• Journal

Focus: Lila Lee's Visual Diary

The Hawaiian-born photographer opens up about her road to now.

Photo: Lila Lee

The Hawaiian-born photographer opens up about her road to now.

What’s your story?

Well, I was born & raised in Hawaii, moved to LA right out of high school, bounced around for a couple years, & moved back home (by accident) about 5 years ago. I was living out in Beijing for about a year when I got into a motor bike accident. I had to have a full leg cast & get reconstructive ACL surgery & my insurance wouldn’t cover it unless I did the surgery back home. Didn’t plan on it, but so happy I ended up back home.

I didn’t get into photography till I was going to Santa Monica College. I was actually doing my GE classes there so I could transfer to Art Center for illustration. I took my first photo class at SMC & yea, I kinda just stuck with it. I liked how you could preserve a moment in a photo. I was always a sentimental kid that kept everything so photography seemed natural to that. Even now, sometimes I’ll take photos that aren’t interesting at all when you look at it, but it’s a memory that I thought was important to me so I had to. It’s a compulsion, I guess haha. I think photography is very instinctual. You shoot what you like, how you like, based on the things you like. If you tried to shoot like anyone else, you wouldn’t even know how to & I think that shows.

“I think photography is very instinctual. You shoot what you like, how you like, based on the things you like. If you tried to shoot like anyone else, you wouldn’t even know how to & I think that shows.”

What was it like growing up in Hawaii and how has that influenced your work?

Growing up in Hawaii was fucking awesome. It’s weird though when you grow up on a beautiful island, you somehow think the rest of the world’s like that, haha! When I moved to LA I was so spoiled with nice beaches I only went in the water twice the whole 8 years I had lived there. Definitely took a lot of things for granted growing up. As for influencing my work, it’s really the people I met when I moved back. People take care of one another a little more, like family, & I think that’s the little specialness Hawaii has. I think it’s taught me to be a little more empathetic not just while taking a photo but also in life.

“People take care of one another a little more, like family, & I think that’s the little specialness Hawaii has. I think it’s taught me to be a little more empathetic not just while taking a photo but also in life.”

How did you get into photography in the first place?

The first question kinda answers this, but there is one thing I’ll add…my sister actually gave me my first camera when I was in middle school. It was a Canon point & shoot. I used it to just take pictures of my friends. You know, the 'everyone look over here & smile' photos. There was one photo that was at night so the ambient light in the background dragged across. I remember that being the first time I was curious about photography & thought, “How the hell did that happen?” Nothing happened from that thought though, haha! Until college.

“I remember that being the first time I was curious about photography & thought, ‘How the hell did that happen?’”

Place/geography seems important to your work - wanna speak to that some?

I think it’s only natural that anyone in a foreign place would take a bunch of photos. New places are exciting! I keep a journal & write in it everyday when I’m on trips so that I can remember where I went. Photos are the same, a visual diary for me.

You and Bill just wrapped the Tri-X Noise tour…how was it? What did you take away from that experience?

Podcasts & audio books are great for long drives. Time is money. Efficiency is key. Bill & I are both very stubborn & want to do things our way haha but something I learned from this trip was how Bill can literally make anything work out. He is the DIY king. From making mailers on the road to fixing his van in an emergency between shows, he can do it. The only person I know who uses USPS packing tape to keep the wires hanging out by the clutch out of the way haha! That is something I really admire about Bill… even though he’s freaking out the whole time. Ha! Lesson of the tour? Get it done, tour it, & make sure it’s fan-fucking-tastic.

Where to next?

Not sure, but I would like to go back to Korea to visit my relatives.

You’ve compiled a sizable body of work over the years - have any notable themes emerged? What has your work taught you?

Hmm.. what I’ve been thinking about lately is my older work. When I had no idea what I was really doing, & shot everything. Those are some of my favorite photos. Looking back at those remind me that there are no rules to photography or composition, it’s more about feeling. I’m trying to get back to that.

“Looking back at those remind me that there are no rules to photography or composition, it’s more about feeling. I’m trying to get back to that.”
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