Credit: Courtesy Joyce Ng
Lost in translation: Wry photos challenge notions of East and West
Hong Kong-native Joyce Ng and South Korean-born Hanna Moon are both London-based, Asian, millennial fashion photographers who have shot for titles like Dazed, i-D and British Vogue. But, if you ask them, that's where their similarities end.
"I mean, we're so different. We argue so much," jokes Moon. "We're from two different countries. I've never been to Hong Kong. We don't speak the same language."
However, since first meeting at Central Saint Martins almost a decade ago, the two have become like sisters, navigating the fashion and art worlds in tandem and confronting familiar stereotypes and cultural differences along the way.
"We can be really sympathetic (to one another) -- how she came here at 17 and how I came here not speaking English. We know how much the other suffered," Moon says. "In everyday life, you do experience certain things as an Asian girl living in Europe and in the same industry, so maybe that's our common thing, rather than our character or personality, because of our race."
This experience of shared otherness is at the center of wryly titled "Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng: English as a Second Language," their newly opened exhibition at London's historic Somerset House. A combination of site-specific projects and images from their individual archives that blend Eastern and Western aesthetics, it's the first exhibition the institution has dedicated to Asian photographers.
But don't expect another fashionable look at Asian femininity. Rather than focusing on their individual identities or making a statement about diaspora, the photographers chose to explore otherness more broadly and the feeling of being "lost in translation," hinting at how mutable and universal these concepts can be.
"It's perfect timing to talk about 'things' like us," Moon jokes. "Everyone's talking about diversity, but (the conversation) is quite limited and I feel like it's quite commercialized now," says Moon.
Agreeing, Ng adds: "Diversity is so crucial right now, but then at the same time all the borders are tightening, so I think there's a tension."
Last summer, both were commissioned by curator Shonagh Marshall to photograph a series looking at their feelings toward Britishness, set at Somerset House. Ng, inspired by the mass-media visuals that surrounded her in Hong Kong ("Advertising, window displays, all of that"), chose to shoot a fashion campaign-style series starring people she found passing through the museum's grounds, many of whom seemed as out of place as she felt in the neoclassical building.
"Before this, I don't think I stepped into Somerset House for a while, since my uni years, so I had no idea what kind of people pass through the building every day," said Ng. "I was quite surprised that there's a whole spectrum of different people from different walks of life."
Moon, meanwhile, chose to shoot Heejin, a long-term friend and muse from South Korea, with her newborn; and Moffy, a muse from west London. Set against luxe drapery erected in the museum's public spaces and shot after hours, the portraits recall traditional British portraits, but with a subversive twist. And when positioned next to photos that reveal the entirety of the scene -- including an indifferent security guard and professional lights -- the classical portrait set-up suddenly seems ridiculous.
"In the end, I thought it's not really about 'Oh, these Asian-heritage fashion photographers,'" Moon stresses. "It's more (about) being ourselves and trying to open up more conversation about being strangers."
"Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng: English as a Second Language" is on at London's Somerset House until April 28, 2019.
Top image: Detail from "You Are My Lucky Baby Pear" for Modern Weekly (2017) by Joyce Ng