Michelle Watt explores the complexity of Asian American identity through her surreal portrayal

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

Michelle Watt is firmly last. Her colorful, surreal compositions – whether shooting a magazine cover or working on a personal project – are brought to life by elaborate productions, featuring teams of set designers, wardrobe designers and makeup artists.

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

“It’s not really an inspiration as much as it is a compulsion to work on,” she told CNN in a recent interview. “Deconstructing it through staging, storytelling, and narration in these symbolic ways ends up being a really therapeutic way of dealing with these things.”

Photo from the Michele Watt series "Lunar Geisha."

Photo from Michele Watt’s “Lunar Geisha”. attributed to him: Michelle Watt

Her “Lunar Geisha” photo series, published in Blank Magazine, is an exploration of Asian-American female identity. Using a geisha as a metaphor for the hypersexualization of East Asian women, the images trace the transformation of a young girl from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. In the first picture, the girl is playfully sprawled on a bench, with fruits and white flowers in the frame conveying innocence. As the girl matures into a young woman in the later images, the use of bold red evokes menstruation and sex.

Watt, who is Chinese-American, says the series examines how East Asian women are viewed by society, how they are pushed into certain roles, the ways in which they collude with those stereotypes and the ways in which they work against them.

Photo from the Michele Watt series "Lunar Geisha."

Photo from Michele Watt’s “Lunar Geisha”. attributed to him: Michelle Watt

“It’s complicated because you want to play that role because you want to belong somewhere,” she said. “But you also don’t really like that part, so you don’t really want to play a role. That’s kind of confusing. Co-dependence is a huge topic there.”

Those questions and contradictions are the ones Watt struggles with in her private life. When she portrays people who aren’t Asian American women, she says she questions how her ethnic and gender identity influences their interactions. When she’s assigned to work on projects for clients, she wonders if she’s got the job to meet the diversity quota.

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

Photo from the Michele Watt photo series "waiting," Ami Suzuki Championship.

Photo from Michelle Watt’s photo series “The Wait” starring Amy Suzuki. attributed to him: Michelle Watt

Another series, “Waiting,” also published in Planck magazine, explores the concept of boundary spaces. Inspired by the Atelier Aveus studio furniture collection of the same name, the series places its protagonist in ethereal, spooky antechambers. In many of the photos, the woman sits upright in a chair and looks at her wistfully, surrounded by soft shades of sea foam green and pink. Over time, a woman’s patience seems to erode and her attitude becomes less restrictive. One of the photos shows the woman lying on the floor with her head resting on the arm of the chair.

“This is about being in this place where it’s kind of unclear if you’re trapped in space or if you’re putting yourself in that place – if it’s your choice to be there,” Watt added.

This mysterious case in the middle is very familiar to Watts.

“I often find myself at these borderlines throughout different areas of my life, particularly in terms of identity,” she said. “Being not quite Asian, not quite American, or a woman who wants to be stylish and good looking, but also doesn’t want to be controlled.”

Photo from the Michele Watt series "fish food" A project with the Sony Alpha Universe.

Image from Michelle Watt’s “Fish Food” series, a project with Sony Alpha Universe. attributed to him: Michelle Watt

Although many of Watt’s projects are imbued with a sense of oomph, there is plenty of oomph to be found as well. “Fish Food,” a campaign for Sony Alpha Universe, spans across the colors of the rainbow and is hilarious even in its exploration of co-dependence. Fashion Series “Eat Me Drink Me” Filmed by Shawn! The magazine, is a visual feast of fashion and things galore, while its subject matter seems to vacillate between feeling trapped by its surroundings and feeling curious about it.
In crafting her dramatic masterpieces, Watt draws inspiration from paintings to cinema to architectural designs. (“My inspiration comes from everything everywhere at once,” she says, referring to the surreal science-fiction film whose meticulous exploration of Asian-American identity bears similarities to her own work.)
Remy Martin's Lunar New Year campaign 2022, photo by Michelle Watt

Remy Martin’s Lunar New Year campaign 2022, photo by Michelle Watt attributed to him: Michelle Watt

Once she has a vision of what she wants the image to look like, careful work begins in making it. The materials are created, the kits assembled, and the clothes dressed. With the physical elements in place, Watt can start figuring out the finishing touches needed to give it that distinct fantasy quality. Here, borderline space is where you thrive.

“After a bit of breathing room, I started to see the magic of that unknown,” Watt said. “This is where post-production is really fun, because I start to see things that I haven’t seen before. Then I can improve on those things that I couldn’t have imagined before.”

top image: Morning scene from Michele Watt’s “Waiting” series.

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