INTERVIEW // MAY XIONG
Interview by Sachin Khona // April 2018
Reading time: 15 mins
Stillness is an artform in itself — It provides a moment of confrontation, silence, and even discomfort. It’s because we rarely get a moment to be truly still and bear witness to settled experiences. Stillness can remind us to really dig into a moment, to hold in a breath and just exist.
The work of Seattle-based photographer, May Xiong is an exercise in stillness. Her photos are often posed portraits, but there’s nothing forced about her work. Her subjects are invitations into a hyperreal dream state. May creates beautiful works of emotion and dives into the depths of silent spaces of captivating solace.
We’re excited she’s part of our interview series. Thank you May.
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A PHOTOGRAPHER?
It started back my senior year of High School when I took a Digital Photography class. It allowed me to express myself in a way that I felt like I couldn’t through writing. I was always interested in poetry but was never good at writing and photography was a better outlet for me to explore how I viewed the world in what I knew.
WHERE IS HOME FOR YOU AND WHERE DO YOU WORK?
I’m currently based in Seattle, WA and I work as a Studio Operations Assistant and Prep stylist for Amazon. I’ve been here in Seattle for a little over three years now and I’m really happy where it has taken me. Though it’s been a slow progress, I’ve managed to meet a handful of talented individuals here and to have their support in my work as a photographer is another reason that keeps me going.
DOES YOUR LOCATION INFLUENCE YOUR WORK IN ANY WAY?
The gloomy weather here never fails to inspire me.
People can get tired of it or not find it inspiring at all but there is something about the weighted sky, like a heavy sheet; the atmosphere easily becomes a mood that instantly sparks new ideas for me. Perhaps it is because I’m naturally drawn to quieter, still and isolated moments which I feel like is a constant theme in my work.
DO YOU HAVE A DESIGNATED WORKSPACE OR OFFICE? Do you have an image of it to share with us?
I usually just work from a shared desktop that my husband and I share which is stationed in our living room area. I do most of my work on there now because it’s easier than on my laptop, which has become a little more difficult to edit photos comfortably. I unfortunately don’t have a photo on hand to share!
DO YOU FEEL THERE WAS A TURNING POINT, MONUMENTAL TIME, OR SERIES OF EVENTS IN YOUR LIFE WHERE YOU FELT AS THOUGH YOU WERE ON THE RIGHT PATH IN REGARDS TO YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER THAT BROUGHT YOU TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
There definitely was a turning point in my life that made me really think about my work and how I was able to push my creative energy to create the work that I do now, Narrative Portraiture, and have it be what I’m passionate about. Heavily inspired by the incredibly talented photographer, Gregory Crewdson, I started to do cinematic-styled images back in 2012 and it wasn’t about until a year later I was receiving comments about my work; “This series looks like stills from a movie!” or “Very cinematic.” It was then that I knew I was heading the right direction.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE VIA A SERIES OF PHOTOS THAT YOU FEEL DEFINE THE WORK YOU’VE DONE IN THE LAST YEAR AND WHERE POSSIBLE DESCRIBE WHY EACH ONE WAS INCLUDED?
If I had to describe my style, it would be Narrative Storytelling/Portraiture (cinematography-inspired). In these particular sets of images that I chose, they represent the true essence of moments that holds more than just stories; ones that pulls at the lingering thoughts of the protagonists in the photographs. Each set carries it’s own weight and yet holds it’s own while standing alone. My vision is to create these pieces that not only work as a set, but to instantly tell a story through the imagery itself. These sets have easily become my favorite work that I’ve created that showcases what I’m passionate about, continuously inspired by and most importantly, how much I’ve grown during this photographic journey of mine.
WHAT INSPIRES AND MOTIVATES YOU TO CREATE?
What truly inspires me is light. The way it bends, radiates and how it fills anenvironment and creating a moment in which it only lasts for so long. That’s the beauty in light that inspires me always. Aside from that, anything from the 1920s-1940s, films based on that time period and any film scores done by Alexandre Desplat, Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, and Ólafur Arnalds.
