TOKYO – When Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee’s first gallery show opened in Tokyo in November 2011, it felt like the culmination of his many years spent working professionally in Japan. Having built a reputation for commercial fashion work, the exhibition of his series “Forever Young” at Hiromi Yoshii Gallery fulfilled his dream of also showcasing personal expression. Much like many of his commercial images, the series features glossy shots of male nudes — but unlike his fashion work, the images are left un-retouched, and capture more explicit full-frontal shots of men sometimes sporting erections.
The other week, his second exhibition of works from the series, titled “Uncensored Edition” and held at the same gallery, presented a different kind of first for him when he was arrested and thrown in jail on charges of obscenity for selling copies of his “Super” series of artbooks featuring similar images. Since then, he’s earned a combination of notoriety and heroism.
The boundaries of art and pornography in Japan have been tested before: In 2003, a Tokyo High Court banned the sale of a monograph of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work published by Takashi Asai on charges of indecency. (This was overturned in 2008 by Japan’s Supreme Court, with Justice Kohei Nasu stating that the photos were from an “artistic point of view” and by “a leading figure in contemporary art.”) And only last month, the line between pornography and art again made headlines when an image of Tomomi Kasai, a member of Japan’s popular pop group AKB48, appeared in various media picturing the artist unclothed with an underage boy cupping her breasts, as a prelude to a forthcoming photo book. (The book has since been pulled) by its publisher.
But Leslie Kee’s arrest proves that this conflicted issue likely won’t be disappearing any time soon. BLOUIN ARTINFO Japan sat down with him after his release from jail to hear more about his side of the story.
How do you feel right now?
It’s been like going and coming back from the Twilight Zone, or watching a strange movie without understanding what’s going on. But it was a bad experience that also came with a blessing in disguise.
What exactly happened?
I was arrested at 1:04 p.m. last Monday while I was shooting for a big cosmetics brand's 50th anniversary images. I had photographed two girls and while I was waiting for the third to have her make-up done, the police arrived, and immediately arrested me and drove me to the station. There, they questioned me for ten hours, usually the same few questions again and again.
I told them truthfully that most of the answers could be found on my Facebook and Twitter account. I’m always open [about my work] and love sharing it and my exhibition events with the world. I’m probably one of the rare photographers in Japan who enjoys sharing everything I like. I felt hurt and very insulted about this sudden and ridiculous arrest. And I’m sad that my works are being classified as obscene at the moment to the public. This would not happen in America or Europe at all.
What were you actually charged with?
I was charged with my male nudes being called "waisetsu" – obscene. For displaying them in my second “Forever Young” exhibition in the Hiromi Yoshii Gallery in Roppongi, and for selling the uncensored copies of my “Super” series art photobooks. The show was supposed to run until March 6th, and contained 50 of my latest full frontal nudes, in large frames, which were shot in New York, Paris and Japan.
I was handcuffed and locked in a cell by myself for two nights. It felt like hell, with no windows. I was cleaning the floor, wearing a numbered sweater and slippers, being called by my number just like a prisoner in a movie. I requested a lawyer. I had exhibited my male nudes in an official art gallery, and had been assured it was fine. I was not upset at my curator, who loves my works, and who didn’t realize that it was against the law.
Why were you not arrested at the exhibition itself?
Actually, during my interrogation, I realized that I’d seen the police officer many times before. He had actually been attending and following all my photo exhibitions for almost a year, starting in 2012! How scary to realize that I have been secretly under surveillance for such a long time.
After the first “Forever Young exhibition,” in November 2011, [the officer] had said, “we received one complaint from someone.” He laughed, “You’re too famous,” but in a way that made it clear that he was being serious. “Maybe someone’s jealous of you, and your fame. You’ve been constantly in the limelight and are close friends with all these celebrities and artists.” After hearing this, I wished that the police could have just given me a warning earlier during my other exhibitions.
How do you feel about the reaction?
I was shocked when I was locked up. However, when I was released after 48 hours, I was even more surprised and touched to know that thousands of people around the world, including famous Japanese artists like Ayumi Hamasaki, Norika Fujiwara, Masataka Matsutoya, Ai Tominaga, Miyavi, Kazuaki Kiriya, Keita Maruyama, had actually written on their Twitter and blogs, fighting for me and expressing their love and support.
In the art and photography industry in Japan, as well as around the world, people were calling me a hero. People came straight up to me on the street and asked me for signature or to shake my hand. I am still speechless and so grateful towards my fans, friends and artists who believe in my works.
You’ve been in Japan nearly 20 years, do you still feel ostracized?
