Interview: Hosanna Swee, Photographer and Leica Ambassador
By Randy Lai
Since the middle of the 20th century, numerous photographers whom we now perceive as masters of the artform have been drawn to the impact of humanist imagery. The English critic and historian Ian Jeffrey describes this style’s hallmark as a particular strain of “photojournalism…[lying] somewhere between the painterly, honourable concerns of realism and the high-minded hopefulness of modernism”. Its earliest proponents flourished in the interwar period – freed as they were from prior constraints of social mores and technology – and even today are echoed in the unvarnished lens of fashion maestro Peter Lindbergh or the “questioning and exploratory” street photographs of Alex Webb.
It seems odd at first, then – perhaps even facetious – to invoke humanist photography’s spirit in the pursuit of luxury goods, yet that is precisely what Hosanna Swee has done in her nearly decade-long career as a professional imagemaker. You certainly can’t argue with the results: her work is a frequent presence in the pages of Vogue, Cereal and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, while her commercial portfolio is laden with clients that appear as bywords in their respective universes of good taste. (To name but a few, these include the Italian leather-maker Tod’s; Aussie skincare giant Aēsop; and, of course, Leica – for whom Swee doubles as one of the brand’s four Singaporean ambassadors.)
Recently, we caught up with Swee in her hometown to learn more about the convergence between photography and watch culture. Along the 20-minute stroll that takes you between Millenia Tower and the National Gallery (two locales Swee sees as “distinctively different yet encompassing Singapore’s heritage and soul”) there’s discussion of mirrorless cameras; what makes a great watch shot; why street photography is as infuriating as it is thrilling; and the one time Swee (accidentally) threw her Tank into a waste bin.
ACM: Let’s begin, somewhat counterintuitively, not by talking watches, but with a discussion about you. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do for work.
HS: My name is Hosanna, and I’ve been a photographer for around eight years now. Professionally, I wear a number of hats: my regular day consists of a mixture of design, image-taking, and creative direction. In practice, that means working on brand campaigns and visual marketing assets with my team – from point of concept all the way through to execution.
Just briefly, did you undertake any sort of formalised training in photography at school or university?
I’d say my work in photography was a logical progression of what I studied at university – fashion communications.
I see. But the actual mechanics of photography – shooting, editing, directing – you learned yourself?
Yes, I’m self-taught. In my view, what we learn at school – particularly in the creative industries – only provides you with the basics. Beyond that, you’re essentially left to your own devices.
Right. And at what point in your life did all these disciplines you’d steadily been picking up converge? Was there a moment when you made a conscious decision to start working with brands to help them tell better stories?
I’d say the root of it all was fairly unorthodox. Truth be told, I’ve never ‘worked’ a day in my life – if by ‘work’ what you mean is grinding from 9 to 5. I started doing my own thing straight out of university.
That must have been quite intimidating, no? Starting your career with a leap into the unknown.
At the time, it certainly wasn’t easy. Because after graduating, you’re more or less ejected out into the world and have to puzzle things as you go. In the eight years that I’ve been a professional photographer, the competition has honestly gotten quite fierce: you’re constantly being forced to adapt, to innovate.
Undoubtedly. The reach and scale of social media means that the work you produce is no longer solely measured against what’s in your backyard.
I think the fact that I’m fairly empathetic has helped with work – seriously. That is the very essence of photography: the image itself is a medium through which we’re able to transmute a vast range of narrative and emotion.
Insofar as your own portfolio goes, viewers will often find images that speak to an affinity for ‘urban’ photography: I think of restaurant interiors; building facades streaked in twilight; panoramic cityscapes. What is it about those subjects – all products of the built environment – that interests you so?
Many photographers tend to define themselves by ‘genre’, saying they specialise in a given subject matter like landscapes or portraiture. I guess what’s ‘special’ about my style is the aesthetic quality of each image – I’m interested in capturing something that is timeless and atmospheric.
So your question itself is interesting: it’s not something I was all that cognisant of, until you pointed it out, but urban settings are very much a part of my lived experience growing up in Singapore. I’m drawn to the dynamic contrast. There’s so much life and energy in these environments: I’m intrigued by how they evolve with the passage of time, how light moves and shifts across the span of a single day.
