How do we visualise queerness? Every person might approach this question differently, but New York City-based photographer Leo Xander Foo’s work seeks to capture some of these answers. He often aims the lens at himself, representing his own identity and body – he has used self-portraiture to vulnerably navigate his process of transitioning. With less than two decades of life behind him, Foo's work is both prolific and inspiring.
His work seeks to create a space for queer people to express themselves. Although heavily invested in portraiture, Foo's imagery can also be spontaneous. The photographer is also able to produce intimate and vulnerable images in the bustling city streets and party settings of NYC. His work is fresh, full of colour and raw moments. Having just finished his first year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts program, Foo is now working with a more complete and sophisticated set of technical skills. The artist talks to us about his relationship to photography, transitioning and considering his life as one giant art project.
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To start off, could you introduce yourself?
I’m a photographer based in NYC, born in 2003, from Staten Island. I’m also a trans man of Chinese and Peruvian descent. My work revolves around seeing and being seen, as well as voracious yet intimately queer portraiture, creating space for my subjects to express themselves, while also playing with a fluid lexicon of passion and identity. Some of my collaborators include Grammy-nominated recording artist Arca, and clients such as Vogue, W Magazine, GQ, Interview Magazine, Vice, Dazed, Them, Nylon Magazine, Calvin Klein, Dr. Martens, Marc Jacobs, among others.
Your career has really taken off recently, can you talk to us a bit about where things felt like they began to gather momentum? When did you first start really pursuing photography?
I was 14 when I decided I wanted to start getting serious with photography and make it my career; I feel so lucky to have realised that so early on in my life. High school would take up my weekdays, but I would dedicate my weekends to photoshoots as often as possible. There has been this burning desire in me to photograph. I just had to fill up any free time I got with photography, or I made time for it. If I couldn’t photograph someone else, I would photograph myself.
But it wasn’t until I was 16 when something really shifted, and again, I feel incredibly lucky that this happened. At the end of summer in 2019, I saw that one of my all-time favourite artists, Arca, was coming to New York to perform three nights in a series called Mutant;Faith. I reached out to the publication Them and pitched photographing one of the nights, and they approved. It genuinely felt like a stroke of luck that they agreed for me to take on this story because my entire portfolio up until then was all outdoor portraits. I had zero experience shooting an event indoors and I didn’t even have the right equipment for such an environment (shoutout to photographer John Novotny for lending me a proper lens to shoot this)… but I did it! And still to this day, those are some of my favourite photographs ever. Arca herself loved the photos as well and invited me to photograph two more of her events happening in New York that year. A couple of months later, I found out she wanted to include two photos of mine in her official album artwork for KiCk i. All of these occurrences with Arca are truly what launched me into the career I have now. I can’t thank her enough for inspiring me.
You started doing photography well before college. Has being in a BFA program changed your relationship with the medium?
I just finished my first year at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, majoring in BFA Photography and Video. This year mostly served as a foundation year, as any first year of college should be. I actually did not know a lot of technical aspects of photography before going to college, such as handling files, different types of equipment, and working in a studio, so I am very grateful to have learned and experienced these foundation technicalities. I feel like the work I make now is simply better quality and more professional after learning how to do so in school.
 “My self-portraits are art because my body is art.”
What have been some of your favourite projects so far? Do you have any dream collaborators?
I feel like my entire life is the project and photography is a translator of that. My photography has significantly changed (in a relatively short amount of time) as I’ve grown more into myself and what I want my world to be. I don’t really like to limit myself to a defined ‘project’ for my personal work – I’m really just living life. My self-portraiture is a specific segment in my personal portfolio, though; perhaps the most significant and important to me as well. My self-portraits are art because my body is art. I love capturing how it grows and produces and modifies and adapts as I medically transition. What a self-portrait of mine literally shows is very physical and has a lot to do with my physical body, but the lexicon in which I communicate it has a lot to do with the emotional side of me and my transitioning.
Regarding my favourite editorial projects, I really loved photographing the Brooklyn Liberation March for Trans Youth for Vogue in 2021. What a monumental and truly heart-touching rally and march that was; I feel so honoured to have been able to capture it. Those are still some of my all-time favourite images I’ve taken. Another favourite project of mine was photographing Calvin Klein’s pride events in 2021. I had never before taken nightlife photos like I did that night, and it felt really good to be immersed in such a lively, safe, and queer celebration like that. You can see some of those images in W Magazine, Nylon and Dazed. Lastly, I just recently worked with Schuyler Bailar, the first trans NCAA D1 men’s athlete, for pride this year as his personal photographer. Schuyler was a grand marshal in the official NYC Pride Parade this year and is a fellow Asian American trans man. It felt so empowering and inspiring to work and celebrate pride with him.
