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Emmanuelle Khoo Fong Yi @ Emma Khoo is more than a photographer. The internationally published photographer is a woman with a mission.
On weekdays you’ll find her poring through countless books, clicking and typing away on her laptop, researching and writing about postcolonialism, gender, architecture and its history, it’s during the weekends when you’ll see her weave stories through her trusted camera.
To date, Emma has had her works published on numerous international magazines such as Elegant, 7Hues, Sheeba, L’affaire, Period, Gazelle, Gaya, Whim Online, and more, this Malaysian photographer is on a mission to change the fashion narratives on women: By showcasing culturally diverse alpha women. One photograph at a time.
The second year PhD student at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) campus has had three exhibitions this year alone where her works have been on display to hundreds of people globally.
Realising that she’s onto something, we decided to get in touch with Emma to dig in deeper and explore why she does what she does.
Hey there Emma! Let’s jump right to the beginning. How did you discover photography?
My interest in photography started around seven years ago when I was studying architecture in London but it manifested in unusual circumstances.
Life did the unexpected during my first year as an undergraduate when I found myself unable to physically continue pursuing architecture because of tenosynovitis (a form of tendonitis).
I decided to convert this sense of loss, identity crisis and pain into art as a means to help myself and perhaps help others along the process.
I only truly fell in love with photography after a year of experimenting and through meeting like-minded creatives in London. At that time, I decided to switch to academia, which compelled me to find a new creative outlet for myself. I turned to photography as my means of escapism where I could create characters and narratives that goes beyond reality.
Eventually, the effective form of therapy was overtaken by my own joy of creating art and meeting amazing collaborators along the way.
Now, I consider photography to be a serious hobby that allows me to share my creative vision and stories, as well as an outlet to share my pain, joys and opinions.
Why do you photograph strong alpha women?
Photography itself is a form of story-telling and I think this idea of being able to create imaginary worlds or crazy scenarios is a huge draw.
For me, what is important for myself is the continued search of redefining what is a strong or empowered woman in Malaysia. My female models and the concepts that I have done thus far, were labelled as “alpha women” and that perhaps, resounds well with my own personality.
The drive to create new fashion narratives depicting my version of an alpha or empowered woman, allows me to further develop my own interpretation and answers.
When did it occur to you that changing the fashion narrative was important to you?
I felt like these narratives in my work had always been innate. It has always been a part of me finding fascination in understanding various cultures, and questioning current standards of beauty, especially in Malaysia where they still persist in the industry.
I was always curious about understanding other cultures and certain patterns of behaviour. Understanding and appreciating cultural differences is one of the reasons why I am taking it to a new level by doing a PhD in Cultural Studies. In my photography, I was subconsciously revolving around these themes until a pattern emerged. When it was pointed out by others, it all became clear.
Can fashion and academia can be mutually inclusive?
For my current research, I am infusing my own personal interests in the development of cultural and creative industries, and postcolonial theories of hybridity and ambivalence.
I have been slowly bringing this research interests into my own engagement with creative hubs, my understanding of diversity and hopefully to my own visual images in the future.
I won’t say that they are exclusive because everything can be made useful, interconnected and unique to you.
In fact, you can probably see traces of my architecture background and interests in the urban environment in a lot of my works.
What are some problems you see with the way women are being portrayed in contemporary photography?
I wouldn’t say problems because this is probably the better decade for women to live in but we still have ways to go even in our local turf.
As photography is a male dominated industry, I hope to see more female photographers stepping up and presenting alternative views or narratives that positively portrays what being a 21st century woman is about, whether it is in fashion, fine art or conceptual works. I am still working towards that answer in my fashion narratives.
For me, women are more than just eyecandy. We are not just beautiful but also, multifaceted, smart and capable. I hope to see more narratives that showcases this.
Is this why you became internationally published as a photographer?
Being internationally published is actually not too difficult if you are fairly established, but you have to be strategic and you have to make sure your work fulfil the client’s or magazine’s requirements and aesthetic.
You can have amazing photos but if it doesn’t suit their monthly theme or season, it will never be published.