One other thing I’d say is that the footprint of a city like Singapore encourages you to broaden your perspective. This, in turn, informs the way I make images: that’s why if you look closely, most of the portraits I shoot have a hint of photojournalism about them.
Would you mind telling us a little about how you imbue your photos with this soft documentary quality?
Well, in the case of fashion clients – whom my team and I deal with frequently – the common practice is to shoot under very controlled circumstances – very glossy, very clinical. What I prefer to do is approach the subject in a more authentic way. So we build in elements of the street: light, textures, and structures as they would appear in the real world.
“Urban settings are very much a part of my lived experience growing up in Singapore. I’m drawn to the dynamic contrast. There’s so much life and energy in these environments.”
Some artists whom I admire, whose work possesses this quality, would be Alex Webb and Jack Davison. They’re not so technical – the emphasis is on storytelling, often accompanied by subtle distortions in perspective.
Speaking of technical, we should probably mention your ambassadorship with Leica. As a well-known exponent of the Leica SL2, how does that piece of equipment help you achieve your own signature visual style?
Having tried a number of different manufacturers throughout my career, I’d say there’s an undeniable sophistication to the Leica system. A word of caution: once you start shooting with Leica, you become ‘poisoned’ against other makers [laughs].
Well, without wanting to generalise, as a German brand, Leica places a premium upon engineering. In the case of the SL2, there’s a very pure balance to the way the whole system comes together. Most importantly, the optics are excellent – I can’t emphasise that enough. There’s this layered dimension, inherent creaminess and beautiful colour to the images the system produces, these have all helped shape my visual style over the years.
What I love most about the SL2 is the simplicity of it. I take a highly intuitive approach to shooting and because of that I move really, really fast. The way Leica has designed this interface, everything excessive has been stripped away. You only have the very important stuff: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. That allows me to focus fully on what’s in front of me. Being a purist, I believe the essence of an image shouldn’t be altered too much in post-production.
Are there any genres of photography which you find it challenging to work within, yet nevertheless remain extremely drawn to?
Street photography. That’s possibly because in my own practice I’m so accustomed to photographing in controlled environments; and I’m a little obsessive about having things ‘under control’ – all of which is anathema to street photography.
What I find most fascinating about that medium is its unpredictable nature; the fleeting moments, characters, small gestures and the quality of light. With street photography, you can do all the homework and planning in the world, but you never know for certain what is about to happen. That’s a prospect I find scary, yet exhilarating all at the same time.
Fascinating. I gather it’s not dissimilar to the endless debate filmmakers seem to have about shooting on-location versus in-studio. Circling back to watches now: it’s possibly one of the dullest ways to start this conversation, but could you tell us a little about how you first became interested in horology?
I think that, from an early age, that interest was cultivated by my father. He was adamant I learn the value of punctuality and the significance of time. That aside, watches have always been symbolic of milestones in my family, and so I was nudged towards thinking about them as more than just status symbols.
That passion for mechanical watches was cemented further when I met my fiancé, Tom [Chng]. We originally met on a dating platform, and – despite having never seen any photos of my face, he was still interested in striking up a conversation, all because of what was on my wrist. At the time, I think it was a Ref. 15300 Royal Oak.
Is there any one particularly meaningful event you and your father celebrated together with the purchase of a watch?
When I graduated from college. I don’t remember the exact model – my memory fails me – but it was definitely a Seiko.
Nice. That’s a very solid choice for a younger enthusiast.
Well, at the same time, it was about him not wanting to spoil me.
Funny story: as it happens, my brother is also a collector, so down the line we pulled together enough funds to ‘share’ a Cartier Tank with a quartz movement. At the time, we couldn’t afford the mechanical versions. Anyway, one day we’re having dinner at a colleague’s house…
I have this terrible gnawing sensation that I know what’s about to happen.
