If you are looking for images which capture that whole dystopian world, Liam Wong is a step in the correct direction. Despite coming to photography more as a practical means to “capture his travels”, Liam Wong’s work is anything but practical as cyber-punk, noir, sci-fi beckon you into his world where night-time Tokyo pulses with an addictive brooding energy.
Currently splitting his time between Japan and the UK, we got some time to talk to the Scottish born photography about, dystopias, his work and of course Syd Mead.
So, your life has taken on somewhat of a detour but tell us first who and what had an impact on your journey to your chosen path which is creativity as a whole?
I grew up watching my older brothers playing video games – I would say that’s where my journey began and where I became inspired. We would play games together and create art and animations on the AMIGA-the idea of creating art and video games never left my head after that.
Tell us about you, degree and your work in gaming at Ubisoft?
I studied Computer Arts at the University of Abertay, Dundee in Scotland. The course was four years long and I learned all kinds of things from concept art to 2D, 3D and even animation. It was there that I realized I had a passion for graphic design and simultaneously just how bad I was at the other topics.
I worked at Ubisoft as an art director in video games for about five years. There I would design, define and direct visual identities. I worked on everything from overseeing things within the game such as the UI, environments and lighting, to things outside of the game like the marketing, motion graphics and merchandise.
Photography from what we read came as a later pursuit/hobby/ wish. Why did you not head down the photography path in the first place and what was the moment, person, thing that lit the passion for photography?
I never planned to become a photographer, it just kind of worked out that way. My father is a passionate hobbyist photographer and I think the interest was always there for me, but I never took notice.
When I first bought a camera, my wish was to create a mini film of my trip in Japan, leaning more towards the travel/tourist angle but it was my photographs which caught the interest of friends when I shared them on my Facebook. I think it spiraled from there. I took one picture of a taxi driver waiting in the rain for a couple to exit a love hotel in Tokyo’s red-light district. It was the first time I had captured a moment. It felt like a shot from a Wong Kar-wai film – although nowhere near as beautiful – but it was motivating for me.
What inspired your journey into the world of dystopia, cyberpunk, sci fi and more?
The work of Syd Mead on Blade Runner (1982). It made me wonder what if it could be achieved through street photography. If the work of cinematographers like Christopher Doyle (with Wong Kar-wai), Benoît Debie (with Gaspar Noé) and Roger Deakins (with Ridley Scott) could be approached that way. On that journey I started to consume more film and revisit old classics I watched growing up, like Ghost In The Shell (2017), AKIRA (1988) and Evangelion (1995).
Your interest in the visuals of sci-fi, cyberpunk, dystopias is evident in your book TO:KY:OO talk to us about those interests.
There are certain elements we associate with that genre: rain, umbrellas, neon, vivid colors, silhouettes, noir. These became the main elements I considered when approaching my photography. My background in video games was about style and so I understood how to keep consistency and to create something identifiable. I took inspiration from many noir movies and applied that to my work.
Syd Mead: we must talk more about his unfortunate death and his influence on your work.
On the same trip I took to Tokyo where I bought my first camera, I also found a rare copy of Syd Mead’s Kronolog (1992). His incredible work was in perfect condition with the laser disc still in its wrapper!
It’s hard to communicate just how much it inspired me. Even before I got into photography his work had been saved on my computer, from concepts to his graphic design work. Through my photography I was able to connect with him, on major websites I would cite him as an inspiration, and he saw it and we were able to speak. He was kind enough to write some words for ‘TO:KY:OO’ last year before he passed. He will be missed but what an incredible person and artist. Art would not be the same without him. His work will continue to inspire artists, until forever really.
And of course, Hideo Kojima and how did he influence your work?
Hideo Kojima inspired my work not just in photography but also game development. Without his contributions as a creative, I wouldn’t be on the path I am today. I have a massive amount of respect for him.
I grew up playing Metal Gear Solid (1987) with my brothers and the art and game design in that series is just beautifully crafted. With SNATCHER (1988),the colors and style were obvious choices as inspiration for my photography. More than that, I was able to take his portrait which was one of the scariest things I have done. It was little things like that which for him maybe didn’t mean much, but for me it was the feeling that I could venture into other types of photography. That maybe I could find a future for me as both a photographer and a game artist. (See:
Talk to us about dystopia as a vision you create and understand. Indeed, why do you think Tokyo (visually) seems to lend itself so neatly to the creation of that world?
I try not to inject much narrative into my work these days and leave It open to the viewer – also because I am not a storyteller nor am I good at writing. However, I have taken some images which could be perceived as dystopian. Recently, I have been wandering Tokyo around 3-5am solidly. There are less people around the streets in the colder months. We are used to seeing Tokyo as this huge metropolis filled with people, but to witness it empty and void of people is something special to me and eerie to the viewer.
Tell us about the process of capturing your images-indeed do you almost approach it looking for that image that could easily be in a game (we know you detail some of this in the book)?
I am very aware of the elements I want to appear in the image, and the elements I choose to leave out. With it looking like a video game, I think it turns out that way subconsciously as I happen to look at many references like that. With an art background, I have a lot of techniques I learned through experimenting with digital art and I will mix and match them for the desired effect.
We must ask what is next for you from a photography aspect as TO:KY:OO and the associated images as a project are (if we are right) are 5 years old?
I captured the images in the book over a period of 3 years. I have some ideas for future photography projects I would love to do, cities I would love to visit and capture. I never start a project with a product in mind at the end goal, so I just create things until I feel like I see a body of work worth sharing.
Can you give us a clue as to what you are working on next?
Right now, I am just back to roaming the streets in both new and familiar places. I’m gathering references for my first step into film-making and my first game as an independent.