Obscenity charge has not hurt celeb photographer Leslie Kee's career

Home-grown photographer Leslie Kee, 42, is living the secret fantasy of his youth.

The renowned photographer based in Japan charges upwards of US$20,000 (S$25,400) for a day's work and has photographed supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and pop stars such as Lady Gaga for magazines.

He has also shot advertising campaigns for popular brands including Japanese fashion label Uniqlo and photographed CD covers for famous J-pop singers such as Ayumi Hamasaki.

He calls a three-room luxury mansion in Tokyo's chic Aoyama district home.

In February, he made international headlines when he was arrested, charged and fined 1 million yen (S$12,842) for breaking the law in Japan by exhibiting pictures of male nudes at a Tokyo art gallery and selling books with similar images at the show. The images did not pixellate the private parts of the nude models, as required by Japanese law.

The notoriety, far from hurting his career, turned him into a champion of artistic freedom for challenging censorship laws. Since then, he has received a flood of exhibition offers from art galleries around the world.

Kee, who began shooting male nudes when he moved to New York in 2002, says he is inspired by American photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber, whose bodies of work include nudes.

But Kee adds that it is not erotic excitement which fires him up. It is the challenge of capturing the nudes in a moment of raw beauty that gives him satisfaction.

However, he makes no bones that photographing male nudity is a niche and lucrative market for him.

"There are fewer Asian photographers doing it and I want to be extraordinary, so I think it is a good market. Male nudity gets me lots of money. One of my prints can sell between US$5,000 and US$12,000 at a gallery."

On his run-in with Japan's censorship law, he says: "Even though I know that full-frontal nudity is against the law, it is already 2013 and pornography in Japan is a crazy industry... So why can't I shoot famous models and actors nude, with great printing and framing, and exhibit them to educate people that it is not pornography but art?"

He was in town last week to attend the launch of a photo exhibition by French fashion label agnes b. He is one of seven Asian artists, including Singaporean film-maker Royston Tan, who were invited by the brand to photograph its classic snap cardigan.

Kee's picture shows a male model wearing little else except the cardigan, a watch and tattoos. It is on display in the atrium of Paragon shopping centre until Saturday.

Speaking to Life! before the opening of the exhibition, he says: "I could not imagine that I would become the photographer I am today because I was more quiet, and also because of my background."

He was born out of wedlock to a bar hostess mother and does not know who his father is. Mother and son lived in a one-room flat in Tiong Bahru but she was often working so he saw little of her. His grandmother stayed with them and took care of him.

Recalling how he was an introvert at the now-defunct Bukit Ho Swee East School, he says: "Somebody like me who didn't have a father, who didn't have a mother spending time with me - I could not share a lot with my friends. They would say things like 'yesterday I went shopping with my mother', 'next week my father is bringing me to Genting', but I didn't have these kind of stories to share, so I tried to stay away."

He insists, however, that he was not embarrassed about his family or his mother's occupation. "I felt lucky that my mother worked so hard and I had my grandmother to take care of me."

He also credits his mother, whom he often saw dolled up glamorously, for imbuing him with an eye for beauty.

He says: "She was different from other mothers, she was not a housewife and I don't think she ever cooked. My mother was beautiful. You need to be beautiful to work in a bar, men will pay to drink with only beautiful women.

"When I saw her come home late at night, she would be looking beautiful, wearing high heels and make-up, and her closet was full of beautiful clothes. That made me understand what good taste is."

His grandmother, on the other hand, surrounded him with love. He was the apple of her eye and she doted on him, buying him his favourite foods for breakfast every day. He says: "My favourite was wonton mee and she would buy extra wonton for me even though she knew I could not finish it."

They also spent much time together, mostly at home with him helping her trim beansprouts to earn the family extra cash.

Two things, however, would redefine his hardscrabble life: a camera his mother gave him a few months before she died of cancer at age 39 and the world of Japanese pop culture. Both helped him fashion an identity beyond his circumstances and gave him a dream to shoot for - of one day studying in Japan and carving out a career there doing what he enjoyed most, taking pictures of people.

The Minolta camera from his mother was a birthday present and a reward for doing well enough in the Primary School Leaving Examination to make it to Victoria School.

He had asked for a camera because "I have almost no pictures of myself when I was young, so I wanted to take a lot of pictures for my sister".

He has a half-sister who is seven years younger and born to a different father.

He and his sister were adopted by his aunt when his grandmother died a few years after his mother. His adoptive mother treated them like her own and raised them on her factory worker's salary.

He also worked part-time as a factory worker at a Japanese electronics factory to earn pocket money.

The factory was staffed with mostly young Japanese adults and their good manners, dedication and discipline so impressed the wide-eyed teenager that he has adopted their work ethic.

He is feverish on the day of the interview, having worked three consecutive days without sleeping. But instead of staying in bed to rest, he makes a quick trip to a hospital in the morning for a jab and pushes ahead with back-to-back press interviews.

