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Liam Wong: “Neon-Drenched” Cyberpunk Street Photography

Liam Wong’s photography transports you to another world. It’s a world that feels so familiar yet almost too perfect to be real. It feels like you’ve just stepped foot into the world of a video game where darkness prevails and blues, purples and pinks light your way through the winding streets of Tokyo. Neon signs glow with rich saturation. Colours overwhelm the senses, highlighting shadowy outlines of Tokyo residents going about their daily routines once thought to be so mundane but now feel so magical and full of life. Wong captures reality in the most ethereal way through the lens of his camera and it is an absolute delight to behold.

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Liam Wong: "Neon-Drenched" Cyberpunk Street Photography

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, Liam Wong is a photographer, art director and game designer. Being an avid lover of video games since he was a child, Wong studied Computer Arts at Abertay University in Dundee and graduated in 2010. Within only two years of graduating from university, he found himself crossing the ocean over to Canada where he would go on to become the youngest director for video game company Ubisoft.

Alongside working on projects such as Far Cry and collaborating with companies including Sony, CD Projekt, Apple and Google, Wong began trying his hand at photography. A trip to Tokyo back in 2014 was the catalyst for Wong’s interest in picking up a camera. In 2015, Wong took the plunge and invested in his first DSLR, a Canon 5D Mark III and set off to Japan with his new equipment by his side. Wong’s love of video games, sci-fi, Japanese animation and cyberpunk melded together with photography inspirations including Fan Ho, Sauk Leiterbut and Masataka Nakano helping to shape his own style of street photography.

In December 2019, Wong released his debut monograph book titled ‘TO:KY:OO’. The book was a crowdfunded project which gained so much interest that it became the largest crowdfunded book in the UK. With words from Hideo Kojima and Syd Mead, Wong’s debut book allows you to explore Tokyo’s nightlife without having to leave your home. Currently, Liam Wong is working as a freelancer on a range of artistic projects within photography, film and video games and his second book titled ‘AFTER DARK‘ is currently being crowdfunded and is set to release next year.

I would describe a lot of my work as neon-drenched streets after dark.

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Interview with Liam Wong

Some of your biggest influences include Fan Ho and Saul Leiterbut I was wondering about other influences such as your interest in Japanese animation and sci-fi. Which creators or franchises stand out to you when it comes to sci-fi and animation?

Ghost In The Shell – This movie alone made me want to visit Hong Kong, it’s a visual masterpiece particularly with the way it shows technology. 

AKIRA – The cityscapes in this are just unparalleled even to this day, the colour and level of detail is just mesmerising. 

Evangelion – I watched this much later in life (thankfully) -it’s a must-see for anyone interested in sci-fi and animation with darker themes.

Syd Mead – Visual futurist and concept artist from Blade Runner, Tron, Aliens. His use of colour and composition mixed with graphic design elements always blows my mind.

TO:KY:OO’ is absolute eye candy for anyone who loves cyberpunk. If you had to explain the cyberpunk aesthetic to someone who’d never seen it before, how would you describe it?

I would describe a lot of my work as neon-drenched streets after dark. My aesthetic was inspired a lot by things like Blade Runner and vaporwave. My job in games involved directing styles for video games. I found with photography, everything had to be ‘as is’ and unedited, which I found a little restrictive so I wanted to push things a little and show the world through the lens of a game designer, with an element of surrealism. I think that’s what people like about the works in the book – that it feels surreal to the point where they have to look twice; sometimes looking like a video game or a painting, but in reality, it is more like photography on hallucinogenics.

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I really love experimenting with colour to convey mood and emotion.

You purchased your first DLSR camera back in 2015 but I’d love to know what your go-to camera equipment is now? Has it changed much since 2015? 

My current cameras are my Sony A7R III and Canon 5D IV. Since then, I also began getting into film photography, for that I use point and shoots – so I use my Rollei 35 and Contax T2. I also use a compact Sony RX100 V which is useful for those shorter trips and days out where I don’t want to carry all of my equipment but also don’t want to miss an opportunity to capture something. Failing that, I always have my phone on me. 

When I first got interested in photography, I felt I had to have the state of the art equipment if I wanted to be serious about it, but over time I realise that you can capture things just as well on a phone. I shot a video called ‘After dark’ for Sony’s XPERIA last summer in London, which I feel shows that well. 

I would say the biggest change to my equipment would be through my lenses; my favourites being my Canon 35mm & 50mm – I find that investing in good glass is better than the camera itself. I have a full breakdown of my equipment on my website

What does your editing process look like once you’ve found images that you’re happy with? 

I’ll often know which images speak to me the most as soon as I capture them – I’ll already have an idea of how I will edit it. I really love experimenting with colour to convey mood and emotion. After a night of wandering, I’ll return home and backup my photographs to my server, then browse them in Adobe Bridge. I then use Camera RAW to do base edits, before moving to Photoshop for adjustment layers and curves. I usually load up my Spotify and put on some music to fit the mood. I think audio and visuals go hand in hand, and so sometimes my photographs are simply named after tracks I was listening to.  

My focus is always on finding interesting viewpoints, often dictated by the architecture. When I finally arrive on the scenes I have pinpointed, sometimes I will wait for people to enter my frame, other times it’s more spontaneous. 

