“I hope that queer and POC folks feel excited by my work”: Justin J Wee on his evocative photography
Currently based in New York, the photographer lenses subjects ranging from Lorde to Ilana Glazer and drag queens “decked out” in luxury.
- Ayla Angelos
- 6 December 2021
Figuring out what you want to do as a career isn’t always easy. When Justin J Wee was at this point in his life, he decided to base his decisions on what he didn’t want to do. “I definitely identify as having a very non-linear career trajectory,” he tells It’s Nice That. Thankfully, though, he found photography. And when he’s not heading out on an inspirational run or working as a community chef in his current hometown of Brooklyn, he’ll be adding to his impressive portfolio made up of commissions and emotive personal works themed on queerness, identity and representation.
Justin is a Malaysian-born Australian who was raised in Beijing, Singapore and Malaysia before attending high school in Sydney. The son of first generation immigrants, growing up, he was deterred from pursuing anything creative coupled with the fact he had “effeminate tendencies as a kid”. He continues, “At the same time, I don’t identify as a particularly good student, so I think that one of the reasons why I’m a photographer now is because I first came into it as a hobby.” The other driving factor is that he was an “early adopter of Instagram”, meaning that, in the early days of the app, he participated in the weekly hashtag project named #WHP, where users posted their photos and those selected would be featured. Justin made self-portraits at the time and accompanied the photographs with long captions about his emotions; “I ended up connecting with a lot of people over my work”, he says. “It was the first time anyone had made me feel like I was actually good at something.”
A few years down the line in 2016, Justin moved to New York and, within one week, knew he wanted to stay despite being on a one-year working holiday visa. By turning photography into a career, Justin was resultantly introduced to the creative community by his two friends. It didn’t take long for Justin to start getting regular work. Nudging his foot in the door, he's now represented by Rocket Science.
A typical day for Justin is quite broad and varied. It involves coffee, to-do-lists, “being sweaty after riding my bike to the studio”, “getting sleepy after lunch” and then, of course, “feeling guilty” after not doing enough work. This is followed by immense productivity and “being late to something”, despite having enough time to get somewhere; he gets distracted by sweeping, wiping the surfaces, “getting stoned and dusting my film in Photoshop for an hour before realising that I’ve just been working on a zoomed-in corner of the frame.”
Either way, it’s a process that’s enabled him to produce a plethora of intimate and artful photographs to date. The photos at hand vary from studio shots – the type that’s carefully lit, staged and prop-heavy – to the more candid portrait or creative fashion editorial. In a recent commission, Justin was asked to photograph the comedian, director and producer Ilana Glazer for The New York Times who, at the time of shooting, was in the final stages of pregnancy and also doing the promotion for her horror film False Positive. Following a mother going through pregnancy, Justin says, “I really felt like this was a moment of beautiful evolution for her, standing on the brink of motherhood and also ushering us into a side of her craft that departs greatly from what we know her most for.” The image sees Ilana wrapped in a soft, transparent cloth as she reaches to the ceiling, positioned in a way that symbolises a birth or metamorphosis. Inspired by the docu-series Wild Wild Country, Justin draws a metamorphic parallel to how butterflies “wriggle and worm its way out” of a cocoon, with “the chrysalis really clinging on to its body,” he shares.
A few other highlights include two projects for The New York Times; one photographing a roundtable of Asian-American directors for The New York Times (this was all done virtually), and the other accompanying a piece by Kari Cobham that looks at chronic illness. Elsewhere, for Bloomberg Businessweek Gift Guide in 2020, Justin photographed “drag queens decked out in all the expensive and luxurious gifts in a sleep away camp-kinda setting”. And to top it off, he was more than excited to photograph Lorde for one of her albums. A long-term fan of her music, Justin referenced Lorde’s sound-to-colour synesthesia throughout the work, figuring out what colours she saw while making her album and building this into the set. “I really wanted her to come to set and understand how much work and nuance we had put into this,” he explains. “It also felt like a moment of arrival for me professionally.”
Justin is going from strength to strength, shooting with a style and subject matter that’s wholeheartedly his own. “I used to really hope that people would understand the concept behind all of my images but now I realise that the concept is just for me,” he says. “I hope that queer and POC folks feel excited by my work.”
Copyright © Justin J Wee, 2021
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.