Growing up with her grandma in Singapore and her parents working in Hong Kong, photographer Nicole Ngai was a child of two international cities. It wasn’t until three years ago that she moved to London to study at university, having become lured in by the city’s creativity and freedom of expression. “I was very frustrated in Singapore – it’s a country with many strictly controlled rules and boundaries,” Nicole tells It’s Nice That. “Individualism is frowned upon, so it was a constant battle to justify myself and my work.”
“London’s very much more accepting and open,” she continues, “and I have definitely been able to explore and grow so much while living here.” Since traversing overseas, Nicole has, indeed, explored her medium and developed a distinctive style that rings with intimacy, intriguing models and soft tones. Alongside her personal projects – which mostly includes shoots with friends or people she knows – Nicole’s portfolio is littered with big names and industry giants, such as Art School, Charles Jeffrey, Shawna Wu, British Vogue, i-D, Dazed Digital, Vogue Italia, Metal Magazine, Sukeban, Polyester among others.
Nicole’s artist flare is something that’s perfectly persisted since childhood. “I knew I wanted to be an artist from a really young age, so I was always drawing and painting,” she says. “I naturally have a very analytical disposition, so I had the tendency to overthink and overwork my paintings.” Leaving less time to consider (and over analyse) each brush stroke, she turned towards photography for its quick dynamism. “I picked up photography in my late teens and felt that the comparatively instantaneous nature of the medium suited me much better.”
More recently, Nicole published Threads, a publication that explores the complex relationships formed between a photographer and the subject, “presenting a range of intimate photographic exchanges amongst friends”. From the project’s collaborative process, she strives to tackle the politics of self-representation under post-colonial culture. “Photography itself is quite inherently sensual – lots of (un)conscious performing and gazing taking place. Image making was traditionally controlled by the male gaze, which led to a skewed power dynamic between the photographer and the model,” she explains. “While working on Threads, I wanted to approach the process with empathy and level the photographic exchange to more of a collaborative dialogue, a mutual exchanging of energy to materialise this kinship.”
Each shot is as amorous as the next, where each model poses for her camera with utmost sincerity. Fuelled by flawless casting, Nicole tends to navigate – or is attracted to – “unique and special individuals”. It’s a vital part of the process behind the creation of Threads; many of the subjects features are her friends or favourite models, as “having an affinity” with the models is of great importance to the photographer. “This is most apparent with my pictures of my flatmate Wenchu, or rather, our pictures collaboratively,” she says. “As we are so familiar with each other, to the point where we often communicate without words, the images become a documentation of the shared consciousness we in habit.”
Rather than explicitly focusing her lens on the notion of femininity, Nicole explains that it’s more about a “delicate and tender gaze”, used predominantly to express a fluid representation of gender. “Actually,” she adds, “I feel that there has been much progression with this generation of image makers pushing the dialogue regarding the representations of East Asian women. While this is a conversation that must be constantly reminded and refreshed, recently I have been wondering: ‘how do we move forward from rehashing the same theories?’”
With this in mind, and acknowledging that she is yet to behold the answer, Nicole admits that her work is her own personal leverage to decipher this. “I feel like my exploration into intimacy has helped me greatly in portraying subjects with truthfulness and honesty.”
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