Interview with Jamaican photographer, Monique Lai

This month we interview Jamaican photographer Monique Lai. Her work has been featured in many gallery exhibits around the world including New York and Hong Kong.  Her photographs tell stories in a unique style.

Q: As we Jamaicans like to say “Which part a Jamaica yuh come fram?”
Mobay … ‘paradise acres.’

Q: How did you get started in photography?
I recently celebrated my four-year anniversary! I took this time to reflect on the amazing journey of living and wanting this dream of being behind the lens. I was just in Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China having coffee in my room at the Shangri-la where I was shooting new work. And all I could think of was “wow … the journey that led me here to this room.”

Sunday, October 16, 2005. At the time, certain film projects that were supposed to line up did not, and I was devastated. Also, the mere mention of wanting to be a photographer drew a lot of “there are already so many, and you have to think of the competition!” But in my mind I knew: no one could see what I see … 

I had decided a few days before, that Sunday I would shoot 3 rolls of film as a test. I had already in my mind knew the subject matter I would shoot and where. That next day when I looked at the work, I was excited and happy, and it was only then I said, “I am a photographer.” I may not have the technical background most photographers have, but I have an eye and a vision.

That test shoot … the subject matter I was shooting, was my series Private Property, which was exhibited at the ArcLight Hollywood on 2 floors in Los Angeles. ‘Drought’ is one of the pieces that I photographed that Sunday. I had come full circle.

Q: What subjects do you love to photograph?
I have a love for architecture and construction … hence my love for shooting on location! I tend to highlight this work in my images because I am conscious of the amount of manpower it takes to create a foundation and structure for the public. It is with their expertise i.e. of construction workers/builders, and various sub-contractors, that we enjoy our living space. I very much appreciate this and take note of these design elements that become a huge component of my work.

Q: How do you prepare for a shoot?
My shoots are primarily mental. I have to be completely open to all elements on the day of shooting which is why I have to rest, relax, and listen to some Bob Marley music. My team normally gets onset early, and I come in a bit later …

Q: What is best advice anyone has given to you about photography?
“Be confident with your eye.” When I showed my portfolio when I started, there were key people who marveled how strong my eye was already and surprised I had only been shooting 5 months. Their positive feedback helped guide me to stay on course ….

Q: What inspires you when you a shooting pictures?
I have to feel connected to an image in order to shoot and there has to be a reason for me to take pictures. My work is not about shooting a pretty picture. There has to be depth and meaning behind it. 

Q:  I love the collection you had with the shoes that seems to show up in different scenes. What was the idea behind it?
This was inspired when I arrived in NY. I loved these subway tracks and I thought it was beautifully designed. I next thought of using colorful pumps to highlight certain features of landscape around the city, and was able to use “Blond” stilettos for this series. The idea behind this is unfortunately a bit x-rated so I would rather not say …   J

Q:  Based on the composition of your photos you seem to spend a lot of time in the dark room. Do you use a physical dark room or an electronic dark room for your photos (Photo editing program)?
I primarily have been shooting digital. I rarely crop and I shoot everything I need at that moment, which is why natural lighting for me is very important. I don’t know how to use Photoshop, so I am a huge fan of google’s Picasa and adobe Lightroom.

Q:  How did you land the gig to photo BB King?
I was selected by a writer from Barnett’s magazine to shoot LOVERIDE 2005 where BB King was performing at Lake Castaic. I submitted a few images of my work and got the call a few days later. In order to shoot this assignment, I had to follow the group and ride on a Harley!

Q: What other famous people have you photographed?
… Mr. Perry Henzell.

Q: Based on your photos you seem to have traveled to ASIA? Where did you got and did you feel a connection to your Asian roots?
I have traveled to China and Hong Kong throughout the years, and was struck by its uninhibited design. The Bank of China building in HK is one of the most incredible buildings I have seen, and I saw this in 1985. It said to me, anything was possible. This was the beginning, the roots of my very strong and wild imagination …

I speak Cantonese and have lived in Hong Kong so I always felt connected to both cultures and roots growing up. There is a deep sense of appreciation and admiration I feel when we become and acknowledge our own history.

Q: Where is the one place you would like to go and take photos?
Istanbul, Kazakhstan … something wild at the desert with a camel. I have also always been intrigued with Mesopotamia. 

Q: What reggae star would you love as a subject?
Mr. Buju Banton!

Q: Which was the last inspirational book you read?

Q: Name 2 songs in our I-pod that you have to hear at least once a month?
I hope you have these …
1.      Mavado, again and again
2.      Duane Stephenson, august town

Q: What is the most amazing place in Jamaica you cannot get enough pictures of?
I need to make time to travel the island. I have been wanting to see Port Royal and the Blue Mountains. But especially the Martha Brae river and the Green Grotto caves …

Q: What project are you working on right now?
I have a photo exhibition with the Red Elation gallery in Hong Kong, showcasing my most personal work to date featuring actress Eugenia Yuan. This series is titled Rêvant des Révolutions, from November 14 2009 thru January 3 2010. This show moves next to Boston in 2010 with the DNA gallery. 

I am working hard to land my first major photography publishing deal! J In between my personal work I also shoot assignments for various clients, most recently for Swire. 2 directing projects could happen, so am learning to take it all day by day. I never know where I am going to be … I just go when I get a call! 

Q: Thanks for the interview. Any final thought or advise for amateur photographers?
I strongly believe you have to know what you are about and what you want to say. Once you have figured that out, it will be much easier to shoot. Most importantly, have fun. Thank you … one love always…

You can view Monique’s work at
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