Pass the Mic Interview Series, ft. Natasha Lee

By Nathan Phan

Los Angeles-based photographer and director Natasha Lee is up next in our Pass the Mic interview series. We had the pleasure of working with Natasha on one of our DoorDash merchant photoshoots, and her travel, lifestyle and hospitality imagery has been published in publications like Condé Nast Traveler, Wall Street Journal, Hemispheres Magazine, Food & Wine, and Domino Magazine. Having split her childhood between Malaysia and California, she is a global storyteller who excels in bridging cultures and spaces through her intimate and visceral visuals.

In our interview with Natasha, we learn about her different processes as a photographer and director, her first documentary, and her advice for aspiring creators.

How did you get your start as a photographer and director?
I’ve had a pretty zig-zagged journey into working as a Photographer and Director. While attending art school at Otis College of Art & Design, I had a summer internship at a production company and started PA-ing on commercials and music videos. Immediately, I fell in love with the camaraderie of filmmaking. At the time though, directing seemed pretty inaccessible because 35mm reels were the gold standard and things were overall much more traditional. However, I did notice that a lot of the biggest music video directors got their start as photographers. With that, I started shooting stills and experimenting with almost all genres. Meanwhile I was working as a designer because of my studies. I was doing “style frames” for TV show openers and working at a network branding agency and then eventually moved into art direction for digital publishing. But I kept chasing the enthralling feeling of being behind the camera. Eventually, I took the leap towards photography and came full circle back to my love of filmmaking/directing.

What are some differences you have in your process as a photographer and a director?
Whichever medium I’m working in, my intention is always to create imagery that evokes emotion and feels like an extension of me. With directing, there are so many more layers to consider, like sound design, camera movement, pacing of the edit, etc, and it’s even more important to be able to communicate your vision to all the department keys. While it’s not absolutely necessary, it helps to have even a bit of experience in each department, so you can be a bit more specific with asks or being aware of how the process works so you can come up with creative solutions together.

In both photography and directing, I’m very clear on my vision before I get on set. Even on personal projects, I’ll make moodboards and treatments to flesh out my ideas and get my collaborators on the same page. And then once you’re on set or especially on location, things may change and circumstances may not be exactly as expected or hoped. However, if coming into the scenario with a clear idea, I’m aware of the latitude to which I can let things flow and keep certain elements authentic while still knowing I’m able to deliver what is needed

What motivates you as a creative?
I genuinely love the creative process and thrive on creating imagery and stories, whether it’s a nimble editorial shoot or a larger production. There is such a thrill from seeing a seed of an idea expand into a series of images or a short film/documentary, etc. I’m excited about opportunities to keep elevating and telling stories that reach a bigger audience, to keep working with insanely talented collaborators and continue to grow my creative footprint.

Where do you look for inspiration?
I feel like inspiration can be found anywhere if you’re in the right state of mind. I’m inspired whenever I learn something new, maybe from listening to a culinary segment on NPR about how an obscure sauce is made (happened the other day!), when I catch a glimpse of how the light is hitting a friend’s hair when we’re sitting at lunch, or being in a thoughtfully designed space and experiencing how alive it feels as the light moves through. I have found though, that I’m always most inspired when I’m surrounded by new stimuli via travel. Immersing in unfamiliar cultures, hearing new sounds, diving deep into conversations with strangers, experiencing how different the light is in a different part of the hemisphere, those are all things that spark ideas and help inform my storytelling point of view.

Tell us about your favorite project that you’ve been a part of.
Directing my first documentary, In The Visible, has been one of my favorite projects so far. As stressful as it was trying to conjure a passion project out of thin air (aka no budget), it was really rewarding to share a message that my creative partner on this project and I both truly believed in. We happened to be at the end of filming when the height of the violence against Asian Americans took place last year and it was a very emotional day on set for us and our AAPI crew involved. At that moment, I felt so proud of our creative community who came together and shared their stories so vulnerably and/or contributed their incredible talent to the film.

What are some of the challenges you face when you’re photographing or directing?
With most projects, there’s always a sense of working against time to get all of the shots needed/desired, whether it’s because of budget, resources, or daylight. To counteract that, I’m very much a prepper. While I’m open to flexibility in revising things on set if they’re not working, I like coming in prepared with shot order, angles, alts… being as clear as possible. It helps me answer questions decisively and keep the day moving. If something isn’t working I’ll know how to adjust it and what is possible given the parameters.

What advice would you like to give to aspiring photographers and filmmakers?
Everything takes far more time than feels ideal but to remember that you’re in it for the long haul. It can feel Sisyphean most days, when you’re fighting to get a project made, to get responses to your emails, or to get your work in front of certain people. But it’s a circular and repetitive process – create, edit/curate, and share. Again and again and again. The work will get seen!


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