Growing up, was photography something that was on your radar? Or did you focus more on other art forms?   

I would say I was always put off by photography – especially in this day and age where everyone has a camera, so by proxy everyone is a photographer. My earliest memories of photography would be my father working as a wedding photographer as a hobby, but I was never into it.

For me, I was always interested in digital art from a young age. My older brothers would create artwork and animations on our old computer and I was always fascinated by it. That spark led me on a path to creating custom artwork for games like The Sims and Counter-Strike as a teen and then eventually working as an Art Director on blockbuster games.

There is a saying that ‘art is a three letter word for disappointing your parents’, which I always found funny and true. It’s incredibly difficult to find your place, but it’s very satisfying when you do.

You specialise in night and street photography but are there any other photography styles that appeal to you that you might experiment with in the future?

One thing I miss a lot is that whenever I would travel to a new place, I could find people who followed my work and have them show me their city and wander together. The pandemic has obviously impacted that. 

The type of photography I do – cities at night, after midnight until sunrise, often in heavy rain – is a very solitary subject. Looking forward, I would like to focus on portraiture and the human connection. I’ve spent a long time wandering alone.

How do you go about getting the right kind of photographs when wandering around a city at night? Is it a matter of waiting for the right moment to arrive or is it more spontaneous? 

Whenever I travel to a new city I do a lot of research beforehand, I find it to be a very efficient approach. I tend to avoid searching on Instagram or travel sites, instead, I just use Google Street View and e-wander. My focus is always on finding interesting viewpoints, often dictated by the architecture. When I finally arrive on the scenes I have pinpointed, sometimes I will wait for people to enter my frame, other times it’s more spontaneous. 

I think that’s what people like about the works in the book – that it feels surreal to the point where they have to look twice; sometimes looking like a video game, or a painting, but in reality it is more like photography on hallucinogenics.

If you could choose any soundtrack to compliment your photography, which would you choose and why? 

Makeup And Vanity Set – 88:88. When I was starting out, I remember just wandering Tokyo listening to tracks from this album and it just really vibed well with what I was trying to channel. It’s filled with synthy goodness and feels very timeless in a way, reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE soundtrack. I would say ‘The Cross’ and ‘System Override’ are notable favourites. 

I’m curious to know a bit more about your work within the gaming industry. Does working as an art director and game designer allow you to be hands-on in terms of creativity and artistic freedom? 

Absolutely. I think one of the best things about working on video games is that you aren’t limited in your creativity – you can create entire worlds, characters, environments that feel unique to that game. As a gamer, there’s such a level of escapism through the interactivity that you simply cannot get from other mediums. 

You’ve been interested in video games since you were small, are there any games that had a particular impact on you growing up? 

Among my favourite games are Crysis and Far Cry and I was fortunate enough to work on both at Lead then Director level. Funnily enough, I was very introverted and it was multiplayer games like Counter-Strike and World of Warcraft that taught me a lot about leadership through taking part in competitive ladders and raiding dungeons – I think without those games I would never have ended up working in games.

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Whenever you feel that spark of creativity don’t let it fade. It’s very common that you won’t like the work you’re creating, or won’t feel like creating at all but if you get an idea in your head for a project or a piece of art, then follow it through as far as you can take it, however long it may take. Take your time and have fun with it. 

As someone who works in the video game industry, alongside pursuing photography, do you find these two mediums overlap each other? For example, does your photography work inspire your game development work and vice versa?

I would say that photography taught me so much more than I would have learned from working in video games. Through my photography, I have had many opportunities which pushed me out of my comfort zone, particularly experience in directing people which in turn made me better at my day job as an art director – experiences I would never have gone through whilst at my desk. 

There’s definitely an overlap – I often have opportunities come up where I’m able to combine both of my passions in games and photography – I did some work with CD Projekt on Cyberpunk 2077. Another example would be taking pictures of Hideo Kojima who is a game director, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to meet him in that capacity if it wasn’t for my photography.

As I’m working on my own game ideas, I’m definitely drawing from inspiration of places I have visited when it comes to world-building. 

How has COVID impacted you and your work over the past year?

Travel is the most obvious thing, which has impacted me personally. Previously, I would be in different parts of the world for projects. Many opportunities slipped through for creatives in general because of COVID. I would say the thing I am really grateful for is that people have been picking up my book as they have been unable to travel to Tokyo. 

What has been the best piece of advice you have been given as an artist? 

Surround yourself with talent – this is where you will learn the quickest, by being around people who are way more experienced than you. 

What is the best piece of advice you could give to any budding young artists out there? 

Whenever you feel that spark of creativity don’t let it fade. It’s very common that you won’t like the work you’re creating, or won’t feel like creating at all but if you get an idea in your head for a project or a piece of art, then follow it through as far as you can take it, however long it may take. Take your time and have fun with it. 

Finding a support network of people who can give you advice on your work is very useful too, for the moments where you’re unsure if what you’re making is of any value. 

When you aren’t working, what do you like to get up to in your free time?

I have subscribed to so many movie streaming services and try to watch a movie a day, taking screenshots of any inspiring cinematography so that I can emulate it on the streets. I’ve also been reading a lot from manga to Murakami to books on scriptwriting. I’m set on filmmaking when things are better.

Liam Wong Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

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