We had the good fortune of connecting with Steven Lee and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Steven, is there a quote or affirmation that’s meaningful to you?
Dec of 2020, right before COVID hit, I attended a photography mixer and exhibition in LA, hosted by iconic photographer Kelia Anne Maccklusky. There was a signup for one minute to talk with Kelia, and when it was my turn, she gave me a simple piece of advice that guided my perspective through my creative journey: “trust your gut.” She said that the only way she arrived at success was by not placing other people’s opinions and judgements of her work on a pedestal, and instead centering her own creative vision, and trusting that it was good. That was the only way to bring out her most authentic work. It reminded me of another suggestion from a podcast named Mouthwash, where someone advised not to stare at your mood board too long, and not to get too attached to your inspirations, because you’ll end up creating work just like them, and not your own. The phrase “trust your gut” found its way into my creative journey in a variety of ways that I didn’t initially recognize until I needed to.

I spent the majority of my childhood drawing, and it was assumed that I would become an illustrator in some entertainment field, but once I was required to paint and draw for AP Studio Art in high school, it began feeling like a chore, and once it became my major (Animation) in college, it lost its fun and spontaneity. It wasn’t that I couldn’t enjoy it anymore, it just didn’t have that same magical quality as something that you did without anyone telling you to. As an outlet from animation and illustration, I began to play around with photography my sophomore year, and my hobby of taking aesthetic photos for my Instagram became my new “thing,” the thing that replaced drawing. I spent hours planning photoshoots and proactively reached out to friends just to shoot for fun, shooting for no one but myself. It was truly the least stressful time of my photography career. At the time, I wasn’t aware that I was blissfully doing exactly what Kelia was talking about. A year later, my hobby blossomed into a career, and entering the space of the photography industry brought an entirely new set of pressures. Clients came in with their unfamiliar visions and company requirements, I felt the sense of competition and rivalry with other photographers, and the stress of earning an income as a freelancer began to weigh down on me. I started to obsess over other photographers’ work, trying to shoot and edit like them, making endless mood boards to study in my free time, and struggling to fit them in my feed. I was frustrated with my work because I was so focused on “labeling” it with a certain style and aligning it with a famous photographer. At the same time, I was dealing with tailoring my work to the aesthetic guidelines of my clients, but whenever I disagreed with a creative decision, I was afraid to stand up for myself. Additionally, the financial stress of having enough clients per month had me trying to figure out what kind of work would increase the most engagement, and I was tempted to shoot with as many people with large numbers of followers, regardless of my taste, so I ended up saying yes to every opportunity that came my way, creating burnout. During these few months, I struggled to understand my own work because I wasn’t trusting myself to create anything good. When I became aware of my burnout, I realized that I often spent a lot of time looking back at my early work, and wondered why I lost that bright, colorfulness that felt so alive in my photos. I thought, “what was I doing at the time that made my photos feel so energetic?” It slowly came to me that I was trusting my gut: I was not paying attention to what other photographers were doing, I was focusing on what I wanted to create, experimented with what was in my head, and never judged myself too harshly. I was genuinely happy because I liked my work, and I didn’t have as much expectation from my followers than I do today.

I began to apply the idea of trusting your gut to my current work, first creatively, then personally. I deleted all my Instagram mood boards, stopped staring at other photographer’s feeds, and let myself create ideas by closing my eyes first. My best ideas have come from drawing them out first. I stopped trying to find a box for my photography to fit in, and just let my work speak for itself and create its own category. Lastly, I learned to trust my opinions and listen to my truth. It sounds cliché, but too often I catch myself saying or thinking things I don’t actually believe. So many times have influencers messaged me to “collab” with them, and I would trick myself into believing that I was excited about them, when in reality, I didn’t feel that they would fit my style, and I knew in my gut that it wouldn’t be a good collaboration. There have been times when I would edit a photo a certain way that the client disapproved of, but it ended up being a photo that led me to greater opportunities. 2020 was the year of me learning how to say no, and being more selective about who I work with. I wasn’t going to let money or clout get in the way of my creative integrity. Trusting my gut has gotten me to know myself better and what I genuinely enjoy.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
The more I’ve gotten to know my art, the more I realize how much it tells me about my own life, without me even realizing it. From 2nd to 7th grade, my parents homeschooled me in an attempt to shield me from “secular,” mainstream culture. I cultivated my creativity during that time, but it also made me very socially inept, and upon entering public school in 8th grade, navigating popular rhetoric and common culture was terrifying. To avoid talking to people, I would doodle in my planner all the time, but that ended up becoming an open door for people to talk to me: “omg did you draw that?” I didn’t realize it at the time, but since then, my art functioned to make me feel like I had an “in” with people, uplifting my social status. I became very keen to the hierarchies of popularity, race and gender, and was constantly aiming to feel more accepted by as many people as possible. All the while, at home I was facing a homophobic household as I struggled to come out and love myself and my body. It was difficult to understand who I was as a gay, Taiwanese American teen.