DO YOU DO ANY CREATIVE TRAINING OUTSIDE OF YOUR WORK?
I work a 9-5 job so there isn’t much time for me to do any creative training, unfortunately, but I would like to change that in the near future.
WHEN YOU GET STUCK CREATIVELY, WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU DO TO GET UNSTUCK?
I listen to film scores. It really helps transports me into a creative space and someplace else completely.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN A PIECE OF YOUR WORK IS FINISHED AND NEEDS NO ADDITIONAL WORK?
There are specific details in my work that make the image for me, so if I’ve covered those details, more than likely, I know that I’ve finished.
ARE THERE ANY KEY LESSONS IN YOUR CAREER THAT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE? OR IS THERE A BEST PIECE OF CAREER ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
I’d say my advice would be, “Always stay true to yourself and your work no matter what.” I’ve learned early on as a creative that directors or companies only want to see what they want to see and not necessarily something different and holds true. It’s always about what is in, the trends, and what it is to make money out of our work.
But the drive for me was never the money or being another cookie cutter artist. It was about allowing myself to create work that would make people see photographs differently – to stop and soak in a series of fragmented moments that tell a story.
Creating stories not only for others but for myself – that to me is the most rewarding part of it. I didn’t allow others to change that for me and by that, it helped push me to keep striving forward in creating the work that I do.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE A PHOTOGRAPH BURNED IN YOUR MEMORY THAT YOU NEVER TOOK BUT WISH YOU HAD?
I would describe it but I’m determined that I will be able to create it one day and hope to share it sometime! *crossing my fingers*
we hope so too!
CAN YOU SHARE ONE CREATIVE TIP THAT YOU USE WHEN YOU ARE WORKING?
One creative tip that I always keep in mind when I’m working is to get everything I need to get in my shot, all on camera.
From the colors, any props that I need, composition and being able to direct my subject to get the most out of the story I’m trying to create. Being able to set up for your photographs truly makes editing more minimal and cuts your time in half.
CAN YOU SHARE AN IMAGE THAT YOU’RE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF AND TELL US WHY?
An image that I’m proud to share is this one from my short series called, “There Is No Place Like Home”. This series was shot in the Midwest during a Summer road trip with my friends back in 2015 (who also happen to be photographers – Kyle Thompson, who is in this photograph, Natalie Kucken, Brendon Burton, Gabriel Turek and my husband, Benjamin).
There is something about this image that just struck me because it’s so rich in warm orange tones yet there is this subtle cool tone that balances it out just perfectly. I remember standing in front of this car and I just knew I had to photograph it because the vehicle itself had a story broken into it. I wanted to create something different utilizing my environment and adding a bit of my own vision to it. The end results turned out exactly how I had envisioned it to be and it easily became one of my favorite photographs I’ve ever created.
WHAT ARE THE 3 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS IN YOUR LIFE?
My family (including my husband and three pets and my immediate family), art and music.
Do you work in any other fields of business?
I only do photography work but aside from that, I occasionally do illustration work for friends and clients.
CAN YOU SHARE with us A BIT ABOUT YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE / ROUTINES?
My daily routine consists of waking up, feeding my Corgi pup, heading to work from 9-5, come home, have dinner and catch up on what’s going on via social media. If I have any extra free time, I’d like to go somewhere with my husband and relax and by relaxing, I mean eating tacos or burgers haha. If I do have photo work to do, I usually edit later in the evenings, that’s when my brain is most creative and experimenting is always the best during that time. Nothing too fancy
or over the top, just normal days.
WHAT WITHIN YOUR WORK DO YOU NOT LIKE TO DO AND WHY?
When it comes to my photography work, it usually doesn’t get in the way of my everyday life because my husband usually helps assist me with my work. But I do wish that I had better work/life balance. There is never enough time in the day to do what I’d actually like to do because of work. For example, heading out to scope out locations/props for a photo shoot in mind or meeting with other creatives to collaborate. It’s always hard to gauge what other people’s schedules are like because more than likely, it never lines up.
WHICH PERSON DO YOU RESPECT MOST IN YOUR LIFE?
