"I aspire to be a good role model and hopefully convey an original narrative for women that is empowering, but not over-sexualised."
Emma Khoo, or “FYi” as she is commonly known, is a Malaysian Chinese photographer with many talents and interests, but her particular relationship with photography emerged from very unique circumstances. Diagnosed with tenosynovitis during her first year of architecture school, Khoo was faced with the knowledge her hands would be useless for some time. Drawing and playing the piano, two of her passions, were sadly lost as outlets – she had to turn elsewhere: photography and academia.
Now, Khoo is a powerful voice in modeling (being an inspiration to many petite models, including to the author of this article!), photography and academia. Khoo’s spread of interests has interacted beautifully with her appreciation of creative pursuits and this really shines in her work. Having been published and featured in various magazines, Khoo is continually perfecting her talents as a photographer, overcoming self doubt, the criticism of others and, in her own way, stereotypes of East Asian women in the West. Outspoken about underrepresentation of East Asians in the media, Khoo is also keen to show the strength of women in her pieces. Furthermore, she is extremely perceptive when it comes to self-development, and self-aware as regards her allies and support network. Building upon these, Khoo juggles her many trades through persistence, determination and a keen sense of who she is.
YW: How did your relationship with your creative hobbies begin?
EK: I have been engaged in the creative arts for as long as I can remember. Throughout my teens, I tried various things – from fine arts, prose, and manga, to singing and playing the piano – whatever it took to bring my ideas to life. My relationship with photography, however, was much more recent, and started under unusual circumstances.
EK: I began engaging in photography almost five years ago, motivated out of curiosity, and my desperation to find a new creative outlet for myself. At the end of my first year in architecture school, I was diagnosed with tenosynovitis (the inflammation of the fluid-filled sheath that surrounds a tendon) which rendered my hands useless for a long while. This meant drawing and playing the piano were out of the question, let alone continuing in architecture school. It was that point where I decided to pursue photography and academia wholeheartedly.
EK: Photography, at the time, was a therapeutic activity rather than a hobby. What I did not expect was how photography grew on me over the years. Now, it is truly something that I am passionate about. Although I am better known as a photographer today, it is probably a consequence of my various hobbies that I am able to strive for interesting concepts and keep the excitement going. My interests in history, architecture, fashion, film, cultural studies, and gender studies are probably reflected in my photography portfolio. Taking up photography also enabled me to meet and collaborate with like-minded people from diverse backgrounds. I haven’t looked back since.
YW: You are a wonderful voice for the petite model community. Tell us what inspires you when working in front of the lens.
EK: Why, thank you so much! I found myself wanting to give clearer directions to the models and I thought working in front of the lens would allow me to put myself in their position, and understand how to direct them better. So now, when I am behind the lens, I can envision how it might be like being in front of it as well.
EK: At the same time, as a model, I get to collaborate with other photographers! Again, I find much excitement in seeing how the photos are interpreted through the eyes of other creatives and of course, I get wonderful images in return. For me, I like engaging in interesting concepts, not ones where it says: “Oh! Here’s another pretty girl looking suggestive!” I love dark and moody concepts, slightly alienoid and futuristic themes that show how much more kick-ass women can be, rather than some sexual object. With the oversaturation of millennial models, I personally think everyone can be a model, however, in my mind, a good model is one who (1) dares to try different concepts, (2) takes directions well, (3) knows how to tell the right story, (4) keep their body healthy, and (5) is unique; all this not for the sake of just looking pretty.
YW: Lots of creatives feel the pressure to continuously better themselves and can be quite self-critical. How is your relationship with your work and how do you deal with self-reflection?
EK: I am generally hard on myself in every aspect of my life and photography is no different. However, I believe I exert a “healthier” or “moderate” form of self-criticism. The key idea is to have a balance between the two, perhaps a dialogue. Arrogance and complacency do seep in once the person is not self-critical enough, whilst anxiety and pessimism can become your worst enemies if the person is too self-critical. Although I occasionally fall guilty of being too self-critical, when that happens, I try to tell myself moving forward is better than staying stuck in the mud and going nowhere.
