Michelle Watt adopts a surreal tone for her fashion photography

Fashion and portrait photographer Michelle Watt says she initially pursued a career in the industry to gain access to people and places she admired. “I think I was seeking a kind of affirmation and photography was a vehicle for that,” she says. “In diligently doing so, I got good at it. I also found some pictures that moved me in a way that no other artwork could. So when I finally found out that I had something to say, photography was the only way I could say it.” 

For Watt, photography now feels like a lifeline for her and it’s become an integral part of her life. “Within [my] pictures, I can build worlds exploring subjects that spring both wonder and torment, awesome and awful, all while feeling safe,” she explains. “By assembling tiny details into larger pictures, I can make meaningful the smallest, most overlooked pieces in the grand and messy scheme of things. It allows me a sense of control amidst the chaos of real life.”

All images Michelle Watt

Watt’s style is slick and stylised, offset by a sense of whimsy and fantastical elements, with added tension as well. “I want to highlight and embrace our flaws and what makes us human, both the beauty and the shame, without giving in too much to judgment,” she says.

“Oftentimes, this is related to my experience being repressed as a Chinese American woman, so many of the themes in my work touch on freedom and restriction in regards to cultural and sexual identity.”

By depicting subjects and scenes in a surreal way, Watt believes it allows her to be more effective in expressing these more complex and personal ideas and emotions, as opposed to being literal. In placing unexpected objects next to each other, her thoughts are alluded to in a way that creates an intimate understanding between herself and the viewer.

As well as personal projects, Watt also works on an array of editorial and commercial commissions, which have seen her join forces with the New York Times, Vogue Italia, North Face, LG, and Cadillac. “My favourite aspect of working on commissions is the collaboration. You are working in pursuit of something that is bigger than each of you, and that kind of connection is exhilarating,” Watt says. “It’s like you’re building a house together, and they’re in charge of structure and foundation, and you’ve been asked to step in and decorate. Or vice versa. Either way, when you’re done building the house, you guys get to have a party inside it until dawn.”  

Collaboration is a key part of the photographer’s practice and she believes it’s the “most important tool and resource in this industry”. “I am nothing without my collaborators,” she says. “I am only as great as my subjects and those artists (models, stylists, set designers, producers, makeup and hair artists, etc) that help make the pictures come to life.” Watt says one of her main challenges though can be finding that team of people or even a commissioner who’s  willing to take on the scale of her ideas.

“It seems that the industry is more invested now in churning out the simpler, more earnest kinds of pictures currently flooding the market. They are aiming less for fantasy and more for realism (or what Getty Images is calling ‘conceptual realism’),” Watt explains. “Their focus is on tackling uncomfortable realities of our current social, political and environmental climate, in a gentle yet grounded way. They want to coax, soothe, empower.” 

Watt also believes that through the unrelenting scroll of images on social media, the industry is seeking quantity, and therefore losing quality. “But the industry operates in cycles, so I’m hopeful it will return to a place where whimsy and play are revered again, where storytelling can involve a feast of multi-layered, fantastical, rambunctious details, even in tackling simple, serious subjects,” Watt says. 

“The industry will realise the quality they put out will trump the quantity that is currently making their audience numb. Suffice it to say, in little folds and crevices around the world, in the seedy underbelly of Instagram and Behance, I’ve discovered many artists colluding to bring back the play, thirsty to reimagine their craft, to try on new identities, to embolden their alter egos, to realise dreams beyond the realm of realism. I’m totally ready for this, let’s go!”