Interview – Man of (Snap) Action: Russel Wong

Russel Wong
By Nauval Yazid
Contributor | The Bali Times
JAKARTA ~ For many in Hollywood’s circles, the name Russel Wong has two meanings: It either refers to a devilishly handsome actor who so far has made a career of straight-to-video and martial-arts flicks, such as Romeo Must Die, or one of the world’s most renowned…

…photographers whose celebrity portraits have graced the covers of magazines like TIME and whose behind-the-scene photos of Asian and Hollywood films have been the staples of every major movie magazine.

Opening his first photography exhibition in Jakarta at the weekend, at Senayan City, as part of the 8th Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest) that gets underway this Saturday, Wong and his presence dazzled many who were already overwhelmed with the photographs of such stars as Glenn Close, Cindy Crawford and Isabella Rossellini.After the exhibit opened, the Singapore-born photographer spoke about his life and work – and his love for Bali

Your last photo exhibition of a similar theme was held at the Singapore Art Museum, last year. Any difference holding this one – Stars Through the Eyes of Russel Wong – in a shopping mall?
No, none at all. Be it in a gallery or a mall like this, it’s just the same. In fact, I believe that by having my works displayed in a public place like this, I can reach a wider audience. You see, I don’t believe that artworks should be exclusive. They should reach as many people as possible. Picasso remains Picasso even when you show his works in a mall.

What was your very first exhibit like?
It was at the Hilton hotel (Singapore), in 1989. I was back in Singapore at that time, and it was nice to have your works displayed to the public, some of them willing to buy. I feel great when people come up to me and say, “Hey, Russel. Nice picture!”

You like adulation?
Well, being a photographer is a lonely profession. We shoot by ourselves, we develop the pictures in a darkened room by ourselves and when they’re published, that’s it. Unlike musicians, who receive applause when they finish playing, we don’t get the same experience. Even when our works are sold, we never know how they are being appreciated. Only by receiving direct comments from people do we know that we’re onto something.

So, you’d trade your camera for, say, a sax?
I think I would! But that’s how my whole career started, actually. Sort of. I began taking photographs of musicians, particularly jazz musicians, back in LA. The music they play has kind of grown into me.

You listen to jazz when you’re shooting?
Not necessarily. But I improvise a lot when I take pictures. It’s the same as jazz: You’re presented with the same subject or song, and you’ve got to play it differently. Art is not about uniformity after all. And that’s what makes every artist special – because they’re distinctive.

How long is your typical photo shoot?
Around 10 or 20 minutes. Probably 30 minutes is the longest.

Including set-up?
Let me tell you, we Asians, work very fast! I don’t want to waste three or four hours in a photo session, especially when you deal with people as your subject – their energy goes to waste when you spend too much time setting up. And I believe that the first 15-20 minutes in a photo session is the best to capture your subject, because there’s a sense of spontaneity in it. I did that picture of Jackie Chan that won awards in only 15 minutes.

So how do you pick up the pace?
Experience, I guess, and also the nature of the environment I work with. I do a lot of behind-the-scene photos of filmmaking, and I have to say that nothing beats Asian filmmaking when it comes to the pace of shooting.

Why so?
I guess in Asia, a lot of films are financed by family based companies. It’s not really an industry like Hollywood, where on the film sets there are a lot of restrictions, union matters to consider and many others. But in Asia, you can feel the whole familiar atmosphere on the sets. I had lunch with Ang Lee on a side of a street during the shooting of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and no one bothered us. The relaxed ambience helps filmmakers to gain freedom in their work.

Among all the films you have worked with, which is your favorite?
I like Hero, by Zhang Yimou. The cinematography is gorgeous and the whole philosophical subtext in the story is just compelling.

Is that the kind of film (martial arts) you’d like to direct someday?
Maybe. I’d love to direct a drama, though.

How would you see it coming about?
I haven’t really thought about it. But I want to shoot a film in English, because I want it to go global, and I want to shoot it in Singapore, my hometown.

Any other plans you have not fulfilled?
I want to do a book about Bali. I love the landscapes and the local people. In fact, if you asked what place outside Singapore I could live in, I’d definitely choose Bali.

Why do you like Bali so much?
[Because it’s] the place I go when I need to rest. I can just go to Ubud, lie down and do nothing.

But you take the camera, right?
Not at all. I can still live without my camera.

Stars Through the Eyes of Russel Wong: at selected venues in Jakarta from December 1-17. The 8th Jakarta International Film Festival opens on December 8 and runs until December 17 at cinemas and cultural centers. For further information on both events, visit

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