In Fruit Chan’s seminal 1997 film Made in Hong Kong 香港製造, three teenage friends frolic in a hilltop cemetery. Under the gaze of long-deceased elders, they shout into the void, weaving between endless rows of marble headstones. Their voices echo in the eerie silence of a place where the dead outnumber the living, the frantic movements of their bodies exaggerated amidst the graves. What we know is that one of the characters is dying faster than the others. Yet, this moment of reveling in the space of death is nothing but levity.
This scene is what first comes to mind when I encounter Wingla Wong’s photographs of young women in cemeteries. They all stare directly at the viewer, posing with confidence and power, as if to remind us that the young are not impervious to death. If anything, to be young in this day and age is to be acutely aware of the precariousness of living.
Wingla is twenty-one and she’s been shooting portraits for almost a decade. Her work is characterised by much more than her youth: raw yet considered eroticism, a fascination with bodies and how they bend and break, and most of all, a sense of filmic narrative, where each photograph hints at a lifetime of longing.
Be that as it may, her youth is an inextricable part of her artistic strength. Photography as a medium actively produces the cultural currency of youth, in all of its naked glory. Most photos we see of young people utilise nostalgia as a vehicle to sell us things we don’t actually want. Wingla’s photos of schoolgirls are exceptional in that she depicts pubescent girls through the lens of her shared experiences with them. Experiences of being a young woman in this world that, to paraphrase Jenny Zhang, reviles and fetishises the nubile female form.
As a fellow young woman herself, Wingla’s images ache with empathy. She makes pictures that deal in an uncanny sense of the “now”: this is not youth as an ideal or as a fetish. Rather than depicting young people from a vantage point, Wingla photographs as part of her own coming of age. These are people, mainly women, as they exist in real time, with all that they’ve lived through and all that is yet to come, condensed into single frames.
It all began with a crush. Wingla was thirteen when she became infatuated with a boy who loved photography. After convincing her mother that she needed money for textbooks, she bought her first camera. By the age of fifteen, she was organising shoots of her friends. She shot on film because, she says, “film cameras were the cheapest. It wasn’t like I had such an inclination towards film, so much as having access.”
At seventeen, she created her first photograph of a nude model. The nude female body remains her most enduring motif to this day. Nevertheless, she adamantly refuses to categorise her work as “feminist” or gender-oriented. “It’s just a decision,” she says softly. “I like photographing women in the same way I like the colour pink,” she adds.
She insists that nudity is “not really a big deal to [her].” The word that comes up most often in our conversation is 靚, which loosely translates to “pretty.” “If something is pretty in person, it is pretty when you photograph it too,” she explains. “If someone’s body is pretty, I’ll photograph their body. I don’t really get it when people are shy or ashamed of their body parts.”
Her candid demeanour is mirrored in the confrontational women of her photographs. When she’s scouting for models, she admits that her notion of beauty is informed by her desire to photograph herself. Wingla boldly proclaims, “I like the way I look. I like my own body.”
It occurs to me that I have never heard a young woman say these words out loud before. Her strong sense of self is manifested through insistently photographing the world through her own eyes, and not apologising for the kinds of subjects she returns to.
Indeed, most of her models are waifish and skinny. She mentions how her work is often critiqued for its centering of conventionally attractive bodies. In response to this criticism, she states that “chubbier and curvier bodies are beautiful too, but [skinny] is just my preference.” I am ambivalent about this, being a staunch supporter of the need to depict bodies of all sizes. When I ask further, it becomes clear that Wingla ultimately shoots for herself. “Each photo becomes a promise to myself, and I start to forget about what people think of my work, and place less emphasis on their opinions,” she muses. “The most important thing is [that] it’s me wielding the camera, right?”
She reminisces on the youthful naivety of her earlier work, as reflected in the surreal colours she used. These days, she is drawn to the honesty of “real colours,” she says. However, she doesn’t disregard the photos she took as a teenager, gesturing towards the process of growth in the life of an artist. “It’s not a matter of good and bad so much as what feels right to me,” she notes.
Wingla is extra sensitive to her younger self, as exemplified in the tenderness that underlies all of her work. In one image, a woman with long hair wearing a white floral dress is perched on a headstone. Viewed from below, she directs her gaze to the camera, her lips parted. Her rosy skin sharply contrasts with the cool stone marker of death she sits on. Like the screams Fruit Chan’s protagonists release into the cemetery, Wingla’s images capture the paradox of people at the beginning of their lives confronting the possible end.
She is determined to forge her own path amidst an increasingly homogenised visual landscape. “Amongst a whole world of rubbish, I want to stand out, to help people open their eyes. I want them to see what I see, and to see how my work is different from other people’s. I want them to be amazed and feel moved.”
Originally published in the Still / Loud magazine in February 2019. Republished online in March 2020. Kylie Lee contributed reporting. Wilfred Chan contributed editing.