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Johnny McGeorge is a portrait photographer from the UK currently based in Malaysia. His sexually empowered Westernized photographic style has caused quite a stir in the more conservative Islamic country. You can find more of his work on his website, portfolio and Tumblr blog.
Toonari Post (TP): How and when did you get started in photography?
Johnny McGeorge (JM): Hmm…I bought my first SLR camera in 2001 and took travel snaps in South America. When I got back, people wanted to buy my prints. I was quite shocked but as I continued to travel and shoot, and more people wanted to buy prints. I was only ever really interested in travel or abstract photography until I came to Asia where I turned my hand at commercial, lifestyle and portraiture. Sometimes photography becomes ‘work’ and I lose interest, so I prefer to keep it either as a hobby or just as a creative outlet.
TP: Where do your inspirations come from?
JM: Inspiration comes from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve always been inspired by nature, by the unknown, or by concepts too huge to fully grasp. My design influences come from geometry and minimalist aesthetics, and my photography inspiration comes from everywhere. I just like beautiful images and good timing. The image or production quality doesn’t matter – as long as there’s ‘feeling’.
TP: I heard that your Facebook account was reported recently and you had to get a new one? What happened?
JM: Exactly what you heard. I guess I’m a social agitator, so my images have been continually reported until I get blocked from posting. Since I’m a compulsive Facebooker, I started a new account. Simple. It was more to start afresh – out with the old and in with the new to reflect my immediate future plans.
TP: What sort of difficulties have you had to face in photographing such risque portraits, especially in a rather conservative Muslim country like Malaysia?
JM: Not so many ‘difficulties’ to be honest. A big issue however is having to deal with sexually repressed perverts and self-righteous religious folk. Some dubious characters have even approached girls using my name by claiming to either work with or for me. That’s quite serious. Otherwise I’ve been very careful about how I’ve crafted my public image.
I remain a mystery to most. I make sure very few people know who I actually am, despite the fact that most people have heard of me. I’m nothing more than a reclusive misanthropist; I’m a stay-at-home-type of guy and did most of my wild partying years ago. Rumors in Malaysia are that I shoot porn and screw every model I meet. I’ve gained a sense of notoriety purely out of being so publically inaccessible.
TP: Why such risque portraits though?
JM: Risque? Really? I’ve had to work with the restrictions Malaysia has dealt so that my images remain fairly decent. It’s all a matter of opinion. Malaysians think my work is outright erotica and borderline porn. In Europe and US, it’s considered relatively tame. In the UK, it’s just portraiture. There are no ‘bits’ on display, and all my images are about suggestion – what you don’t see, rather than what you do.
TP: What is Girls. And Money.? What’s the idea, purpose and story behind it?
JM: The name Girls. And Money. is the title of a song by my ex-girlfriend’s electropop band Riviera F. It’s a cool song, and the name seemed to fit the theme. Originally I wanted to showcase the work as a cultural art project that gave identities back to Malaysian women who had been labelled no more than “Malay, Chinese, Indian or Others” despite being a beautiful mix of races and creeds.
Most “Malays” are Javanese, Minangkabau, Bugis or some other mixed ethnicity by descent, yet in Malaysia, they are simply “Malay.” These identites are being lost through generic labelling. Anyhow, that was the original statement I pitched to the publisher in New York [where I subsequently launched my book in June 2011].
As the project went on, I changed my statement to “documenting a shifting trend of socially acceptable slutty behaviour in a conservative Muslim state.” My work has inspired a lot of people and I believe I brought a new edge to photography in Malaysia, as well as empowering girls to embrace their sexuality in a positive way that wasn’t simply considered ‘dirty or perverted’.
TP: How was the public response towards your photography showcase?
JM: As I say, a lot of people loved the photos. Primarily because the concepts and content were quite edgy and very current. Plus the images were slightly ‘naughty’ by Malaysian standards. It was well received overseas because I was shooting Asian faces in a very NYC/London style.
So most people responded positively, but like anything – haters gonna hate – and as such there have been people who take offence. From what I can gather, the only people who don’t like the work are those who feel that feminine sexuality belongs behind closed doors and should not be for public consumption. Their motivation for these thoughts is not my problem. I’ll leave it at that.
TP: What other work have you got in store for the near future?
JM: Actually, I’m about to relocate to Central America in July. Time for a whole new adventure. I guess there’ll be more portraiture and hopefully more travel stories. Who knows? I’m looking for something to rekindle my passions and inspire me to create new and interesting things.
I’ve become too familiar and too comfortable in Asia; it’s almost too easy and that unsettles me. I need to throw myself into a different culture, language, and people to explore. Can’t. Fuckin’. Wait.