Introducing 1854’s Fast Track winners: Michelle Watt, Eman Ali and Chris Parente

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1854’s career accelerator for unsigned talent is back! Apply to 1854 Fast Track Vol. 2 to get in front of global brand directors, advertising agencies and industry figures at LE BOOK Europe this September.

1854 Fast Track seeks out the industry’s brightest unsigned talent to promote them in the commercial sphere. From staged sets to surrealist shadows, we unpack the practices of three more of this year’s winners

“I didn’t become Asian until I left Asia,” says Brooklyn-based photographer Michelle Watt, musing on how her upbringing in Hong Kong may have influenced her practice. “A lot of my recent projects grapple with ‘otherness’ as an Asian person in America.” It’s this bold and self-aware attitude towards identity that permeates her photography. Often, Watt draws on her Chinese-American background in her work to explore the female minority experience.

© Michelle Watt.

Watt was recently named a winner of 1854’s inaugural Fast Track initiative, launched earlier this year as an open-call for unsigned artists. A total of 18 photographers, deemed to represent some of the industry’s brightest emerging talent, were selected to have their work championed amongst talent representatives, advertising agencies and brands at LE BOOK Connections Europe in a bid to help accelerate their careers.

In a style that recalls the tableau vivant, Watt creates staged “conceptual narratives” for her fashion and portrait photography. She plays with colour, gesture and light to inject humour and fantasy into her stories, planting “easter eggs” (hidden visual cues) as a mechanism for social commentary. In Watt’s universe, what could be sombre funeral scenes are turned into satirical critiques of modern society: models stuffing sandwiches into their mouths as they linger around an open casket.

© Michelle Watt.

“I’m quite turned off by photography that takes itself too seriously,” she says. “I aim to address serious subjects in a way that is non-serious, but still respectful. I enjoy subtly dropping in references that remind the viewer that we are looking at photographs – not at reality – regardless of whether they are staged.” 

For Watt, games of visual hide-and-seek are means of further engaging her audience. “The image becomes more interactive, inciting a greater connection,” she says. “Just like anything, the more they [the viewer] give to it, the more they get out of it. A lot of the details in my photos work in this way. They lie in wait for the viewer to notice them, as if they have been waiting for you to arrive all along.”

Also earning herself a place amongst this year’s FastTrack winners is Omani visual artist Eman Ali. Ali explores styles of Dada and German Expressionism in her work, inspired by directors such as Kevin Kerslake, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. “I grew up with no formal introduction to contemporary art or design,” she says, “simply because it was not a priority within the educational system in Oman.” It wasn’t until she moved to London to study graphic design at Central Saint Martins that she came to immerse herself in art history, which in turn informed her photographic practice.

Ali’s work is largely defined by the question of authenticity.  “I carefully construct intimate images, paying close attention to colour, light, space, and texture to suggest a story; creating a link between reality, fantasy and desire,” she explains. Her images seem to suggest we should not trust everything we see or read: photographs of faces half consumed by shadow; eyes with no eyeballs; disembodied hands coming out from outside the frame.

Although Ali’s photographs might feel surreal to the viewer, her approach is more pragmatic, drawing on the fundamentals of graphic design. “Graphic design was a really good foundation for my photographic practice,” she says. “It taught me about composition and the relationship between image and text, and how you can combine the two to communicate an idea or tell a story.”

© Eman Ali.

Finally, joining Watt and Ali amongst this year’s hotly-tipped FastTrack winners is Filipino-Italian photographer Chris Parente. Parente’s interest in flesh and bodies – which has informed commissions around the body and sex – speaks to his proclivity for the darker side of human nature. To him, “the body is really beautiful when it’s wrinkled, bent over itself, sweating, tangled with [a] partner.”

“The feeling I’m always trying to convey are the moments when your body feels most alive,” he explains. Across both his personal and commercial practice, profiles of glossy, sweaty faces and bare-chested figures are commonplace. His subjects are often depicted in the throes of emotion, crying or elated.

Before photography, Parente had established a career as a director. His photography builds on this by incorporating elements of storytelling that are more commonly found in film. “There are things you learn from directing, and vice versa from photography,” he says. “For example, with motion, you have to think of the entire scene [in order] to get your story across and have it make sense to the viewer,” he says. “That knowledge then helps you with [building] the story of a cohesive still.” 

© Chris Parente. | |

Find out more about 1854 FastTrack here.

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.