You were recently included in the Perfect Marc Jacobs campaign. What was the experience of working with the Marc Jacobs team, and with Jurgen Teller, like?
Working on that project was truly a moment of a lifetime. I don’t consider myself a model, so it was just crazy to me that I was even there in the first place. Major gratitude to the people at Establishment Casting for giving me the opportunity! Everyone on set was so kind and helpful, and it was lovely to see some of my friends there as well. Working with and being photographed by Jurgen Teller was comfortable and quick; that man knows what he’s doing, and it was super cool to see that in action. I’m overall so thankful for that experience and accomplishment.
You are very outspoken about centring queer people in your work. How do you do this with your photography? How do you work with your subjects to achieve good representations of their identities?
Art, in general, is an idea expressed through some sort of medium. I deal with my gender dysphoria by making art out of myself because I want to admire and appreciate my body like art, thus I turn it into art, and that helps me remember that I am art and that my body is my medium of expression. I want to help other people experience and realise that about themselves and their bodies. It simply just feels so good when I know my photos are doing something beneficial for someone. My goal for capturing a subject is for the shoot to be a conversation, like a stream of consciousness where all individuals in the area feel trust and comfortability. I’m looking to get real. To empower vulnerability and to see and be seen. You have to create a space for one to put their guard down to achieve that.
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You have been very open on social media about different aspects of your medical transitioning journey. What is the experience of inviting an expansive digital community to share vulnerable thoughts and feelings? Is there anyone you hope your posts will reach?
I truly grew up online (I got Instagram when I was 8 years old), so I think I've always been very open about my life in the digital world. Being vulnerable and communicating online comes so naturally to me, just because I’ve been doing it since my childhood. I actually always felt so much more comfortable being vulnerable and safe to express myself online rather than in real life just because of how I grew up.
I decided to share so much of my medical transitioning journey because I enjoy seeing other trans peoples’ experiences as well. Seeing people grow into who they want to be and seeing how happy and confident they become just brings me so much joy. I’m grateful to be taking part in that now. Being as real as possible is also very important to me; I think so much of the journey is sugar-coated by only showing achievements and feel-good moments. Seeing only positivity led me to have false hope and an inaccurate expectation of what the journey would be like. It’s so important to be honest, because what is faith without doubt?
I found that Covid had a really interesting effect on queer communities. As everyone gathered online and was spending more time alone contemplating their own identities, many came to discover and accept queer identities. Your practice is both self-reflexive and highly social. What was the experience of isolation for you as a photographer? How did it inform your work?
I didn’t realise I was trans until the pandemic, and that’s the reality for a lot of my trans friends today. Almost everyone I know came out and transitioned during the pandemic. I think that isolation really allowed me to experience how I truly feel without the pressures of having to perform as a person in society. That lack of participation in the exterior world will really teach you a lot about what is going on with you and in your interior world. It has a lot to do with surrendering to yourself and what you feel. Loving yourself will always help you love the people around you better, and there is no definite way to love yourself.
My photographic work has significantly grown as I’ve grown as a person. I think photography is just a translation and a visual lexicon of myself and my world. During quarantine, I worked a lot on self-portraits, which was already a goal of mine. Through capturing and expressing myself photographically, plus the extra introspection happening, I really found out what it means to be an artist and as a person: self-expression, seeing and being seen, and creating the life I want to live.
What’s next for Leo?
I’m working a lot on my mental health. A lot of life experiences have happened to me very quickly and it definitely is taking a toll on me. I’m very hard on myself and my body, so I’m working on patience, kindness, and generosity to both my mind and the world around me. I think medically transitioning is both very physical and very emotional, and for me to start testosterone as soon as I turned 18, and then get top surgery a couple of months before I turn 19 is just a lot happening at once. I’m beyond grateful for my ability to achieve so much so quickly, but oh man, it’s a lot! I’m living a very delicate and precious time in my life right now. I love to be able to share my body and my mind through my artwork as well.
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