Establishing myself years later as a photographer who uses very bold colors, harsh light, high contrast, and surrealist elements, I’ve always wondered why I was never the soft, neutral, earthy photographer who captured candids with blurry backgrounds and soft light. My portraits often feature very cool-looking models, feisty and unbothered, fashionable and intimidating. In my sophomore and junior years of college, people began to tell me that their friends thought I was intimidating, many of whom I only know through Instagram, and it made me realize that I was being perceived the same ways I capture my models. I immediately felt like an imposter- why did I create work that made me look “cooler” than I really was? I began to dress more fashionably and learn better social skills so I could match up to the façade I was putting on Instagram. It was then that I realized a variety of different functions my art did for me.

Exploring notions of “coolness” wasn’t entirely a superficial and toxic endeavor- it definitely brought me out of my comfort zone and did wonders for my confidence. I was able to discover my interests in fashion, speak my mind a little louder, and could actually approach people I admired from afar. But it wasn’t enough- I still, to this day, put myself in a box that labels myself as “uncool,” awkward and unwelcomed, no matter how many people I’ve befriended or what magazine or brand I’ve shot for. I feel like my inner 8th grade is still subconsciously using my art to live vicariously through the people I perceive as better than me, and the bright colors and high contrast produce this sense of bold living that I’ve struggled to live, and wish I had. The dream of becoming the people in my images is and has been suppressed by my current living situation. I cannot fully be myself at home as a gay man, so I find myself stuck to my phone to avoid thinking it. Because of this, I realized that everything I do in my photos is to rid it of the elements that remind me of reality. I integrate surrealistic elements like creating new backgrounds, playing with size and color in photoshop, and removing anything in the photo that tells me where it’s located. I strip the environments to its most basic elements so that everything looks refined, composed and deliberate: without flaw. Ultimately, my work is primarily escapism from my personal conflicts, but in celebrating what I could be and digging into my imagination, I implicitly direct attention to the problem. I try to photograph what I see lacking in the real world, whether that mean better representation for Asian Americans or just queer people living their most vibrant life in hyper-saturated world.

With all this being said, by branding myself as a certain style, there comes a new expectation to repeat and feed my followers with the same material. I tend to combine my work with deep captions and thoughtful ideas, but the most recent lesson I’ve been learning is not to pressure myself to create “great” work all the time. I want to feel the nonsensical bliss of doing something just because I want to: photographing my friends wearing toilet paper as earrings for no reason, or photoshopping a bunch of mini me’s sitting in a sliced half-apple. I think that might free myself from the desire to be someone else for other people.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I think all we’d do all week is visit every coffee shop possible and walk off into trespassing areas to do random fashion photoshoots. LA has some of the most beautiful, colorful walls, but it can never be found by searching up tourist spots on Google- everyone’s seen the pink wall at this point. The best thing to do is just pick a coffee shop in the middle of a shopping area, and take a stroll and see what you find. We would definitely thrift at the Arts District, make cocktails, and bar hop in Weho at night. The Griffith Observatory is a must because the view is just iconic. Melrose Avenue, The Getty and LACMA might also be fun places to target! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are a billion people I could thank for the opportunities I’ve had. First and foremost, my closest friends, Serena, Avo, Anna, Melissa, and many more, and the organizations I’ve been a part of, such as SoundCheck A Cappella, Aperture, and Delta Kappa Alpha, have all created the spaces for me to expand my creativity. They were the people that patiently listened to me rant about whether I should switch to photography, rave about my favorite photographers, and had to stop and wait for me on the sidewalk as I took 50 photos of a single shadow. These were the communities that trusted my ideas and let me photograph them in the weirdest poses, style them in monochromatic clothing and figuratively speaking, would look at the sun for me if I told them it looked cool for a photo. Additionally, my family has always been an advocate for the arts, and were constantly supportive of my journey. Mentors like Weekend Creative, Dennys Mamero, Redeye Represents, and Willa Creative have so generously guided me in understanding the industry of commercial photography and understanding how agencies work when I had 0 business knowledge, and made working with clients a lot less scary. And lastly, the people on Instagram and Tiktok have quite literally built my entire business. My business has grown not because of hashtags or emailing a bunch of people, but because my followers organically share my work with their friends and to their stories. It doesn’t matter how many followers or how much money I have by the end of the day; nothing makes me happier than when I get a message from someone who tells me they felt emotionally impacted or inspired by my work.

Website: https://www.stevenoclock.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stevenoclock/

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stevenoclock/

Other: https://linktr.ee/stevenoclock

Image Credits
The brand in the second to last photo is Paradox (@helloparadox) and the designer is Danny Cole.

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutLA is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.