Fashion photographer Joyce Ng on blending fiction and documentary

Photographer Joyce Ng speaks to Art Director Gem Fletcher on growing up between China, Canada and the UK and how this transience has influenced her work

Joyce Ng spent her youth in the multitude of malls in her native China. “Growing up in Hong Kong was synonymous with growing up in a giant mall,” she says. “Every residential or office building, market, school, bus or train system and bridge is attached to a mall. Malls are a comfort zone for me.”

Ng describes her upbringing as ‘nomadic’, moving between Hong Kong and Canada as Hong Kong was handed back to China. She moved homes every few years, alternating between Chinese language schools and English language schools four times before moving to London aged 17.

Her journey to photography was far from straightforward, with Ng sidestepping fashion, production and art direction before her friend and classmate Hanna Moon encouraged her to pick up a camera and guided her in how to use it.

Editorial work for Modern Weekly Style
From English as a Second Language, Joyce Ng’s show with Hannah Moon at Somerset House in London

Ng’s transient life has deeply informed her practice: “I grew up in the fourth most densely populated country in the world. I’m an introvert and I love to focus my energy on observing others. I was never short of interesting faces,” she explains. Street casting is fundamental to her approach and she thrives on the foreignness of working with someone fresh and unfamiliar. Visually, she builds on this idea with elements of set design which heighten the tension between the real and the unknown, often pairing unusual sculptural forms and everyday environments.

Ng recently reunited with Moon for English as a Second Language, an exhibition at Somerset House which explores their take on Western conceptions of beauty and what it feels like to be ‘lost in translation’. For Ng, the show brings together the ideas and ethos at the core of her practice. Loosely informed by the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West [which follows the pilgrimage of a Buddhist monk and his disciples], Ng set out to bring her spirit to Somerset House, using the venue as the location for new work created for the show. She paralleled Journey to the West by bringing together a group of unrelated characters, all visitors and residents to Somerset House who were cast over a period of six weeks. Her cast “travels through each image in their own means of transport”. The last image of the series is the most recognisable link to the novel, a take on the Mountain of Five Fingers.

From the series Seven Sisters Housed
From English as a Second Language

Ng is part of the new guard of fashion photographers, blending documentary and fiction to create dynamic new worlds which explore the apex of beauty, clothing and culture. “People in Hong Kong look at me, thinking of me as a ‘gui mui’, which means white girl. I’ve lived in London for ten years, but I still don’t feel like I completely belong here. I guess this feeling keeps me on my feet and never 100% satisfied,” she says.

@joyceszengGem Fletcher is a photographic and film art director. Her Exposure column on new photography appears monthly in CR, in print and online;, @gemfletcher