Intense. “Like one punch in the face after another,” in the words of one colleague. That’s what one thinks when they look at many of Shawn Nee’s images. His photographs of Hollywood show an aspect of the city that most tourists, and most Angelenos, would prefer to overlook.
Unlike many street photographers who want to remain unnoticed and make candid images, the subjects in Nee’s photographs, which are taken up close and with a wide-angle lens, are very aware of his presence. Often, they are looking right at the camera and, through that, the viewer.
The result is a series of photographs that stay with you long after you’re done looking.
1) How and why did you get into photography?
There isn’t a specific reason why I started taking pictures, and it’s not something I knew I would be doing with most of my time until I was almost 30.
During my late teens/early 20s, my aunt gave me her old Canon AT-1, and I would take pictures of various things and objects around my backyard and neighborhood. I was horrible though, so I would stop and wouldn’t take a picture for years. But for some reason, I never got rid of the camera, and I always kept it packed away wherever I lived.
Then, after moving to Hollywood and being here for a few years, a very personal and serendipitous chain of events brought me back to photography, and I started photographing people. I was maybe 28 then, and that’s when it seemed like I was capable of taking pictures that other people wanted to look at. It was a good feeling, and the experience gave me the confidence to stop putting my camera away. During that time, I also realized that the people I was photographing (who are my close friends now) were affecting me in such a positive way.
2) Where and what do you like to photograph?
I have a camera with me wherever I go, so I’ll photograph anything that’s interesting, but I primarily photograph people now. I focus all of my energy on Hollywood and the people within this area because that’s my neighborhood. I’ve lived here for 10 years, and it’s important that someone document a portion of the people (I tend to focus on the marginalized) that live in this area.
3) Who or what are your inspirations?
This is difficult to explain, and I haven’t always felt this way, but in the last year or so, I’ve been motivated by regret. It’s a topic that’s too personal to discuss.
4) What do you photograph with?
I don’t own a digital camera, so all of my work is film-based. I shoot with a Canon EOS 3, using wide-angle lenses, and I’ll use whatever black-and-white film that is available. I do prefer Fuji Neopan or Tri-X over anything else though.
I do my own black-and-white processing, and I use an Espon 700 to scan my negatives. By doing everything myself, I am able to keep my expenses much lower compared to someone who is paying a lab to process all of their film. In my case, it’s tens of thousands of dollars over the past three to four years — something close to the value of a new Prius.
5) What’s one of your favorite images and why?
That’s a difficult question that I can’t answer. And for me, taking pictures is not about chasing that one great image. I’m more interested in the actual experience of spending time with someone I have never met before, seeing how they live their life.
For instance, I’m really fond of my time spent with Bill Bowersock, who was forced to leave his home after his partner of 32 years, Harvey Frand, died because the federal government does not view their relationship as being valid. Which means Bill was disqualified from receiving Harvey’s Social Security survivor’s benefits — something that he would’ve received if he were the surviving partner of a heterosexual couple. It’s infuriating to know that our federal government is still discriminating against certain groups of people. So I’m grateful that Bill allowed me to spend time with him and gave me the chance to help tell his story in the short documentary “Thank You for Your Call.”
See more of Shawn’s work at his blog, BoyWithGrenade.org and at his website, The Discarted Collection.