It’s hard to say that there is only one person I respect most in my life because there are way too many to list but if I had to name a one right now, it’d be my father, Zateng. There are no words to describe how grateful I am for his strength, courage, and fight to be here in this world. Without a doubt, he is the strongest person I know.
WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST / MOST PAINFUL CREATIVE FAILURE TO DEAL WITH AND WHAT DID IT TEACH YOU?
It would be me not being able to achieve my vision through the resources I have. It’s absolutely frustrating because I sometimes get fixated on how the end/finalized images will look like and it causes me to hit a wall creatively. But from having had this experience, it’s taught me to really push my limit with what I have and look for new outlets to create something else that will still embody that same atmosphere/mood/story I’m trying to portray through my photographs.
WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING (OR HOPE TO BE DOING) 5/10 YEARS FROM NOW?
I hope to still be doing my photography work along with doing cinematography work with a film company – working with Focus Features would be incredible.
It is my dream to be a cinematographer for Tom Hooper. His films are absolutely stunning and holds so much richness in his direction.
It would be phenomenal to work on a film such as “The King’s Speech” and “The Danish Girl” for which are both directed by Tom Hooper himself.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
ARE THERE ANY MANTRAS THAT YOU LIVE BY?
It definitely would be
“Everything will be alright.”
It helped shape me through one of the hardest times in my life and has carried me through where I am today.
IF YOU WERE NO LONGER ABLE TO USE A CAMERA, HOW ELSE WOULD YOU EXPRESS YOUR CREATIVITY?
I would definitely go into my illustrative route and find a way to do it through there.
AND IF YOU ONLY HAD 24 HOURS TO LIVE, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND YOUR DAY?
I would go on a drive with my husband and our dog to the coast and spend a few hours there. I then would call my family and tell them how much I love them and mean to me. And last but not least, I would go to the hilltop where my husband proposed to me and end my day there.
HAVE YOU EVER DOUBTED YOUR TALENT? AND IF SO, HOW DID YOU WORK THROUGH YOUR DOUBT?
There have been many times where I have doubted my work and mainly because I wasn’t putting out enough work to get creative critique. I wasn’t getting enough of a response even if I was happy with my own work. I needed feedback to let me know that I was still headed in the right direction.
But over time, I realized that putting more time and thought into my work rather than sharing photos every day just to share, meant more to me.
It allowed me to have a better process in gathering what I needed for my ideas, whether it be sketching, creating a mood board, and or gathering the right props, etc.
Giving myself more time to work on a set or series made me appreciate the gaps in when I wasn’t sharing enough finished photo work. That’s how I was able to work through my doubt.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE ASPECT OF OUR SOCIETY THROUGH YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
It would be to remind others to look in between what is already there right in front of them and find the beauty in what breaks us, moves us and changes us.
There is nothing more profound than experiencing a moment that is absolutely yours and letting it grow through you and to others in your life.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
Fav Music // Share a (Spotify) playlist
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Brief Encounters (Series by Gregory Crewdson)
Favourite book // A book you are currently reading?
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (currently reading)
A website you regularly follow?
I don’t have one in particular.
Last place you travelled?
Yellowstone National Park
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
“Do not despise your inner world. That is the first and most general piece of advice I would offer. Our society is very outward-looking, very taken up with the latest new object, the latest piece of gossip, the latest opportunity for self-assertion and status. But we all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.
As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about. Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them. […] People don’t know how to deal with their own emotions, or to communicate them to others. When they are frightened, they don’t know how to say it, or even to become fully aware of it. Often they turn their own fear into aggression. Often, too, this lack of a rich inner life catapults them into depression in later life. We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.
What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self-love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art, music — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world.
So my second piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself, and enhanced possibilities of real communication with others.”
-Martha Craven Nussbaum
Coconut Milk Boba Tea
Favourite TED talk:
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
Your favourite photography book?
I don’t have one at the moment.
A creative you’d love to see interviewed on ARC?
THANK YOU FOR SHARING WITH US, MAY!
You can see more of May’s work here // Web
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