He speaks with rapier speed and betrays no sign of exhaustion during the late afternoon meeting.

The sharp fashion sense of his Japanese co-workers, the J-pop songs they played in the factory and the magazines they shared with him made him fall in love with Japanese pop culture.

On his own, he would frequent Japanese bookstores such as the now-defunct Maruzen in River Valley, as well as a Japanese record rental shop in Orchard Plaza. Occasionally, even though he had rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, he bought a magazine or a cassette tape with dubbed songs because he could not afford an entire record.

He says: "I didn't have anything special about myself, nothing that I could be proud of. But because I knew a bit more about Japanese culture, when I met someone who was into Japanese stuff but still new to it, I could share it with him and it made me feel that I was a useful person."

The photographs he took of his sister, cousins and classmates likewise boosted his self-esteem. He would dress them up and photograph them at the Botanic Gardens or Alkaff Mansion in a style that mimicked the poses of Japanese celebrities, "with the background blurred, a flower at the side of their head", he says.

He dreamt of going to Japan to study photography, "but I didn't say it because it costs a lot of money".

Instead, he enrolled in Ngee Ann Polytechnic after his O levels but quit in the first year; travel books and documentaries had filled him with wanderlust.

Using $4,000 he had saved from working part-time jobs since he was 13, he embarked on a solo backpacking trip through 12 countries including Malaysia, India and the Philippines. "It opened my heart so much and made me want to live more bravely," he says of the two-year trip.

The "cool" Japanese backpackers he met, who were mostly fresh university graduates, also inspired him to take his dream of studying in Japan seriously.

He left for Tokyo in 1993 after national service with the rest of his savings and a small loan from his uncle. He enrolled at a Japanese language school and worked for more than a year doing various odd jobs including waiting tables, washing dishes and waxing hospital floors to save up for a diploma programme at the Tokyo Visual Arts school.

As a photography student, he worked hard to build up a portfolio of portraits, asking friends, classmates and even expatriates on the streets of Tokyo to pose for him. By the time he graduated in 1997, his portfolio was stuffed. But for a year after that, no photographer or photography studio would hire him as an assistant.

The repeated rejections were "very discouraging", he says. "Was it because of my language deficiency, my looks or my background? I don't know, I just didn't get it."

He did not, however, stop trying.

His break came in 1998 when he landed a cover shoot with then rising actor Takeshi Kaneshiro for Hong Kong's trendy City Magazine. His childhood friend, renowned Singapore make-up artist Zing who is based in Hong Kong, had introduced him to the magazine.

On landing the cover, he says: "I guess they felt my pictures were quite decent, not that of a master's yet, but not 'blurry' and I had something about me that was different. I was very lucky."

He was also very nervous. "I knew it was a golden opportunity and we didn't use computers then, so every frame was life and death." The pictures turned out well and shortly after they were published, Vogue Taiwan came knocking.

Its offer: a regular eight-page spread in the magazine. The collaboration has lasted 14 years to date.

He says: "I was so happy, it was like 'Bingo!'. All the designers, models and artists wanted to work with me because I could put them in Vogue magazine. I was able to dream and say who I wanted to shoot. That Vogue letter was like a direct VIP pass."

In 2002, at the peak of his career in Japan, a top New York artist management agency, Jed Root, signed him on so he left for the Big Apple. The agency encouraged him to balance his portfolio of commercial photographs with personal works and that was how he started shooting male nudes.

However, he returned to Japan in 2006. "I really dislike American food and the market with money for me is in Asia." Since then, he has made Tokyo his home and lives there with his long-time partner, American photographer Ryan Chan. He returns to Singapore twice a year: at Chinese New Year to see family, including his sister Sally - an insurance company executive married with two daughters - and in October, to celebrate his adoptive mother's birthday. She is now retired and turns 62 next month.

His friend of nine years, Mr Douglas Khee, 36, a show producer and owner of Singapore-based creative event agency Division, says: "His works make some people uneasy, but to me, his photos are pieces of art and there is no right or wrong answer to it. We all know art is often controversial. In my opinion, Leslie is a true, passionate artist."

Over the last 15 years, Kee has funded and produced 45 photo books which are collections of his portrait photography.

One of them, Super Stars (2006), features portraits of 300 Asian celebrities.

About 10 per cent of the 600 photos are pictures of full-frontal male and female nudes. The book was banned here, although a selection of less titillating pictures was exhibited at the National Museum in 2007 during a fashion festival.

Despite the run-in with the Japanese censors, Kee says he will not stop taking photos of men in the buff. He estimates that about 15 per cent of his photographic work is of nudes.

In fact, he is planning to release a photo book of full male nudity in February to mark the first anniversary of his arrest.

The savvy photographer says: "People will ask, 'He was arrested because of nudity, so why is he still doing nudity?' That creates a question, it's important to make people think. And, yes, it's also a marketing thing."


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