Simon McCheung’s work straddles the worlds of fine art, gaming and advertising. He has worked as a User Experience Designer within the advertising and gaming industry for over a decade, including stints with Rocksteady/Warner Bros, EA and Microsoft, as well as Sony PlayStation, with whom he is currently collaborating on an interactive narrative game.
Where McCheung’s commercial work meets his fine art photography is in its cinematic quality, plus an ability to connect with his audience and convey a simple yet provocative narrative with clear visual elements.
“When it comes to user interaction, I explore different avenues utilising cinematic visuals that feel impactful and exciting for the user without sacrificing immersion,” he explains. “This is very much the way I implement set piece elements into my photography which are both surreal and believable. Additionally, at Sony, I have the ability to exercise my animation knowledge into these visual elements to convey emotion and pacing which I don’t normally have the ability to explore deeply in still photography.”
He says that experimentation is key to his style: “Game design encourages bold ideas and that follows up with experimentation to execute those ideas into fruition,” he says. “When it comes to my personal work on narratives, I exercise the experimentation phase on paper with various set pieces that could symbolise parts of the narrative.
“I end up with a few variations to tell the same story and I continue the experimentation during the photo shoot phase with various different camera perspectives and set piece placements. Then finally I take the experimentation further into the post production phase, followed by iterations by placing objects that weren’t initially in the intended concept or completely changing the way the lighting was envisioned until I feel the desired image is complete.”
An example of this can be seen in his image Discovering Grace, which was shot in his parents’ village in Guangdong, China, and features toy planes and smoke bombs. McCheung explains: “The experimentation that happened during the shoot is when I realised I had a few spare smoke bombs in my bag from another photoshoot, which I felt could add something to my story. I fired these off in the area and captured this in various angles.
“The experimentation then continued in postproduction when playing with the various positions of the planes to get the right feeling of flight direction and pathway for a dog fight. The smoke that was spontaneously captured on set really added the element of drama to the scene which I spent countless hours composing.”
McCheung also explores self-portraiture, drawing influence from the traditionally formal style of an Asian family portrait, as well as unusual influences such as Pokémon and The Jungle Book which pair humans with their animal counterparts.
He also examines issues which dominate contemporary dialogue in his work, such as climate change, or more personal issues such as autism, a condition which his sister has lived with for the past 30 years. In his latest photographic series, titled Touched by the Abyss, he went to great lengths to orchestrate an image that he felt represented his sister’s experience of autism, covering his head and bare torso with an octopus for a self-portrait symbolising the sensation of human touch, which can be overwhelming for an autistic person.
He explains: “Usually holding hands and warm hugs serve as a welcoming way of expressing love and comforting support, however in the case of my sister, she would shrug away and express signs of anxiety and claustrophobia. In order to put the audience in the subject’s position, I used an octopus that was purchased from a fishmonger to create an image that would expressively create a cold and creepy feeling to the bare, naked skin.”
For his recent climate issue series, McCheung communicates his concerns about global warming through a surreal lens. His enduring commitment to an idea saw him travel to Iceland with a glass fish bowl, which he placed in the frame of his photographs as a metaphor for an “adventurous astronaut”. During his journey he spoke to locals who voiced their concerns about climate change and its impact on future generations.
McCheung says: “The climate change series is a ten-part image story depicting the journey of the astronaut landing on an alien planet and admiring the landscape through his glass helmet. As the journey continues on, the glass helmet cracks open and reveals the crumbling effects of climate change to the astronaut, thus waking him up to the truth that this is actually planet Earth.”
McCheung’s spellbinding photography is inventive and original, with each scenario painstakingly created to convey a narrative. This talented photographer seems to have an infinite number of tricks up his sleeve, and it will be fascinating to see what he does next.