Interview with Steven V-L Lee, photographer and founder director of Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards (KLPA)

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the distinguished Leica Oskar Barnack Award, Leica Camera AG has launched a new, nomination-based submission process. Seventy world-renowned photographic experts will be part of the nomination process. A select jury will then consider all the nominees and choose the winners from among them.
In the following interview, Steven Lee, photographer and founder director of the Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards (KLPA) and one of the nominators, answers our questions.

How important in your opinion is the Leica Oskar Barnack Award compared to other photographic awards?

Although I believe it is a significant award in the global context, I feel it is under-acknowledged and under-represented within the photo community, especially within the Asian or South East Asian context. What makes it special is the history of the award, supported by a famous manufacturer that is not swayed by market trends.

Can you offer us some insight into how you will go about selecting your proposals for LOBA?

First of all, I will look at the winners over the last few years of LOBA; then I will look at the work of photographers I am familiar with, with special interest in new and fresh work and styles that may not be similar or repetitive of those that have already received the award. I believe that, unless LOBA has a specific genre or thematic integrity to protect, it can always open up to other artistic genres – including conceptual and fine art works that have a social aspect to them.

What advantages do you see in a pre-selection by international experts?

This certainly allows for greater diversity among the nominees. However, I feel it is still very unrepresentative of global diversity and topics. There should also be more north-south representation among the nominators – from Latin America and Africa.

“What makes it special is the history of the award, supported by a famous manufacturer that is not swayed by market trends.”

What would you advise young photographers to do in order to become visible and get support?

I have always encouraged South East Asian photographers to create a decent website that is well presented, and to keep it to a few galleries of related work. They should also visit festivals to share their work and, of course, submit to competitions that have a good profile and reputation. They should also participate in festivals and workshops, and network as much as possible to become visible in a very competitive industry. Social media is good, but most people tend to post everything and leave nothing for their websites.

How do you assess the current situation of the photographic market?

I think that photographers today will have to compete even harder for the attention of photo editors and whichever sector of the print market they want to be published in. They must be proactive in putting themselves forward, with the necessary skills to write, edit, produce and even make videos, to diversify and broaden their appeal. I think, however, that there is still a strong and discerning market for traditional story-telling photographers, and perhaps award winners and finalists will be better placed to gain visibility with the publications they're aiming for, and take up every opportunity that comes to their way.

What wishes and hopes do you have for the photography of the future?

I always like to say that photography education is important; but perhaps not formal education like degrees or courses, but to make it more accessible to the general public, to understand the process, and the story behind the images that will make the viewer appreciate the content more. I also hope that socially engaged photography can help create a world where people are more accepting and tolerant of each other in an increasingly divided world.

Thank you very much and good luck for your nomination work.

Steven V-L Lee

Steven V-L Lee is the founder director of the Kuala Lumpur International Photoaward (KLPA), which has been honouring the best contemporary portrait photographers since 2009. He also conducts workshops with other photographers via the Exposure+ photo tutoring platform in Kuala Lumpur. In addition, he is an international competitions jury member and a regular portfolio reviewer. He lives and works in London and Kuala Lumpur.