Arabelle Zhuang fell in love with taking pictures while working in Hawaii. Since moving to the UK to study photography, the Falmouth graduate has built up an impressive body of portraits and documentary projects exploring gender, race and identity. There’s a strong narrative element to her work, with images built around real and imagined scenarios, and a sense of warmth and intimacy. Here, the photographer speaks to CR about her photographic inspirations, creating stories and getting to know her subjects.
Creative Review: How did you get into photography? And what sparked your interest in it?
Arabelle Zhuang: I really found photography by chance. I was studying a Mass Communication Diploma back in Singapore and visual content was all around me. I worked on marketing briefs, events management, graphic design and all things media. In my final year of my Diploma, I landed a six-month internship in Honolulu, Hawaii and brought my DSLR with me on the trip and just documented my time there. It was my time in Hawaii where I nurtured my passion for photography, documenting mostly landscape and what I got up to. And it was my time at Falmouth where I started to have more consideration for my work and eventually found my voice as a photographer.
CR: Why did you decide to study at Falmouth?
AZ: Having never been to the UK before, I did some research before applying and saw that Falmouth had a good photography faculty. I was interested in documentary and press work which was perfect because Falmouth had niche photography courses, including Press & Editorial Photography, which fitted the bill perfectly. The Institute of Photography also boasts to have one of the best photography facilities and resources. Plus, it is by the sea – it can’t get any better than that!
CR: Tell us about your work – are there particular themes that you’re drawn to or ideas you’re interested in exploring in your work?
AZ: People and their stories are really the main sources of inspiration for my work. During my second year at Falmouth, I worked on bodies of work that celebrated diversity within race and gender, with projects like Spectrum and No Boundaries. I was really interested to find out more about different cultures and backgrounds – I would spend more time speaking to my subjects than actually photographing them.
During my final year, I found what I really loved to do, which is creating fictional narratives and building a story through imagery. I’ve always enjoyed doing documentary and fashion photography and working in a context of a fictional narrative allowed me to weave both genres together – an example being how Reverie allowed me to touch on the subject of womanhood and the challenges one faces growing up in this day and age.
CR: Why did you decide to focus on portrait and documentary photography?
AZ: I love getting to know people from all walks of life and portraiture gives me the platform to do that. Before shooting my subjects, I will usually spend some time getting to know them. Through this little space of time where I get to know them and make them feel comfortable, I’m able to get them to portray a certain part of themselves to me and to capture the nuances that make the image. The universality of documentary photography is what I love about the genre. I’m interested in social issues – giving [people] a platform to have their voices heard.
CR: What are you working on now that you’ve graduated?
AZ: I’m currently shooting personal projects and also doing freelance work, shooting commercial work for various companies. I’m also working on the second book for A Girl Away From Home, an all-female Asian creative platform [set up by Zhuang] to showcase work from all over the world. I curate work from female asian creatives and come up with a narrative, weaving photography, graphics and writing, exploring themes such as belonging and identity. Other than that, I’m just making sure I don’t stop creating.
CR: What would you love to do next – and what would be your dream project?
AZ: My next project will probably see me doing a social documentary series in Singapore, surrounding my family and my relationship with them – something that I’ve struggled with for a long time. I would also love to just continue my work in fashion and portraiture. Perhaps another long-form fictional narrative. I would also love to set up a social organisation where I teach the elderly photography and the beauty of storytelling and let them tell their own story.
CR: Is there anyone or anything that has been a particular source of inspiration to you or a major influence on your work?
AZ: Gregory Crewdson’s use of lighting and larger-than-life scenes has been a major influence in my narrative work. He has the ability to tell an entire story in just one still…. He was one of the photographers that informed my practice, pushing me to explore non fiction and creating stories of my own. James Perolls is a great fashion photographer who also creates scenarios in his work – I admire how he is always able to capture this sense of wonder and playfulness in his imagery.
Carlota Guerrero [for] the way she places her models creates so much depth in her work – she is so good at empowering her subjects and speaking up about woman’s rights. Her photos are also incredibly ethereal and soft. Leslie Zhang is also another photographer whom I love – he is a commercial photographer with such a strong, contemporary eastern style.
CR: What was the best piece of advice you received at university?
AZ: Stepping outside your comfort zone is one of the most cliché pieces of advice but it’s really true. University is the only time in your life where you can try whatever you want, suck at it and fail without any real consequences.
CR: How are you feeling about leaving uni and embarking on your professional career? And how do you feel your time at Falmouth helped you prepare for this?
AZ: Definitely excited yet a little intimidated. I’m excited for what’s to come and to see where I’ll be in the next few years. I want to be making work that is purposeful and fulfilling.
Falmouth has definitely prepared me for the industry, especially while being a photographer with MAYN Creative (a photo and video agency at Falmouth University), working on various briefs.