The Creators Project: One of the reasons you moved from South Korea to New York was to attend an American university. Has your academic education influenced your work?
Nikki S. Lee: In my case I just felt really free. I’m sure some schools have a competitive and ambitious atmosphere, but fortunately NYU wasn’t like that—it was easy going for me. That suited my style, but I’m sure everyone has their own style that suits them.
How much thought do you put into the production aspect of your work? It looks extremely thought-out and “professional,” but you don’t seem like the type of person to spend a lot of money on printing costs.
When I first started I had no money because I was a student, however, I also don’t think that high-cost productions and expensive works are necessarily good. Of course, there is good work that cost a lot of money to produce but I don’t think it at all matters how much was spent. The important thing is how conceptually good or bad the project is. I like efficient projects because I like seeing the greatest outcomes with minimal effects. Like I said, I was a student with no money so I thought a lot within that limited space. I also like projects that involve many layers; at first glance they might seem like very simple projects, but as you dig deeper you discover many stories and layers within.
What kinds of still cameras do you use?
Actually, I’ve only used old, manual snapshot cameras. I’ve used too many different versions to list, but they all only had a simple shutter to click on. Even now I don’t use a digital camera, and I actually don’t have a camera of my own—not even a little digital camera or iPods that people carry around. Sometimes I panic when I want to take a picture while I’m walking down the street or something, but I’m not an avid photographer on a normal basis. When I need to photograph something, I hire a photographer.
So you’re more like an art director who conceptualizes the ideas?
In my opinion, most current artists are like that. The process of making the art doesn’t matter as much as who conceptualizes it. I think the important thing is to discuss the story within the art.
Identity is a constant theme throughout your work. How does this influence who you select to appear in your images?
Well, all of my work so far has required the active participation of people. I think that’s mostly because I like to work with the idea of identity and my views toward it. I think the other people were important for me to identify my own identity within the relationships with those people. In Buddhism there’s a saying that goes something like “I can be someone else and that someone else can be me as well.” Thoughts like this one—thoughts that cause you to view yourself in other people’s shoes—were my main focus, so the people play a significant role.
Were the projects more about you or the people?
It’s about me. The question is about me, but to show me with the other people in the project becomes every much significant. The identity question of myself requires me to look at the relationships with myself and other people.