Naomi Wong’s sensibility and nostalgia are quite unusual coming from someone who only graduated from university a year ago. She yearns for fleeting moments in the past, of certain places with specific people. Although she’s only in her early twenties, those sentiments still feel so real to her and to us. It might be hard to believe that she’s able to convey these thoughts and emotions perfectly through her photography, but you only have to take a glimpse of her pictures to feel just that. Here, you’ll get to understand how she achieves this, and you’ll also get to know her and her wild, wacky travels in Middle America; and hopefully her imagery will also take you back to a place and time gone by.
Could you please introduce yourself briefly?
Hey! My name is Naomi and I’m a photographer strictly shooting on film. I grew up in Hong Kong and the North of England but I’m now currently based in London.
How did you get into photography? Judging from your earlier work, I’m guessing you started out taking pictures of your friends as a teen, but what made you want to thoroughly document these moments?
My sister got me into photography when I was thirteen or fourteen. She used to come home with loads of cool magazines that I would go through; I think that’s when it kind of started. I shot loads of silly stuff on disposables like anyone else at first, until I started doing my A-Level in photography and my mum bought me a 35mm SLR camera.
When I was seventeen, for me, it was like a coming-of-age. Not to sound cheesy! But I had a pretty bad time at school. So I thought it was weirdly romantic to see friends fall in love for the first time, or the tension of underage drinking at house parties, with your crush being in the same room. I got to be myself and make new friends in this new environment. We were all going through the same kind of things and were overwhelmed by everything. A lot of these photos are actually on my Tumblr, which I’m going to use as an archive. But I documented these moments because I don’t think you ever feel the same again in your twenties – or at least not in the same way.
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I sense a lot of nostalgia in your photography in general, and you’re only in your early twenties, how are you so nostalgic?
I’m a really sentimental person. I’ve been told it’s a good and a bad thing. Maybe it’s crazy to want to go back to a certain time whether it’s to be with a specific person again or to be home somewhere. You can never relive it again and I think that’s so sad. But in my photography, I like to construct images that are influenced by things that I have observed or are from a memory. I’m trying to do this more when I go back to my hometown to shoot, since there’s such an emotional connection to the place. I also really like old British documentary photography, especially the Café Royal Books series; they have definitely been an influence.  
Naturally Lazy is a short film of yours about a teenager who’s studying at a boarding school and goes back to his hometown to see his childhood friends (I won’t say anything else, as I don’t want to spoil it). It qualified for the BAFTA’s Short Film Festival in London in 2017. What was it like getting that kind of reception and validation?
It was kind of surprising. I’d just made this film for my graduation and I thought it would just end up in the degree show and that would be it. We (my crew and I) had made this film for ourselves, it was never made for anyone else, really, and so it was a strange feeling when I saw the email from LSFF. I was half asleep and got woken up by the notification. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s a big deal compared to like Cannes or any of the other big festivals, but it was exciting.
Just the idea of our film being shown in a cinema with a room full of strangers, and its first public screening at such a great festival known for supporting young filmmakers. I feel like it was more important to get validation from my crew. We spent so many months in production working on it, the nine of us every day! For them to trust me meant everything. I’m so happy with how it all came together.
Also, I saw that you co-wrote it. How did you initially come up with the plot? 
Originally, there was another part to the film but with a completely different cast and story, which also centred on a kiss. We shot it as well but we ended up using this one, which became Naturally Lazy. Together with my co-writer, Sam, we wanted to write a story about a group of boys and their friendship – especially friendships where you’ve known the person since you were kids or even babies. There’s a really intense bond and I was also interested in a kind of love that’s hidden, not necessarily forbidden, but is driven by a sense of curiosity.
I have a few male friends who have had some kind of tension with another boy but they never said what it was or if it defined their sexuality. So I guess I was interested in how masculinity can be tender and how feelings can bloom and be shown through looks and small gestures. We interviewed a lot of friends about their first kisses and also read stories on forums and Reddit threads before taking different parts and developing a narrative of our own.
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There are some aspects that seem to be similar to your experience – you grew up in the British countryside and probably feel the same way as Tom (the main character) when going back home, as you now live in London. But why did you feel necessary to tell Tom's specific story?
Tom going back home really is similar to when I went home for Christmas after my first year at university. It was strange, we all left our hometown and moved to different parts of England, we hadn’t talked for months but when we were together again, it felt like nothing had changed. That’s the thing with friendships built up from childhood. You can’t really let each other go even if your worlds are going in different directions and maybe that’s how the boys are in the film.
I’ve read that you’re obsessed with Wong Kar-Wai’s films. This might just be a gratuitous question from my part, but what are your favourite movies of his and why? And how would you say his cinematography, style, etc. have inspired your work?
I started watching his films during a period when I was really confused by my identity. I’m British-Chinese and grew up in England but also spent some years in Hong Kong. So for me, to watch his films felt like reconnecting with my culture and gave me a sense of place. It’s funny, I only lived there for five years but whenever I watch one of his films set in Hong Kong, the sounds and visuals feel so familiar and it reminds me of certain memories and places I’ve been before.
