Project

Oddball: Life of Transsexuals in Cambodia

While working on a workshop assignment, Sean Lee took on a role of a female and over the course of two years documented life of transsexuals in Cambodia.

Sean Lee, age 28

A photographer from Singapore. Recipient of the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu Award, nominated at Prix Découverte Arles Photography Festival. Draws inspiration from Ann Lamott, K.S. Louis, and Emmett Guvin.

Idea

The idea for my project Shauna was born when I was 22. Back then I attended a 7-day workshop at Angkor Photo Festival where for the finals each participant had to present a new series of photos. I contemplated for quite a while what to go with, and decided to start shooting self-portraits. I envisioned myself in various roles – from a tuk-tuk driver to a construction worker – and finally came up with a female alter ego named Shauna.

Shauna is not an occupation – which gave me plenty of space to explore my own inner world. Instead of searching for a subject I became one myself. I didn’t want the viewers to think about the concept behind the project, yet it was essential for a photograph to initiate a strong emotional response in them.

Some portraits were staged, I shot them using a self-shutter. But for the most part my friends were the ones who photographed me – they discreetly followed me around while snapping pictures of me. Thanks to that I felt like I was free to do what I pleased and was able to fully immerse myself into my character’s life.


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I chose people who had nothing to do with the business of photography to photograph me, in order to minimize professional interference with the process. Such approach has its drawbacks as the selection and editing takes up quite a bit of time, and the images of the most interesting situations might not turn out as good.

The transformation experience

For a short period of time I morphed into somebody else. My first night as Shauna brought out the strangest of feelings in me – everything seemed unfamiliar, even some basic movements. I felt as if I acquired an entirely new body.

Not sure why I felt uncomfortable in Singapore. Some people looked at me judgmentally, others refused to even walk into the same elevator with me. However, not all was bad – for instance, once some guy professed his love for Shauna. He seemingly had very serious intentions. The most difficult part was to have to remain in the role when I didn’t feel like it at all. As Shauna I practically didn’t speak – it was the important part of her character. She was just as real as she was deceptive. I loved the slight mystery of her image, even though it was also tiring at times.


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“alt”: “Sean Lee 12”
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“alt”: “Sean Lee 18”
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Once I got to meet another transsexual whose name was Marilyn. She liked me as Shauna, we socialized, some time later she offered me to spend a night together, but I refused. Upon my return to Singapore I sent her a letter with several pictures of her that I took for my Shauna project, yet I never heard anything back. In a couple of years I ran into her while in Cambodia. It turned out that she left the red light district, met a man who has been taking good care of her, and is now employed as a hairdresser. Her story has a happy ending, even though generally there are very few that do.

Extension of the project

I am done with project Shauna and have no plans to resume it. If I did a few more years of it I’d feel like I’m stuck in a rut. Transforming yourself into someone else presumes a whole a lot more than simply putting on some different clothes and makeup. It order to keep the project alive I’d have to take it to the next level all while staying in the role of Shauna and working in the red light district. There is no other way to instill a deeper meaning into this project without loosing a piece of my own identity. And that’s why I made the decision to stop.

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