I was still quite new to collecting at the time, so I just wrapped the watch in a piece of tissue and left it on the countertop. A few hours later, it dawned on me that I’d completely forgotten about it – I realised my colleagues had swept the watch into the dustbin whilst clearing, thinking it was waste paper!
Quite the memorable story to go with one’s first Tank.
Obviously, I was quite panicked. I didn’t know how to break the news to my brother, so I ended up buying a used reference [from] Carousell [a consumer-to-consumer marketplace]. It didn’t take him long to clock that the watch was a replacement, not the piece we’d originally purchased together. The whole thing ended up being an expensive and painful lesson.
Did that initial decision – as some would contend, by necessity – to buy a non-mechanical Tank affect your enjoyment of the watch at all?
I think the more important aspects of my enjoyment had to do with the Tank lineage’s timelessness and distinctive visual sensibility.
From a professional photographer’s perspective, which elements in the visual language of horology tend to interest you most? What are the qualities that can make or break an image?
Regardless of the specific detail, the watch designs I tend to be most drawn to are classically grounded with a touch of modernity.
Hence, timing instruments that are simple, elegant, and legible speak a lot to me as a photographer. Subtle details like a typeface, dial finish, hand shape, and the dial-to-case ratio are crucial to get right – yet [are] commonly overlooked by many.
From a narrative standpoint, I’m especially partial to shooting vintage pieces. The joy of photographing those is you get to document how they age over time and help tell the stories behind their provenance.
Based on your experience working with multiple leading brands in the fashion, beauty and lifestyle segments, what is the chief distinction between being creative in a commercial setting versus as a pure enthusiast?
I’d like to think that, at a basic level, I utilise the same practices regardless of whether the work is creative or possesses some commercial aspect. Of course, when it comes to dealing with watch brands, there tends to be an emphasis on precision: time at 10 to 10, ‘hero’ shot checklist, and so forth. Because I favour an approach that’s highly intuitive, I have to really put myself in the client’s headspace to fit the brief.
On the other hand, my personal goal with watch photography is to immerse the viewer in the timepiece's narrative. I want the connection between audiences and the photograph to feel human: less glossy, less stylistic, and less lacking in emotion.
I’d wager a lot of people, particularly collectors, are tired of photography that holds you at arm’s length. People want the emotional experience – if I can use that phrase – of wearing these things to come through.
I think, much like [me] and Tom, that’s the benefit of being a watch collector and a person working in the space: you’re between the brands and the consumer. More often than not, when brands execute a campaign, they don’t necessarily grasp what it is that collectors themselves want and aspire to.
Recently, I was working on a shoot for a particular luxury watch brand, and though it came together quite well – the whole thing was beautifully shot and produced – there was a lack of humanness to the endeavour. It was very stylistic: we had to prop the pieces on decorative arrangements, in settings that I think most of us would find it hard to imagine wearing these in.
“Timing instruments that are simple, elegant, and legible speak a lot to me as a photographer. Subtle details like a typeface, dial finish, hand shape, and the dial-to-case ratio are crucial to get right – yet [are] commonly overlooked by many.”
So, when I’m shooting for a collector-focused organisation like Singapore Watch Club – or [you], at ACM – we have a strong concern for the thematic quality of how watches are portrayed.
In the time that you’ve been collecting, how has the voice of female collectors grown and shifted within the broader watch community? Are an increasing number of women discovering their passion for horology, or is that certain individual voices are now being more fully recognised?
I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of female collectors and industry personalities in the community at large. Women have gone from simply wanting to participate in such a male-dominated space to actually ‘owning’ their own voice.
For instance, in the last three years, more and more female collectors are becoming openly inclined to what we think of as ‘masculine’ watches. Growing attention is paid to aspects of performance, finishing, and mechanical capability – it’s about more than a watch’s aesthetic quality.
The traditional stereotype that women’s watches are quartz-powered and ornamental is gradually being challenged, hence, for watch brands hoping to bridge the gap between the sexes, a great initiative would be to invest more in unisex offerings that are inspired by a universal design language.
Our thanks to Hosanna for taking the time to share her thoughts on collecting and the creative process with us. Photography by Tom Chng.