It’s a really difficult one but I would say Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000) are probably my favourites. I wrote my dissertation on Happy Together in the aftermath of a bad breakup and I feel it’s his most comforting film. It’s about learning to repair yourself after something that's no longer tangible. You can’t be disillusioned with something that doesn’t exist anymore and it’s coming to accept that. In the Mood for Love has a very profound meaning to me; it was the first Wong Kar-Wai film I watched and also one of the first films to make me fall in love with cinema.
His films are just out-of-this-world; everything about them makes me feel so overwhelmed. I’m constantly fawning over a certain image or a piece of dialogue or one of the actors. I’ll just say his work has inspired me on a personal level and I guess how I want to see and feel things.
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In addition to England and Hong Kong, you’ve lived in more places. Actually, you spent a year abroad in the United States and I see that you have many pictures from all over. What was it like? Do you have any fun stories from any of the towns you probably got lost in in Middle America?
I really miss it. I didn’t realise how brave it was to travel across America alone and on such a whim! I was meant to study abroad but since it didn’t count towards my degree, I ended up using the money I saved up to book cheap tickets around the United States. My GPA (grade point average) was so bad, I got yelled at by a few professors.
My favourite story was when my friend from home, Charlie, randomly told me that he and his dad were coming to the States for a festival somewhere in Kansas. He told me to join them but I didn’t think it would be serious. I ended up buying last-minute train tickets and rode on the Amtrak for three hours from Michigan to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Kansas City was like six and a half hours. To kill the time, I read a lot and would see from the windows real Midwestern America with gorgeous yellow fields and watch old sleepy towns go by.
I got stuck for a while and almost missed my bus to Wichita. Then I had an argument with the bus driver because I printed my ticket double sided and he refused to let me on. A random bus driver let me get on his bus, but I didn’t know it was full of men who just got out of prison, so I was just hanging with these dudes, watching them play cards and smoking cigarettes with them. I got to Wichita in the end, and since I arrived way earlier than expected and was tired from two hours of sleep, I slept in the bus station until a nice conductor told me I couldn’t stay and pointed me to a McDonalds. I ended up buying a coffee and napped in the McDonalds until Charlie just sat in front of me like a mirage. By that time I was pretty out of it, I thought I was in an episode of True Detective. His dad and family friends were shaken that I made it all the way out alone.
That’s a great anecdote, and I assume you have more.
I miss going on adventures like that. There are more stories from my stay, like staying with one of my favourite photographers, Vivian Fu in San Francisco, running away from cops at house parties in Michigan, and hiking along the Rocky Mountains over Christmas with a lovely lady I met in Kansas called Kelley and her family. I was lucky to meet some incredible people. I’d love to go back someday.
How did you start to collaborate with London-based menswear brand Liam Hodges, and which part of the collaboration do you enjoy the most or feel most gratifying?
My friend and frequent collaborator Holly is Liam’s communications manager and when she first started there, she asked me if I wanted to shoot something for them. I remember seeing the Fall/Winter 2016 collection and how much it reminded me of how some lads up North dressed. That was in late 2016, when we first met, and since then, we have worked together on several projects for Liam, as well as others under our creative duo HRJ & Wong. For Liam, it’s been fun to follow and watch a brand grow and develop every season over the years. I’m excited to see what Liam Hodges will be like five years from now.
You’ve taken pictures of some really cool people, like Sanam Sindhi – model, DJ, influencer and writer – and fellow Londoners, like illustrator Joey Yu. Who are your favourite people to photograph?
Strong and interesting characters. I like to shoot people with a voice, who are passionate about what they do and believe in, or someone with a particular look and way about them that I just don’t see so often. I also love to photograph my friends, like anyone else.
What is your goal with your work? What do you want people to take from your photography?
Some sort of nostalgia. I definitely want them to feel something. I don’t like my work to just look ‘cool’ or to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s nice to have some substance and I’m trying to do that more with the work I’m creating now.
You graduated last year, how’s life been treating you, post-university?
I’m not going to say it’s been easy. It’s been a constant struggle of not having enough money to do the thing that you love and having to work odd jobs to make ends meet, as well as trying to stay motivated. When you’re not bankrolled by your parents or have a real sense of security, it really affects how you function mentally. Sometimes, it’s so hard for me to shoot or plan anything because my mind is worrying about something else.
It’s important to stay grounded and keep doing what you can to keep yourself going and surround yourself with good people. I had a period where I didn’t shoot for over two months because my heart just wasn’t in it. I think that’s why I’ve always admired people who have come from nothing; it’s a struggle for people from lower-income backgrounds to thrive in the arts now. How could wanting to create ever be a burden?
What can we expect from Naomi Wong in the next few years?
I just want to be happy and to keep shooting and maybe make another film. I’m no longer in a rush anymore. I’d like to run around a country again, but preferably not to sleep in another bus station.
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