Michelle Watt’s surrealist imagery tells complex and delicate stories of the Asian-American experience

The fashion and portrait photographer has carved an identifiable narrative-driven style over the years. Below, she tells us more about her influences.

Date
25 April 2022

Rock climbing and photography have an unexpected similarity. If you were to give up mid-way while ascending a cliff, for example, then you’ll fall off. You have to keep going and work hard – which is very much the case for those in the creative industry.

Michelle Watt, a photographer who moved to New York at the age of 17, cites this as a metaphor for her own journey. When she first moved to the city, she bartended at a jazz club and took portraits of musicians. “I was fascinated with all the personalities and outcasts that gathered down there,” she says. “For someone who grew up as an outsider, I felt right at home.” After graduating, she assisted for eight years and mastered the techniques of the field. She also learned how to rock climb, “which taught me a thing or two about persistence.” This encouraged the budding photographer to start shooting professionally, building an expansive and unique portfolio along the way.

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Michelle Watt: Presence (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

Typically, 90 per cent of her working days are spent doing admin – the menial yet important tasks of emailing, marketing and pitching. “However,” she continues, “the remaining 10 per cent is creation which makes it all worth it.” While working on a project, Michelle begins the process by gathering imagery in order to formulate her ideas, the visuals that make her “skin tingle”. She adds: “It’s a bit like free-form writing; writing to figure something out, writing to give shape to something amorphous. Sometimes it’s from films, other times it’s from passages in novels, and almost always I include photographs.” Once this part of the process is underway, that's when a theme tends to form and the question of “why am I drawn to this” gets answered. Michelle will usually only work on something with an “emotional energy”, something she relates to personally and is better off speaking about through pictures rather than words.

Influenced greatly by the referential, Michelle’s style therefore has an allusive and cinematic feel about it. She centres her ideas around all aspects of the production – from the set design to the costume, hair, makeup and casting – in order to tell stories. The Wait, for instance, is a fashion series inspired by Atelier Aveus’ furniture collection of the same name, a practice founded by French architect and designer Morgan Roux-Lafargue. Contemplative and dreamy, Michelle’s project follows a young woman who is displaced in a surreal waiting room while travelling. She’s alone, captured in an idle sit or strangely resting her head on the arm a chair. Morning Scene, an image from the series, is one that Michelle deems as “both loud and silent”. She says, "Subtle and understated, it delivers impact in a quiet way. I’m tickled by photographs that do this. I love playing with the visual volume.”

Michelle has mastered this balance of quietness and stillness, all the while making imagery that’s “so loud it is deafening” – “like something that is so hot that it feels cold”. It’s the theatrical layers of set design, props and colour which give her work an unmissable depth, not to mention her drive to share personal narratives, especially those of her experiences as an Asian American women. “My photographs are often my way of working through past traumas,” she explains. “By deconstructing and recreating them in a surreal setting, conflating the awesome and awful, the beautiful and ugly, the horror become seemingly more digestible or even relatable.”

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Michelle Watt: The Wait, Morning Scene (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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Michelle Watt: Renaissance, Oliver Wyman (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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Michelle Watt: Presence (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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Michelle Watt: The Wait (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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Michelle Watt: Fish Food (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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Michelle Watt: Fish Food (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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Michelle Watt: Fish Food (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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Michelle Watt: Renaissance, Oliver Wyman (Copyright © Michelle Watt, 2022)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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