Of course, sometimes you do have to straddle between being bold because you’ll never know if you try.
Now, photography can be daunting for some — especially when it comes to the technical aspects. How did you teach yourself photography?
I never attended classes but I did watch YouTube and got technical advice from my dad, who is passionate about photography as well.
Generally, I am a self-taught photographer and that also means that I did not have the proper trained eye or education. I don’t even use the jargon correctly. I too, felt overwhelmed and insecure at times especially among industry experts but I believe it is all part of the learning process.
However, what I can say is what I have done through my experiences and encounters with other industry photographers. I started photographing RAW + JPEG once I found the huge advantages of it. I also only started shooting in Manual once I felt more competent with the technical aspects of using the camera.
A lot of it is about experimenting and learning from your mistakes. My suggestion is to just get out there and watch YouTube if you have some questions.
In recent years we’ve seen a rise of smartphones capable of taking amazing photos. Do you see the possibility of the DSLR going extinct in the future?
This is a very good question! At the moment, I still feel that the DSLR is the way to go for ads and campaigns because of its technical capabilities and ability to fulfil the specifications but you’ll never know how far the smartphone can evolve and become as good as the DSLR.
I still think developing that basic technical skill is always beneficial. Using the analogue camera is a useful exercise to train your Manual control and basic understanding of a camera before moving to a DSLR. Even smartphones have a manual function and understanding the old-school basics will really help.
So which is better: Taking images on DSLR or smartphone?
As a photographer I like to say the DSLR but I think this really depends on the person and the purpose. I am one of those people who capture my daily life and travels on my smartphone and only use the DSLR for highly technical photoshoots.
The smartphone has amazing apps and filters but for my photography work, none of them really deliver the tones or moods to the level of detail I have in mind, so I ended up becoming a heavy Photoshop user.
I do have to admit, I do use smartphone apps to enhance my personal photos on @fyi.khoo because it is quicker and I’d rather focus on photoshoots I do on my main account @fyi.photography. So everything on my main account uses only Photoshop and DSLRs whereas it is a mix on my personal account.
In fact, I see a lot of photographers creating a combination of photos taken from the DSLR with a combination of Adobe software and multiple editing apps on the smart phone. That’s the best of two worlds but that is entirely up to the artist to decide which is the best course of action to present their story.
Final question! Do you have a memorable photography project? A personal favorite?
Yes I do! In fact, on 23rd September, I held a solo photography exhibition in my university, in conjunction with the university’s 10th Anniversary Event of PhD Programme.
Early this year, I was approached by the Graduate School to develop a creative photoseries depicting student life and showcase the key facilities on campus. From the early conceptualisation of the idea to the implementation (models, styling, makeup, photography and post-production), I was given much creative freedom to interpret this theme.
The photoseries was called 深活: discover, live and thrive at UNNC.
As an international PhD student who lived on campus for a year, I hoped to highlight the unique experience at UNNC as well as the iconic spaces on campus.
Whilst the international community is small, I wanted to create a photoseries that highlights or promotes inclusivity and diversity found on campus.
Also, in contrast to the corporate images of the university, I deliberately came up with twelve different narratives that may seem ludicrous and even dream-like through unconventional concepts and styling with students seemingly leading idle or interesting lives at the university, hence the title 深活, which means a ‘meaningful’ or ‘deep’ life.
All images implicitly or explicitly showcased the overall appreciation of Chinese culture and life on campus from local and international student alike.
I have a few favourites but out of the twelve, my ultimate favourite image is entitled, The Three Graces. To me, this image best showcases myself as an artist because of the strong combination of showcasing beauty in diversity, empowered women and a fantasy aesthetic which I like to incorporate.
I especially enjoyed fusing the idea of Renaissance women with Chinese fairies. This is one of the rare moments where whatever I’d envisioned in my mind, came to life exactly the way I imagined it to.
To check out Emma Khoo’s photography work, head over to her Instagram page. She is also a model and has a separate Instagram page too. Get in touch with her on Facebook and if you’re keen to collaborate with her, click here.
*** All images by Emma Khoo @ FYi Photography.