Sean Lee was in his early twenties when he started posing as a transgender sex worker. Perhaps “posing” is not the right word: Lee had created a whole character, by the name of Shauna, and he intended to inhabit her life completely. He lived alongside Cambodian sex workers in Siem Reap, strutting the streets – first in wedges, then later in stiletto heels.
“I didn’t think of it as dressing up. To me the make up and the hair was really an act of putting on another face, the clothes and the shoes, another body. I did not try to become a prettier version of myself. I was trying to become another person.”
What started as a week-long photography project became a two year alternate life. Lee captured the experience in a variety of ways: sometimes he assigned a friend to take photos, sometimes he used a timer, sometimes he staged scenarios. He also continued to take photos when he was in his home country of Singapore, going in and out of character between 2007 and 2009.
The resulting photographs became Lee’s first body of work, entitled Shauna. The photos vary – some seem spontaneous, caught in the garish haze of a life that is both secretive and over exposed. Others are more composed and show Lee with a wig in hand or bathing or caught in semi-graphic encounters (sometimes with his real life girlfriend).
Many people in Lee’s life knew Shauna. “For me it was not a problem that they knew or didn’t know. What was important for me was that even if they knew, my performance and immersion into the character must be convincing enough that they could not react to me in the same way as when I was myself,” says Lee. He found that Shauna changed his relationships with long time friends.
Click photos to open gallery
Sorry, nothing found.
“I rarely felt in danger. But ’empowered’ is too strong a word,” says Lee. His experiment came to an end when he realised that he had reached a line. “I was not able to expose myself to the same risks as the people I met [in Cambodia]. There were boundaries I could not cross and so I felt I could not keep going in this work unless I made myself just as vulnerable as they were. So I ended it. If I had not, it would end up becoming an exercise. Sometimes I wonder if this work should have begun at all.”
Reflecting on the sex workers he met and came to know, Lee says, “It is a complicated life. There are many dangers and risks. And in Siem Reap, I have heard stories of how even the police can exploit them. It seemed to me that many of them find themselves in a set of circumstances where so much is denied them that their bodies become the only stake they have in the world, and they use it just to survive.”
Lee has gone on to create more work, but this time closer to home. His series Two People focuses on his parents, where their bodies and faces are staged in different dynamics. His other series, The Garden, uses close-up photography to transform parts of the body into almost abstract landscapes, where the flesh, moles and hairs loom large. In all his work, the common thread seems to be a transformation of bodies. His next series will be portraits of friends.
“I have been returning to Cambodia every year since 2007,” says Lee. “It is very hard to talk about leaving the character behind. I will never become Shauna again I think. But it will always be a part of my life.”
Shauna will be exhibited at Obscura Festival of Photography in George Town from 10 – 31 August, as part of a curated series of exhibitions on Truth Imaginariums. Find out more about Obscura Festival here.
Words by Ling Low. Photos by Sean Lee (www.seanleephoto.com)
Read this next: Poskod Picks: George Town Festival 2015