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

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

Michelle Watt firmly the latter. Her rich hues, surreal compositions – whether she’s shooting a magazine cover or working on a personal project – are brought to life through complex productions that involve teams of set designers, wardrobe stylists and makeup artists.

For Watt, creating these intricate images is a form of therapy, a way to process trauma and personal experiences.

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

Image from Michelle Watt’s Moon Geisha series. Credit: Michelle Watt

Her series of portraits, “Moon Geisha”, published in Blanc Magazine, is an exploration of Asian-American female identity. Using the geisha as a metaphor for the hypersexualization of East Asian women, the photographs show a young girl’s metamorphosis from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood. In the first image, the girl is playfully stretched out on a bench, while fruits and white flowers in the frame convey innocence. As the girl transforms into a young woman in subsequent photographs, the use of bright reds evokes menstruation and sexuality.

Watt, who is Chinese-American, says the series explores how East Asian women are perceived by society, how they are forced into certain roles, how they become complicit in these stereotypes, and how they rebel against them.

Image from Michelle Watt series "Lunar geisha."

Image from Michelle Watt’s Moon Geisha series. Credit: Michelle Watt

“It’s difficult because you want to play this role because you want to belong to something,” she said. “But you also don’t really like this role, so you really don’t want to play this role. This is a bit confusing. Codependency is a huge topic.”

It is these questions and contradictions that Watt faces in his life. When she films people who are not Asian American, she says she wonders to what extent her racial and gender identity influences their interactions. When assigned to work on projects for clients, she wonders if she got the job to meet the diversity quota.

“Am I being hired because they use me as a symbol? This is fine? Am I going to fight it?” Watt said. “It’s complicated. I always feel like I’m asking these questions.”

Image from a series of photographs by Michelle Watt. "Expectation," starring Ami Suzuki.

Image from Michelle Watt’s “Waiting” series of photographs, starring Ami Suzuki. Credit: Michelle Watt

Another series called “Waiting”, also published in Blanc Magazine, explores the concept of liminal spaces. Inspired by the Atelier Aveus furniture collection of the same name, the series places its protagonist in eerily ethereal waiting rooms. In several images, a woman sits upright in a chair and looks thoughtfully, surrounded by soft shades of green and pink sea foam. Over time, the woman’s patience wears thin, and her posture becomes decidedly less restrained. In one photo, a woman was stretched out on the floor with her head resting on the arm of a chair.

“It’s about being in that space where it’s not clear if you’re locked in that space or if you put yourself in that space — whether you have the choice to be there,” Watt added.

This ambiguous intermediate state is all too familiar to Watt.

“I often find myself at these thresholds in different areas of my life, especially in regards to identity,” she said. “Being not quite Asian, not quite American, or being a woman who wants to be presentable and look good, but also not willing to submit to it.”

Image from Michelle Watt series "Food for fish," project with Sony Alpha Universe.

Image from Michelle Watt’s “Fish Food” series, a Sony Alpha Universe project. Credit: Michelle Watt

While many of Watt’s projects are imbued with a sense of seriousness, there is also a lot of frivolity to be found in them. The “Fish Food” campaign for Sony Alpha Universe covers every color of the rainbow and is funny even in its codependency research. Fashion series “Eat me, drink me”, filmed for Shen! Magazineis a visual feast of flamboyant outfits and objects, while its subject seems to oscillate between feeling trapped in their surroundings and being curious about them.
Creating his dramatic masterpieces, Watt draws inspiration from paintings, films and architectural visualizations. (“My inspiration comes from everything and everywhere at once,” she says, referring to the surreal sci-fi film, which has a subtle exploration of Asian-American identity that bears a resemblance to her own work.)
Remy Martin Lunar New Year 2022 Campaign by Michelle Watt

Remy Martin Lunar New Year 2022 Campaign by Michelle Watt Credit: Michelle Watt

Once she has an idea of ​​what she wants the photo to look like, the painstaking work of creating it begins. Materials were created, decorations were assembled, outfits were put on. With the physical elements in place, Watt can begin to determine what finishing touches are needed to give it that distinctive, fantastical quality. Here, the liminal space is where it thrives.

“After a little respite, I’m starting to see the magic of this unknown,” Watt said. “That’s where the post-production process is really interesting, because I’m starting to see things that I didn’t see before. Then I can improve on things I couldn’t imagine before.”

Top image: Morning scene from Michelle Watt’s Waiting.

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