EK: I generally run on this same thought process when reviewing my work. First, I filter the general feedback and criticism received, and judge which is worth taking on board. Not all comments are made with the intention to help, so don’t let unjust criticism destroy you. Getting feedback from your closest friends and family, basically anyone without agenda, may be helpful too. The next important step, which is probably most difficult, is to judge your own work without bias. Defend your work where necessary but take in the rest, reflect upon it and find new solutions to do better.
YW: You’ve worked both in Malaysia and the U.K. on incredible pieces of work. What do you find are the key differences in both regions when it comes to creativity?
EK: They are so very different in many levels (photographic style, locations, weather, preferred type of models and expectations). There is a stronger visual arts culture in the UK, as most generations of the general public had arts education at school, which means British people involved in the creative artists have more career options than in Malaysia. London is also host to major art exhibitions, music festivals and fashion week every year! I have managed to go to the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A museum a few years back and it still leaves a strong impression on me.When it comes to the weather, UK’s weather is a lot more comfortable to shoot in all year round. Meanwhile, it is hard shooting outdoors in Malaysia! Being in the tropics, it guarantees lots of sweat, tan lines and mosquitos. As a result, indoor and studio photography are preferred, which is restrictive on my part. Still, Malaysia has wonderful landscapes and streetscapes if you don’t mind the heat and the long drive from the city. I hope to take advantage of that in my future shoots in Malaysia.
YW: Who is your creative role model and why?
EK: The two female photographers that inspire me most and got me started are Chen Man and Zhang Jingna!
I guess it is not hard to guess why! Other than continuously conjuring beautiful and otherworldly art, they are both young and successful East Asian female photographers. Chen Man’s work especially, tells the tale of modern China whilst maintaining a strong Chinese identity. She also knows how to work the camera as a model! In a way, she’s the reason why I am juggling with photography and modeling at the same time. I believe the photography industry needs more East Asian female photographers as they are able to open up a new conversation of what it means to be a modern 21st century woman and being a woman of colour.
EK: I think being a Chinese woman, we are subjected to plenty of negative stereotypes and I believe that needs to be challenged. I am not of a standard model height and figure, but nothing stops me from doing what I love and what I find interesting – be bold, be unique and be yourself. Having more East Asian photographers and models in the industry would certainly help diversify and ultimately benefit it. Amidst Hollywood’s flagrant white-washing of film roles (notably Ghost in the Shell); fashion’s continued preference for white models; and the persistence of stereotypes that work against East Asians, there is a great deal to overcome.
YW: What piece of yours is your favourite and why?
EK: That’s a difficult one…but if I have to pick one…it would be “Cleo, Jo & Bou” as seen in Elegant Magazine (June 2017, Fashion Issue 8).
EK: This series is probably closest to my personal style, narrative-wise and aesthetic-wise. This fashion editorial presents a modern reinterpretation of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Boudicca. Most reinterpretations are done with classic fantasy conventions, but I hoped to bring a fresh and unique narrative; one that is more relatable to a 21st-century woman. My intention was to give these women a minimalist and slightly futuristic touch in and alienoid and dystopic setting of concrete dunes. In regards to the styling, each individual’s character was accentuated through simple metallic makeup, “less is more” hairstyling, and with the right accessories. Together, these simple style choices generated a powerful narrative through the photos.
I am a minimalist at heart and I love portraying alpha women. With a largely young female audience, I aspire to be a good role model and hopefully convey an original narrative for women that is empowering, but not over-sexualised.
YW: You also have a vast array of other talents (including singing and writing). Tell us how you manage to find time and energy to develop these great crafts.
EK: When you love something, you will always find time to do it, even if brief. However, everything comes down to good time management. For me, I always get to do what I love every day. It may come as a surprise to most but I am merely a part-time or hobbyist photographer. I am actually a research assistant and freelance writer by trade. The key to finding the time and energy would be to find a good balance and have good self-discipline. I would do the bulk of my work in the day but once evening comes, I would work on my photos, social media accounts, and write.
EK: Music, for me, also serves as the best and most effective stress reliever. When I was studying in London, I did sing for leisure in cafes, open mics and once, the opening act to an art exhibition I helped curate. Now that I am back in Malaysia, I go back to leisurely playing my favourite piano pieces from Chopin, Liszt, and Albeniz. I try to find something interesting in everything I do. That makes life more exciting!
YW: Are there any tips that you wish you had known earlier in your creative development?
EK: Yes, I wish someone would have encouraged me to shoot in RAW from the outset!