James Lai as a Leo
Toronto, Canada: where
6 mins: read time
The intro I want to give you about James Lai is this quote from the mouth of the leo himself, "I am really good at multiple choice". To me it feels important. It could be because the first time I met James he pulled out multiple - maybe four cameras loaded with different films and took photo after photo of Nina Escalante. It could be because visiting him to do this interview I got to flip though a whole box lid filled with polaroids. When it comes down to slicing and story telling, shooting on film, means you take a risk a digital photographer does not. James is just so casual about that.
Where is the last place you went with the specific intention of taking a photo?
I'm trying to think… Sometimes I do that but usually, I have my camera and I just take photos whenever I feel like it. There are times when I need to go out because I'll need to find the right timing for the light and stuff. But the last time I remember is the financial district.
What where you there chasing after for a photo?
I want to take photos that represent different people in Toronto and I feel like Bay Street is something that is interesting to take photos of. Also, the light is pretty good there.
How do you explore photography as a medium beyond snapping a photo?
Usually I go to the library and I look at books. For me, I guess beyond taking the photo there is also looking at the photos. So I predominantly shoot film which means that I don't get to see what the photos are like until they are developed. Usually, I don't develop until I save up at least eight rolls. It means I end up with a library of photos I can look at after. So I think another good way to explore the photos is to recognize that 99% of your photos are bad. So what you want to do is to try and find the good ones. That is actually really hard.
One of the artists whose work you showed me last time I was here was Araki, And you said what you liked about him and a lot of other Japanese photographers was that they are prolific in their work. What does it mean to you for an artist to be prolific in their art?
What most impresses me is their volume. That it becomes an excess. A lot of Japanese mentality and design is actually in minimalism. But then when you separatists like Araki or Daidō Moriyama just blast out hundreds of books or things like that. It's interesting to me because it becomes a stream of consciousness. It becomes something other. It definitely showed Japan very well.
When you exhibit your photos what is it like to exhibit work and have the people who are the subjects of the photos actually be at the show and see their photos?
*James laughs* So I haven't done too many shows but I realized the trick is to just get really drunk. Then you don't really remember anything from the show and it's usually a positive thing.
A subject matter you seem to like exploring beside people is flowers. What is it about flowers that interest you to study?
So it is actually more of a burgeoning interest. What interest me in flowers is that I feel like a lot of other photographers have explored flowers. A lot of photography is about trying to find the way you make photographs. The way you as an individual makes photographs. If you look at flowers from Maplethorpe or flowers from Araki or there are plenty of other photographers; they all look very different. They have sort of found their own thing in flowers. What I am trying to do is find my own thing in the flowers. I don't know I just like doing these exercises.
These photos courtesy of James Lai
As a photographer who is always snapping photos do you ever feel that there is a greater risk in not taking a photo than in doing something physically extreme like climbing a tree for an angle?
Yes I would climb a tree! If I needed to. There are many different ways to approach the moment of taking a photo. Some people are very measured and they like a tripod and all those things. I like running around like an idiot and pushing the shutter, trying to get it at the right time. So if I need to I will climb trees or run around with my head cut off.
Do you usually take one photo, and feel settled that you have captured that moment?
So I am a very bad photographer. I need to take a lot of bad photos in order to get a good photo. For me, I try to keep taking photos until hopefully its done.
You mentioned going to the financial district and being interested in that type of person. You actually have a background in economics. Do you think that is going to or has played an influence on your experience of art-making?
There is some experience there. I think what's most compelling about me. Because I am pretty cool is that I get along with so many types of people. I have always seen myself as someone who rotates around circles. That includes when I worked as an analyst, an energy analyst. So you have your circle there. I realized there are stories in each circle that are pretty interesting. I try to find photos in all the different places.
Do you have a favourite photo you have taken?
Uh... No, I think they could all be better.
Interview and photography
by Alexis Venerus
See more of James work
Photo by James Lai an outtake from Josiah in a Stained Glass Shop