Cover Stephanie Teng with her multiple-exposure images of the moon (Photo: Aisha Causing)

Stephanie Teng wants to build a more empathetic world through photography that challenges conventional beauty standards and finds strength in vulnerability

As a psychology major at university, Stephanie Teng took a photography class on a whim and found herself transported by the dark room. “Not feeling any sense of time or space was really magical to me, along with the act of printing and developing your own photographs—watching your perspective of the world come to life in a water bath,” she says. 

Teng’s perspective as a professional photographer reflects her ongoing fascination with psychology. Her fine art projects tend to double as therapy and empowerment sessions with her subjects, delving into questions of self-worth and belonging. Meanwhile, working on commercial and editorial fashion shoots has given Teng an appreciation of the ongoing pressure to meet unrealistic beauty standards; women often see their images and ask her to make them look thinner. 

“I’ll tell them, ‘But you look great, I wish you could see yourself the way I see you or how other people see you,’” says Teng, a native Hongkonger. “I still struggle with that myself… hopefully telling more of these stories and talking about my own vulnerabilities and insecurities can really help other people too.”

Below Teng reveals the stories and struggles behind her favourite photographs. 

You're reading Through Her Lens, our series showcasing the female visual viewpoint—and launched in partnership with The Women's Foundation, which strives to challenge gender stereotypes, empower women in poverty, and increase the number of women in leadership roles

A Body of Work

This series was born out of my own struggles with self-worth and body image. I was coming out of a bad relationship and went to London in August 2018 for a course with Magnum Photos and London College of Communications. It’s a very serendipitous story because I met seven strangers who are now some of the closest people that I know because I know the history of their relationship with their bodies from childhood.

Photography is a very voyeuristic medium; more often than not, it’s the photographer saying, “‘oh, you look great here,“ or “turn a little bit to the left.” I really wanted my subjects to have a say. By structuring every photo shoot as a therapy session, and allowing each subject to choose how and where they would like to be photographed, A Body of Work aimed to dismantle the oppression and discomfort of the ideal corporeal form through collective healing.

The series was later exhibited at Eaton Hong Kong during Women's History Month in 2019.

Politics of Space

This mini-series was about taking up space in the frame as a woman. It was a collaboration with Anti Diet Riot Club, a London-based community that seeks to rebel against diet culture, and published by Shado Magazine and I Weigh, a community founded by Jameela Jamil to advocate for radical inclusivity.

2019 was a tumultuous year where we witnessed political shifts in Hong Kong and around the world. The times reflected the importance of aligning the personal and the political and how the two can never truly be separated. As a woman and a photographer, I realised how often I felt pressured to shrink my presence; to surrender my opinions to voices louder than my own; to minimise the space I took in almost every situation in fear of being labelled or, in some cases, attacked.

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In the famous words of Barbara Kruger, “Your Body Is A Battleground.” I was inspired by how these women embodied an unapologetic presence in the way they moved in the world, in ways they used their voice to speak up and support each other. Shooting with only a wide angle lens and allowing each woman to fill the entire frame, I attempted to convey the complex nuances of body politics and to show both how far we've come but how far we have yet to go. 

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You're My Outside Looking In

This was a series of self-portraits created during home quarantine in 2020 during the early stages of Covid-19. In collaboration with Scentory HK, they were shown as part of a group exhibition at The Mills Hong Kong exploring the notion of “home” and what it means in this time. These images were an attempt to explore issues around mental health, loss of freedom and our collective struggle through the darkness and uncertainties of our times. 

Some people would describe my personal work as dark, but I don’t like the negative connotation that has because in order to understand lightness, you need darkness. We have to understand both opposite extreme ends of the spectrum to fully grasp the between and everything that we feel as human beings.

Solace

After work, I would go for a run by the water and watch the sunset. I noticed everyone's caught up in the beautiful colours of the sunset, but nobody really notices the moon quietly rising behind them at the same time. It was such a huge symbol of all the things that we miss in life.

Solace became a three-year project exploring the emotions behind solitude, loneliness and the thought loops that control us. I have a background in psychology, and most of my work is motivated by an endless fascination with the human mind and spirit. So much of our behaviour is often controlled by patterns of thought or internal narratives that we've either built, learned or inherited over time. There are a lot of circles in the series, and they're not meant to be perfect because neither are we and neither our thoughts.

I used the technique of hand held, in-camera multiple exposures, often from the rooftop of my home in the Aberdeen area. I held my breath because any micro-movement would change the composition entirely, so it became this incredibly meditative process. The abstract shapes I drew in the sky mirror the attempt to let go of past selves and find comfort from within. A journey from darkness to light through a dance with the moon. 

This was my first departure from a more documentative approach. I'm beginning to find a new language that can speak to everyone universally, but the moon is also feminine and has those nods to the female energy. In 2020, the solo exhibition was presented by The Wild Lot, curated by Riccardo Chesti. 

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Tatler Asia
Photographer Stephanie Teng captures the moon in multiple exposures
Above (Photo: Stephanie Teng)

I watch my flailing arms in troubled waters: 
an ominous art house horror,
a film still in flickering corners,  
framing miracles in the sky.  
Bubbles of wonder strike again,  
as my weight shifts and lifts me  
to a window to another end.  
In one blinking blip of madness -
my body leaves its shell shaped sadness - 
as it ripens for disruption  
and waits patiently to be enchanted.  
The moon is floating in the same stone cold water, 
watching me too.  
Let us be quiet together,  
until the tides of relief turn danger into chance.  
As if we were on the brink of distinction, 
and this was our last dance.

Radical Visibility

Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) commissioned me to take portraits for an exhibition at Eaton HK as a celebration of radical inclusivity during Pride Month 2021. The models are members of the local LGBTQ+ community and wore handmade outfits from gender non-conforming brand Rebirth Garments

It’s a project that aligns with what I see as my purpose in this life—to create a more empathetic world, hold space for others, empower communities and encourage vulnerability as a form of strength.

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