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Ex – masquerades


  • Is there any sense in which Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even exploitative? Is she commenting on her own identity, the group identity of the people she photographs, or both?
  • Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?
  • Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven and The Failed Realist. (OCA C&N, p79)

Nikki Lee’s Projects work is shown online by Leslie Tonkonow. It has a snapshot aesthetic with a difference behind the scenes – Lee is acting out a disparate part in each of the snapshots; dressing as anything from  a senior to an exotic dancer. ‘… After transforming her own appearance, Lee approaches members of the group, explains her project, and has a friend or passerby photograph her with a small automatic-focus camera. Part Zelig, part Cindy Sherman, Lee cleverly explores the mutability of social identity as well as the immigrant’s desire to blend into a new culture…’ (Metropolitan Museum). In Lee’s YouTube interview, she describes herself as a performance artist and photographer – in fact the photos are not taken by Lee herself but by friends using point-and-shoot cameras, to contribute to the authentic look of a snapshot.

Source: vice.com
Source: vice.com

Lee puts considerable effort into her masquerades, taking on the persona of someone who would be part of the group she wishes to infiltrate for a ‘project’. Even to the extent of personal coaching and dieting for several months to pass herself off as an exotic dancer. She enters the worlds covertly, her true identity not revealed to the group (implied in her New York Times interview and an article in Vice) – or is this true? – , her friends photographing her on cheap cameras as part of the pretence (or as Lee would have it, as part of the look she wanted in the photographs). It seems that Lee deceives the groups she uses as subjects and uses their images as part of her art and self-promotion as an artist. The covert and deceptive practice are by definition voyeuristic and exploitative of her subjects. Though the reality of Lee’s process is only truly known between her and her subjects; without the covert and the deceptive, the response to the question of exploitation and voyeurism is too turned on its head. The work is a superficial commentary on the groups in the photographs – a snapshot only. To me, it says more about Lee herself and raises questions about what she is seeking to show – that identity is mutable? That she is a clever performer to more or less camouflage herself within the groups? That she is doing something different with the medium – a  photographer, not using a camera? I wonder whether she sees herself as a photographer at all, or a performance artist – though she has certainly been embraced by the art photography establishment (has her own page in Photography Today (2014), Phaidon Press, London).

Source: guardian.com
Source: guardian.com

Trish Morrissey’s work Front  is shown on her own website – approaching strangers on the beach and asking to step in place of one of the group, while the extracted member presses the shutter (under instruction). The Guardian features an interview with Morrissey in which she explains her approach, saying ‘it takes a lot of bottle to ask strangers to do something like this’. The article suggests that she is working with a large format camera, which would give some her some believability when presenting herself as an artist. Being a woman would make he less likely to be perceived as a stranger-threat than a man. Whether or not I would agree to being photographed if approach would really depend on my perception of Morrissey as a person and how the request was explained – this is assuming I’d have no pre-knowledge of Morrissey’s work. Now I know about her work, I would consent to being part of her work.


The Guardian (2013) [online]. Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach (23 January). Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot [accessed 28.2.16]

Leslie Tonkonow [website]. Nikki S. Lee – Projects. Available from: http://www.tonkonow.com/lee.html [accessed 28.2.16]

Metropolitan Museum [website]. Available from: http://metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/284363?=&imgno=0&tabname=related-objects [accessed 28.2.16]

New York Times [online]. SHOPPING WITH — Nikki S. Lee; Dressing the Part Is Her Art. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/02/style/shopping-with-nikki-s-lee-dressing-the-part-is-her-art.html?pagewanted=all [accessed 28.2.16]

Richardson T (2013). New Directions in Folklore. Serialization, Ethnographic Drag, and the Ineffable Authenticity of Nikki S. Lee. Available from: https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/ndif/article/…/3693.  [accessed 28.2.16]

Trish Morrissey [website]. Available from: http://www.trishmorrissey.com [accessed 28.2.16]

Vice [website]. Part-Time Punks – Simon Doom Was NOT Fooled by Nikki S. Lee.  https://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/part-time-punks-simon-doom-on-nikki-s-lees-poseur-art [accessed 28.2.16]

YouTube. Photographer Nikki S. Lee Can Turn Into Anyone. Available from: https://youtu.be/oI8xpJItPVI [accessed 28.2.16]

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