Alexandra Leese, Photographer & Director, London

Alexandra Leese, Photographer & Director, London





Rosie Byers

Hey Alex, can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

I’m Alexandra Leese. I’m originally from Hong Kong and moved to the UK when I was 12. My mum is Chinese, my dad English. I’m a photographer and director.


When you were growing up in Hong Kong, how engaged were you with art and photography? 

I’d always look at pictures in magazines or go and sit in a bookshop for hours and flick through photography books. It took me a while to get into reading as a kid, so I feel like my brain has always worked in a more visual way. I was lucky to have parents who enjoyed art, so they nurtured that in me. Drawing and painting was something I always remember doing.


I read that you wanted to study portrait painting initially?

I never thought of photography as a career option. I really wanted to be a painter. I applied for foundation at Chelsea [College of Arts] and that’s where I discovered photography. I loved that photography offered a different pace compared to painting. You capture a picture in a moment, but with painting you can work on one painting for a long time.


You’ve released a range of personal projects over the past few years that exist in physical, less transient spaces – from your Boys of Hong Kong book (2018) to Yumi and The Moon (2020), your Me + Mine series (2020), and most recently, your ‘Year of the Dragon 2024’ calendar with Nellie Eden. Do you think these projects tie back to your love of painting and creating work at that slower pace?

Totally. The fashion industry is so fast-paced. You’re working on things that exist for a season and then you move on. It’s all-consuming in such a short space of time, whereas when I do a personal project, I’m in a different headspace. It helps me process who I am as an artist, to understand where I am and what I really want to do in the time that I’ve given myself. In fashion I’m always working to a brief that someone else has given me, so my personal projects give me a space that has no real boundaries creatively. It’s useful for me to have this experience, to be able to grow and evolve, and also bring what I’ve learnt back into my fashion work.  

"It's important to have that time to figure things out, make mistakes, and experiment"

Thinking about developing your style as a photographer, do you think studying was formative in finding your own taste? And you think it’s important for an aspiring photographer now?

When I went to uni it was a different time. Now I would say maybe it’s not as important.  The landscape has changed a lot, and you might get more out of an internship, a placement or an assisting role. But when I was at uni, I benefited from being in the city and being around people that I knew were potentially going to be in the industry. Also, I don’t think at that time I was necessarily ready to be working in the industry. It gave me three years to figure myself out within a space surrounded by other creative people. 


It’s a very cushioned environment where you’re figuring out what you like and what you want to make and who you are, without a lot of real-world consequences most of the time. 

Yes exactly, and it’s important to have that time to figure things out, make mistakes, and experiment without those ‘real world’ consequences. Once you start working on jobs there isn’t lots of room for this. 


From uni through till now, how important has it been for your career to meet and collaborate with other creatives? 

I love collaborating with people. It can push you in ways that you might never have done so on your own. When me and Nellie did the ‘Year of the Dragon’ calendar, we were able to create images that felt like a mix of both of our worlds. The result would have been very different without the mutual respect for each other’s vision, and ability to challenge one another. 

That kind of collaboration is so important within this industry. Making a picture or a film is a team effort, whether it’s just you and a subject or you and a whole crew of people. It’s never just you.

"The more I gave... the more I got back."

When it comes to forming that relationship with your subjects, does it come naturally to you to create that chemistry and intimacy, or is it something you’ve learned as you’ve had more practice with it?

100%. Getting on with people was never the issue, but when I had to give direction, and all eyes were on me, it wasn’t easy as I was quite shy. I’ve gotten much better over time and I think that has come with experience. There was also a point where I realised that it didn’t benefit anyone if I stayed quiet. The more I gave the person, the more comfortable they felt, and the more I got back. 


When the teams, clients and vested interests involved are bigger, what advice would you give to less experienced photographers who are finding those situations quite high-pressure?

It’s tough not to let the pressure get to you. A big learning curve for me was understanding that this job requires being able to stay flexible and open to compromise, not every brief will feel on point, and you might not align with every decision that’s made….  It’s about knowing what’s important to you, and what to let go of, and not feeling too disheartened when things don’t go your way. You can still create something beautiful, even if certain aspects are out of your control. Trust in yourself and just do the best you can. 


Giving up a little bit of control, but also knowing where your boundaries are and not giving up too much of your integrity. 

Exactly. I sometimes put too much pressure on myself. It’s not worth losing your head over.  


That’s also having security in yourself, and maybe that comes from finding a certain level of success in that you’re not constantly trying to prove yourself. 

Yes definitely, I understand myself more too. I still feel anxious about jobs, and I think it can be a good thing, as it shows you care. It’s just about finding ways for it not to overwhelm you.

If you’re looking at something and you’re like ‘This is so me – this is my perspective and my aesthetic and my influences and what I want to say’, what does that look like to you? 

I’m clearly very interested in certain topics, but in terms of my style of photography I never know how to answer that question. For me, it’s a feeling. So much of it is instinctual and how I see things. There seems to be something in my work that people recognise, even as my work evolves over time. Like a thread that ties it all together, but I don’t know what that essence is.

"If those involved feel empowered, respected and beautiful, is that not something to be enjoyed and celebrated?"

In terms of the themes, what have you been drawn to exploring at the moment?

The calendar was about the freedom for women to express their sexuality. I am sure some believe erotic imagery to be objectifying or disrespectful. However in my opinion it’s not so black and white. If those involved feel empowered, respected and beautiful, is that not something to be enjoyed and celebrated?  


It’s a denial of agency. 

Exactly. When a woman is in charge of her sexuality, especially in a way that doesn’t align with their own beliefs, it can be very challenging to some people. 


You’re having these conversations with your subjects and making art that feels so personal to them, their wants and their boundaries. On Instagram people don’t always see that, but I hope the more they do see projects like yours and the conversations around them, that’s something that can change.

I think it’s one of those topics that ‘s going to be a forever topic. But it is something that I find important to explore.


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