Standing before a nightclub with dazzling neon lights, her rusty golden locks blew gently in the wind as she took a heavy drag from her cigarette. In a figure-hugging dress and black strappy heels, Shauna strutted flawlessly from the red light district of Siem Reap to her apartment.
In the bathroom, she tugs gently at her hair, removing her curls before running water across her face. Looking up, she could barely recognise the man in the mirror. This is the story of Sean Lee, the man behind ladyboy Shauna, in Cambodia.
Sitting across the man with young, boyish looks, we could hardly tell the similarities between Sean and Shauna. It might have been the blonde wig but hey, never underestimate the power of make-up.
All in all, journey of thirty-one year old Singaporean photographer Sean Lee hasn’t been easy.
Starting out as an assignment, Shauna soon developed into an immersive photography project where Sean takes on the persona of a ladyboy.
Just to be clear, by “taking on the persona of a ladyboy”, we mean dressing, behaving and living within Siem Reap’s red light district. Effort gao gao.
As we sat down with Sean himself, we find out how his photography journey began, the inspiration behind Shauna, and what it was like becoming a Singaporean ladyboy in Siem Reap.
1. So Sean, what first made you first pick up the camera?
Oh, I’ve always had an interest in photography. Though it was after I’d graduated from junior college when my Literature teacher, who knew about my interest, introduced me to it.
Working his way up from a photographer’s assistant, Sean has, over the years, built an impressive list of clientele including DBS and Singapore Airlines where his works have been featured in several exhibitions, notably the Saatchi Gallery and Les Recontres d’Arles.
2. What do you think is the main challenge of being a professional photographer?
As a freelance photographer, I’d say the inconsistency of the jobs. You know, having no clue as to where your next job will come from. This really got to me when I was younger.
3. Let’s talk a little about Shauna. What’s the story behind the project?
I was 22 and was attending the Angkor Photo Festival when we were told to come up with our own projects.
I did try taking on different personas such as a tuk tuk driver and construction worker but they just didn’t work. So I eventually got around to Shauna and settled on a ladyboy persona.
I started with this really cheap wig and borrowed clothes from my lady friends, who also taught me to put on my make up.
It started out as a week-long assignment but I ended up spending two years flying back and forth Cambodia to complete the project. During the process, I took on professional make-up lessons and learnt how to strut in stilettos!
4. What was it like, being Shauna?
Here’s the funny thing. Whenever I look back at her photos, it’s like looking at a complete stranger (even though that person is me).
Taking on her persona wasn’t easy, because some days you just don’t feel committed, but other days you are completely into character. It’s crazy.
5. Your photos of Shauna are amazing. Did you have any help in taking them?
Well most of them I took with tripods and self-timers, though I did have a friend of mine who would help me in taking some of the shots.
It was great to have him around because you know, sometimes I’d need him to explain to patrons that we’re dong photography project.
6. What would be your main takeaway from Shauna?
Life is very different in the red light district of Siem Reap. Many of them don’t have a choice, but some of them are honestly looking for love.
I’ve actually bumped into one of the working girls a couple of years later, who told me about her marriage and new life abroad. I’m really happy for them.
7. So what have you been up to lately? Tell us a little more!
Something I’m currently working on is Young Love. It’s a photography project consisting of pairs of students, something I’m doing as a part-time photography teacher.
Looking at my students made me reflect on my youth and the friends that I used to hang out with, partied with, fallen in love with.
Through this project, I hope to really capture the essence and innocence of youth, to document this precious stage of life that we all come to miss.
8. Lastly, any advice for budding photographers?
Never. Stop. Working. Assist as much as you can, because that’s where you learn the essential skills to photography. Never forget to work on projects that are close to your heart, to pursue projects that you’re interested in, where you’re not in it just for the money.
If this isn’t dedication, we don’t know what is.
For those how are interested, Shauna now comes in a photobook and is available here. More of Sean’s works are on his website and Instagram.
Header image credit: Sean Lee
Also, read The Perfect Shot – DarylAiden’s Photography Journey & DreaChong