London’s fashion industry has always been shaped by an amalgamation of perspectives. Often the most breathtaking and brilliant creations come from those with a divergent point of view: Ashish is the Delhi-born designer making a political statement with his 'Immigrant' tees; Irish Simone Rocha brings a haunted femininity to fashion week; and Erdem Moralıoğlu is the Turkish-Canadian creator of heart-stirring frocks. On the other side of the lens are Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng, fashion photographers from South Korea and Hong Kong respectively, who are making some of the most thrilling visual work of the moment.
'Otherness' is the topic of Hanna and Joyce’s new exhibition, hosted at Somerset House and curated by Shonagh Marshall. English As A Second Language, opening 25th January, explores how the photographers' approach to fashion has been influenced by the countries of their birth and by a Western fashion system. Having worked with Hanna and Joyce on a previous exhibition and book, Posturing, Shonagh wanted to delve further into the ways in which global perspectives shape our view of fashion.
Joyce and Hanna both moved from Asia in 2010 to study fashion promotion and communication at Central Saint Martins, making them part of a vast and vibrant community: according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, in 2016-2017, 42% of postgraduate students in the UK were from outside the European Union.
With the implications of Brexit looming large over every industry, fashion is analysing the richness of its multicultural fabric. In the lead-up to the referendum in 2016, the British Fashion Council surveyed 500 designers and found that an overwhelming majority – 90%, in fact – wanted Britain to remain in the EU. In 2019, as the debate about immigration rages on, English As A Second Language, which examines the creativity of 'outside' perspectives, feels particularly compelling.
The exhibition features works by both photographers – including two new commissioned bodies of work – that explore the feeling of being lost in translation. Although this sounds like an overwhelming and potentially isolating state of being, both Hanna and Joyce see it as a positive experience. "I started to appreciate my background more when working as a creative living in London," Hanna says. "I feel the industry we work in is becoming more open-minded and interested in seeing something different to what they have seen before. I think being lost in translation, ironically, can inspire something totally unexpected. For me, it doesn’t mean a struggle, it means unlimited possibility."
Joyce echoes this: "I grew up moving homes every one to three years. Looking back, that’s probably why I get really restless and almost depressed when I’m in one place for too long. Sometimes it's kind of an advantage to be the outsider, observing."
How does their work visualise the feeling of being an outsider looking in, of decoding the life of a country in a way that would be impossible for a native? "Rather than [confining themselves] to the Western aesthetics that are so prevalent within fashion image-making, they merge signs and symbols from their cultural heritage with garments, and other props and tools from the West," Shonagh tells Refinery29. "This approach is entirely of our time, and I find this theme within their work fascinating. For me, Joyce has a worldview, her images are a celebration of globalisation, whereas in Hanna’s work there is an internal energy present, both from Hanna and her sitter, that explores and questions female identity."
Capturing unseen moments, navigating a foreign city and different languages, Joyce and Hanna's work couldn’t have been made by anyone else. Hanna's photography depicts her muses – Moffy, from London, and Heejin, from South Korea – against the backdrop of Somerset House's neoclassical architecture, while Joyce built stories around the people she met and grew to know during a six week period, casting directly from Somerset House’s visitors.
"I didn’t grow up with the same type of visual or cultural stimulation I received in my London university years," Joyce says. "The main visual stream I saw was ads and tabloid covers at 7-11. The way we interpret language and symbols sometimes separate us on another dimension of thoughts, as opposed to someone who grows up in a mono-dialect world. We both came to London not expecting quite what was to come after our English education, and left university with an altered mode of communication."
This translated worldview is one we should be celebrating, not limiting. At a time when social, political and economic issues are divisive and fraught, differing perspectives are the road to progress. As Shonagh says: "Fashion photography doesn't necessarily suggest a new way to look at the world, but it pokes at the zeitgeist, framing social issues such as race, sexuality, gender in a new way. It’s a mirror to our times."
Hanna Moon & Joyce Ng: English As A Second Language is at Somerset House from 25th January to 28th April.