I always try to showcase works that most Japanese creators might not even try. By doing unusual projects, I am able to show them that they can do it too in Japan. When you’re a foreigner there is always doubt: “Are you the real deal, are you truthful, are you sincere?” After working as a photographer for 15 years in New York and Japan, I can still somehow feel that [more] in Japan. The Japanese have a lot of responsibilities, and most of them prioritize making sure that they don’t lose their jobs over making daring decisions. The value of human identity is different compared to that in America and Europe.
What gives you the strength to be daring?
One of my strongest inspirations comes from singer Yumi Matsutoya. For more than 40 years, Yumi has never stopped expressing love for nature and people, and pride and respect through her music.
I was once told by a fashion stylist that one man’s power can be stronger than a commercial company. Great photographers and artists like Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, and Helmut Newton have proven that in their generations. That made me realize that even when I was collaborating with big international fashion brands like Tiffany or Armani Exchange, I should stay true to my vision to bring new
surprises to the collaboration, [even if it meant] breaking company policy. This is what I call “my revolution!”
I always believe that my art will eventually touch the hearts of the right people. It does not matter how many copies of my books are sold, or if I don’t earn money when holding free exhibitions. As time has passed, I’ve gained new fans and love that gives me courage to keep moving. Look at the master of Japanese photography, Kishin Shinoyama: He is 73 and still keeps on creating amazing works. This is still the beginning of my life as an artist, and all artists have to go through some pain.
But this exhibition was quite a departure from the majority of your work…
“Forever Young – Uncensored Edition” featured all-male nudes. I classify it as art, but more than art to me, it is a self-expression. I appreciate the beauty and strength of a natural man. Most of my commercial and fashion works are retouched — I have never seen an unretouched photo in a beauty campaign. However, for “Forever Young,” I try to keep them un-retouched and uncensored, to express the beauty of truth, rawness and purity. This also creates a balance in my lifework.
Why only male nudes?
Male nudes have never been exhibited to people in Japan, or even in Asia, officially. It’s my signature. Which makes me sad that my signature has become a so-called crime in Japan! My artwork of male nudes attracts all sorts of people, and women especially are appreciating it more recently. Women’s nudity has been much more accepted in Japan over the years. Because of the difference of laws or religion, I do understand the restrictions, but in Japan it’s supposed to be much more developed.
You must have known there was a risk with this exhibition?
It never crossed my mind. When I was asked to show these works officially in the gallery, I was so happy, and thankful to the curator. [The November show] was my first official artwork exhibition, and most people see me as a fashion and celebrity photographer.
If we compare your art to explicit paintings of nudes, do you accept that photography is more real, while painting can be seen as one stage removed from reality?
I wouldn’t think like that. Man’s body isn’t a secret. Men masturbate, men ejaculate, and these acts are natural, it’s not a hidden secret or shameful act at all. So the debate is between [whether photos are] porn or non-porn. My pictures are strong, shot with good lighting, with good angles, sharp, very structured and posed in every single moment. Even when [a model] masturbates or ejaculates, I give direction to achieve the perfect shot. I’ll make a model do a shot a hundred times to make it perfect, and, like a drawing, I see that as a project and experiment.
Where is the line between porn and art for you?
The simple answer is, who shot it? It’s me, Leslie Kee! That’s good and sincere enough. Am I doing porn? Of course not, that’s too ridiculous to even think about it. It’s like saying Richard Avedon is doing porn when he shoots a naked model? Come on, it’s Avedon!
I cannot answer [with legal technicality] or politically, as I’m not into law or politics.
If a porn photographer is contributing to society in another part of his career, he could be an artist too. Most artists need to be recognized in the art world by a museum or curator.
How did you feel about the recent controversy of the image of AKB48’s Tomomi Kasai, which was deemed by some as child pornography?
It’s like Janet Jackson’s album cover. I think it’s okay. I don’t know the reason they did it, but if the concept and message is for a beautiful reason then it’s okay. If it’s to cause attention, then it creates a misunderstanding because it might mislead a young boy to imagine they should do that to a girl. But it doesn’t make me uncomfortable.
Will you continue with your male nude works?
I’m going to keep doing male nudity worldwide, even if I have to cover it up in Japan. Or I can always take my work elsewhere like New York. I’m really not interested in fighting against the law in Japan.
As a matter of principle, this male nudity project represents a whole artistic journey that I’ve been pursuing for many years. It takes a long time for any photographer to find something that he feels he does well, and with a unique stance. I think that there is no other Asian photographer in the art, fashion, or celebrity industry who does anything similar to what I’m doing now.
I’ll need to spend more time selecting the right people, choosing the right timing and location to do any future projects. I want to stay in this city even more to fight for the right to create this art and to show the way for the next generation. My mission is to create hope for the law to change slowly one day. This won’t make me change what I’ve set out to do.
To see "Super Tokyo by Leslie Kee," a previous exhibition by the artist at Omotesando Hills in May 2010, watch the video below: