Photographer Leo Xander Foo on transforming moments of dysphoria in to artistic euphoria
“When I create a great photo, I just feel such an intensely positive emotion firing up within me,” says Leo. “I think it’s true love. Or, it’s an addiction.”
- Joey Levenson
- 6 September 2021
“What really allowed me to start taking pictures was when I got my first photographic device at eight years old: a generation 1 iPod touch,” says New York-based photographer Leo Xander Foo. “Consequently, growing up on Instagram made me truly obsessed with consuming photos.” It’s a fitting beginning for the young and vastly talented photographer, who now amasses their own sizable following across social media – which surely influences those just like a young Leo many years ago. Leo’s sharp eye for colour, form, and queer subjectivities details everything from candid moments to Calvin Klein Pride campaigns, to elegant and emotional self-portraits. It’s no wonder that Leo’s popularity in the always-busy photography scene of New York continues to grow. “It wasn’t until I was about 11 years old that I realised what photography is and that being a photographer could be a career for me, and I have to thank people like [photographer] Connor Franta for that realisation,” Leo tells It’s Nice That. “Seeing his work was when I actively began trying to formulate a consistent colour scheme and style.”
Colour grading is one of the specific noticeable elements in Leo’s work. Whilst his portrait subjects are oft-vibrant and mesmerising on their own, there is no denying that they gain a new life by the careful detail of Leo’s post-production. “Colour is so important to me, mostly because of the way it makes me feel and the emotions that it provokes,” he explains. “My colour grading is very intuitive, but it is a conscious decision for me to listen to my intuition.” It’s a practice that Leo says “defines at least half of what my craft is,” and is often done without much pre-planning or prior thought. “My art is a projection of what I strive for in life and I strive for euphoria, so that’s what the colours of my photos are giving.” The chasing of euphoria, especially in the realms of marginal queerness, is what propels Leo one step further than a photographer – into a well-rounded, captivating artist that transcends their portfolio.
When asked about his creative processes Leo finds it hard to pin down just one, but it’s an easy indecisive nature to possess when so talented across the field. “My creative process is vastly different depending on what exactly I’m creating and what my intentions are, though, I think my most beautiful process is that of my self-portraiture,” he tells us. “It’s total improvisation, a total stream of consciousness.” A vague idea can turn into something wonderful, or on the flip side it can turn into something completely wrong, and the photo finishes as completely different to the original intention. “Ideas for my self-portraits usually start from me being dysphoric,” Leo says, referring to his transmasculine non-binary identity. “I deal with my gender dysphoria by making beautiful art out of myself because I want to admire and appreciate my body like art, so I turn it into art, and that helps me remember that I am art and that my body is my medium of expression.” Specifically in his photo, I Look Good, Leo references the beauty of its simplicity. “It’s hard for me, as a trans person who deals with dysphoria and dissociation almost constantly, to merely be okay with the way my body looks, so I put on makeup and coated myself in coconut oil and got in front of the camera because I was tired of feeling bad about myself,” Leo explains. “And it worked, I look so good.”
Leo’s commitment to transforming the painful into the beautiful has not only piqued the interest of followers on social media. Recently, Calvin Klein tapped Leo for an exciting collaboration. “While so many brands seem to pick up queer causes in June and drop them in July, it’s heartwarming to see a brand as massive as Calvin Klein continue to put in the hard work,” Leo says on the fashion label reaching out to him for their new Moments of Pride event in New York. Photographing the event with the likes of Aquaria, Symone, Kandy Muse, the Haus of Tisci, and Rowan Blanchard in attendance, was an incredible career-boosting moment for Leo. “I have to give major thanks to my assistant and manager Zak Krevitt for all the guidance he gave me throughout the day, as well as a huge thank you to the entire Calvin team for working together so harmoniously.” As if not enough for a young photographer in New York, Leo was also hired to document the Brooklyn Liberation March for Trans Youth for Vogue. “Energies like that are my favourite spaces to work in,” Leo says. “I hope for there to be more trans and queer events where I can capture people like me and indulge in the experience of being together and making art out of that.”
All this, and Leo is only just 18. “I’m ready to take on the world, and some may think I’m over my head, but I know I’m going to be a star,” Leo declares. “Perhaps I already am.” He’s just started studying at the School of Visual Arts, majoring in Photo and Video and is beginning his medical transitioning journey by starting his hormone replacement therapy. There’s a lot to come for Leo, both in his personal, professional and academic life, but we’re confident a star as bright as his will continue to shine. “I’m so excited to capture my body’s development throughout this medical transition, because I have so many ideas that I want to capture already,” he tells us. “The goal of being so comfortable with myself that I can create any form of art out of me is ultimately what I hope for.”
Leo Xander Foo: I Look Good (Copyright © Leo Xander Foo, 2021)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.