“Out in Japan” is breaking down LGBT barriers with 10 000 photographs by Leslie Kee

“Out in Japan” is an ambitious photography project which aims to take photographs of 10 000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Japan by 2020, when Tokyo will garner global attention as the host of the Olympic Games. The photographer, Leslie Kee from Singapore is directing the project, which is sponsored by the non-profit, Good Aging Yells.

Gon Matsunaka, the founder of Good Aging Yells says “LGBT people in Japan are still largely invisible, many are afraid to speak out about their sexual orientation and gender identity. However, while still few in number, more and more LGBT people are taking their courage in both hands and speaking up. This chain reaction by individuals can change the perception one neighbour at a time and transform society. “Out in Japan’ aims to weave together this budding chain of courage.”

Mr Kee’s work as fashion, celebrity and art photographer has been widely published in magazines and he is well-known for his portraits of top artists like Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Pharrell Williams, Cindy Crawford and Yoko Ono. Mr Kee was recently interviewed about “Out in Japan” by the Japanese TV broadcaster, TBS. UNAIDS spoke to Mr Kee about his involvement in this innovative project, which aims to break down LGBT stigma one photograph at a time.

Credit: Leslie Kee

Credit: Leslie Kee

UNAIDS: How did you become involved in such an ambitious photography project?

Leslie Kee: Well the idea really began some time ago. I am from Singapore and I moved to Tokyo in 1993 and started working as a photographer. Then I went to New York in 2001 and lived there for five years. I worked with celebrities and fashion houses and during that time I met a lot of creative people, who were LGBT and very open about that. It was a big culture shock for me as an Asian. In Japan most LGBT people did not dare come out because of society and family pressure. Being LGBT was still taboo back in the 90s.

In New York, I got the opportunity to learn more about how different countries look at LGBT people and I began to have this dream that one day I would work in Asia and make more people understand whether you are ‘L’, ‘G’, ‘B’ or ‘T’ it is all the same. You know they say that about 10% of people in Japan are LGBT, roughly, okay? So I am more concerned with the 90% of people who have no idea that LGBT is not a disease, LGBT is not abnormal. They need to learn that LGBT can be your family, your neighbour, your co-worker or an inspirational artist.

Credit: Leslie Kee

Credit: Leslie Kee

When I moved back to Japan in 2006, I became involved in the LGBT community. This April, I was asked by organizers of the Tokyo Pride Parade to take photographs of the event. I have a huge amount of followers on Twitter and Facebook and I wanted to reach out to them to get people to participate in the project. I thought to make people wore willing to participate, we need to make it more of a fashion shoot. Fashion is a good platform to create love, peace and harmony. Fashion appeals to people regardless of language.

At that time I was doing a photography shoot for the musical “Rent”, which has an LGBT theme and so I spoke to the musical’s producer to see if they would sponsor a studio. I have also been doing photo shoots for the clothing retailer, Gap for a long time, so I suggested they sponsor the clothing for the project. The cosmetics company Shiseido sponsored the make-up artists. We started by photographing 100 people. But Gap was so impressed by the participation that they agreed to sponsor clothing for 1000 people. So far we have photographed about 350 people and I plan to reach 1000 people by next spring.

Credit: Leslie Kee

UNAIDS: When you photograph people for this project, what are you hoping to achieve?

Leslie Credit: Leslie KeeKee: Since I am photographing 100 people in one photo shoot, I only have about 15-20 minutes per person. I start by asking questions because I want get some information about the person’s personality. Then I take the photographs. It’s very instinctive. I want to bring out who they really are. I want to bring out their identity and a certain purity and strength. I think everybody has this purity and strength, but sometimes you need to use the opportunity a photo shoot offers to retrieve it. I’m sure everybody has this beauty in them, but sometimes one needs this platform to express this beauty kept in your heart. Then when people see the result they become more confident about who they are. Of course, it depends on how as the photographer you speak to people and how you film them. My passion is about documenting this truth, even though I like fashion photography, in my heart what I really care about is documenting a person.

UNAIDS: What are you hoping to achieve with the photography project?

Leslie Kee:  First of all, I want to encourage LGBT people to be more willing and daring to be proud of themselves and to not fear to come out. In this project we provide the names and occupation of the people we photograph on the project’s website.  We have teachers, doctors, civil servants, artists – they are all contributing to society. And they are all beautiful and inspiring.

Hopefully this project will make more Japanese people understand that LGBT people are not different from straight people. I really have a political objective. You know in Tokyo there are 23 municipal wards. So last April, Shibuya ward announced that they were recognizing same sex couples, then Setagaya – another Tokyo ward announced it would do the same. So we now have two wards which recognize same sex couples with official partnership certificates.

Credit: Leslie Kee

Credit: Leslie Kee

This recognition is very important. Lots of LGBT couples live together but they have no legal way to prove their relationship. This means that if one person gets sick and goes to the hospital, their partner will not be allowed to visit. You need to have these papers to prove that you are a couple. Or if you want to rent a house together you need to show the paperwork. In many cases landlords will not allow two men or two women to rent together. LGBT people contribute to society, so why are they not given the same treatment as everyone else?  So back to the 90% of Japanese society – they need to understand that this is a very unfair situation and that recognizing LGBT partnerships is an important step for building a better society.

Credit: Leslie Kee                 Credit: Leslie Kee

By photographing 1000 people by spring 2016 and showing their courage, willingness and experiences, I am hoping this will lead to more wards in Tokyo approving same sex couples. I want all 23 wards to recognize such partnerships.

I don’t think this is a sprint, it is a marathon. We need to continue running. It will not happen overnight. Look how long it took for the US to have someone like President Obama as president of the United States of America.

UNAIDS: What have you learnt from this project?

Credit: Leslie Kee

Leslie Kee: You know I am really inspired by LGBT people. The time I spent in New York changed me. People who saw my work in the 90s and then in 2006, after I had been in New York, say that my work gained more depth and humanity. My photographs express beauty in a different way. I have a better knowledge of people and I see the world on a bigger scale. I have realized that categories are not important.

You know this project is only a part of what I do. I am taking these photographs as a volunteer – indeed everyone involved including the corporate sponsors are donating their efforts. When I first started doing this I took it up lightly, but now it has become a very serious project for me. I am so glad I have been given this opportunity and I realize that I have to put 100% of myself into it. People see me as a leader. I feel very proud when I see tears of joy in the eyes of the people when I photograph them. I see appreciation. It is definitely worth it for me.

I would like to expand this project to other countries in Asia. I would like to work in other countries like Thailand and Singapore which I think may allow same sex partnerships in the next ten years.

For more information check out the following links:

  LESLIE KEE  (Twitter, Facebook & Instagram account) :  Lesliekeesuper

%d bloggers like this: