artists have towards beauty inspires me.’ In a further search for a unique take he has also been drawn to drag culture. ‘I like to look towards drag queens for innovative ideas, especially those at the forefront, Violet Chachki, Isshehungry, Raja and Alaska, for example.’ He says he feels connected to them for both their ideology and the revolution they represent. ‘Drag has recaptured popular imagination precisely because it pushes so many boundaries in terms of visual aesthetics and our ideas about identity, which I’m passionate about’. This also aligns with his commitment to uphold the beauty of diversity, ‘I find the visual fluidity of drag — most distinctly shown in the interplay of extravagant fantasy, gender-bending and elaborate performance — extremely fascinating.’
With his momentum gaining and followers increasing, Wanjie is focused on his productivity as he strives to develop his career. ‘During a recent 7 day trip to Southeast Asia, I did 10 different shoots. I loaded up my schedule with a bunch of different agencies so I could have a more solid portfolio,’ he tells us. It’s all part of the transition between pursuing photography as a hobby and as a profession. ‘More and more, I feel like I’m heading in that direction. My plan right now is to go to business school so I can learn how to manage and market myself, and then come back to Singapore to do full-time photography.’ As Wanjie marches ahead with this ambitious plan, we look forward to seeing the ideas, images and agenda he delivers in the future.