From Fashion to Fauna: Why Hong Kong photographer Sean Lee-Davies now turns his lens to endangered species

Photo: Sean Lee-Davies

Sean Lee-Davies is an ex-fashion photographer, producer and host of TVB television shows “Tycoon Talk” and “Adventures to the Edge”, and the former editorial director of Asia Tatler, for which he’s interviewed and shot the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In the public eye, he is most often seen in bespoke suits and wearing expensive watches, likely gifted to him by high-end brands.

But once the Hong Kong-born, U.K.-raised artist gets talking about the environment, he sounds more like an anti-capitalist hippie than his effortlessly polished TV personality would have you believe.


Photo: Jason Capobianco

“We’re on a treadmill. We have to pay rent, pay the mortgage, have kids, send them to school abroad. There are expectations and societal norms – and all this costs a lot of money,” said Lee-Davies, a graduate of Eton College and Edinburgh University, where he studied political science.

The luxury lifestyle industry is very much integrated into our society and we all aspire to have better lives,” said Lee-Davies, who is in his mid-thirties. “[But] there comes a point where it’s unsustainable on a mass level. The limiting factor is going to be the environment.”

Having once been deeply embedded in that commercial world, Lee-Davies found that he had become disillusioned from the “ridiculous” consumerism the fashion industry helps to foster.

“I just kind of lost the passion for the fashion business. The fact that women feel that they have to keep wearing new clothes – five or six collections a year – it’s extreme. And I don’t think it’s sustainable.”


Photo: Sean Lee-Davies

In 2010, he launched Project C:Change, a social enterprise dedicated to raising awareness about environmental problems through the power of media and celebrity, thus harnessing the skills and contacts he made earlier in his career.

Now, Lee-Davies splits his time between continuing to produce “commercial” work to “pay the bills” and his advocacy work.

From one week to the next, he can be found flying to Guam to film a segment for his TV show “Tycoon Talk”, which looks at “the most successful business leaders” and their “secrets for extreme success”, then hopping over to Indonesia to shoot endangered wildlife for a charity photo exhibition as part of his “Love Is Wild” project.

“Love Is Wild” – which launched last night – is a multimedia endeavour that took the better part of four years to complete. Comprising of a travelling photography exhibit, videos and a book, the project aims at “connecting people back to the wild” through fine art images of endangered wildlife shot side-by-side with celebrities and models. (The exhibition continues through this month.)

Traveling to eight countries around Africa and Asia, Lee-Davies has shot famous Hong Kong names – think Gaile Lok and Jennifer Tse – face-to-face with threatened species like cheetahs, elephants, orangutans and whale sharks. All of the animals shown have either been rescued by organisations or have been released back into the wild, and sale proceeds will go back to those non-profits. The resulting images are dramatic and breathtaking, showing a surreal bond between human and animal.

“[The project] is really about changing our consciousness from being selfish inhabitants of this planet to being co-inhabitants,” explained Lee-Davies.

“We’re going to have to be the guardians and the stewards of the wild, because if we don’t then it’ll just disappear. And that’s why it’s ‘Love Is Wild’ – we have to have that love for the wild to then do something about it.”


Photo: Sean Lee-Davies

Reconnecting people to nature is more than just an abstract, romantic pursuit – it’s a matter of utmost urgency. Asia is consuming more wildlife products than ever, fuelling an illegal trade that may push African elephants, rhinoceroses and pangolins to extinction within the next few years, let alone our lifetimes. It’s estimated that 33,000 elephants are killed every year for the illegal ivory trade – that’s one every 15 minutes – and Hong Kong has the largest ivory market in the world.

In 2013, Lee-Davies went to South Africa for a wedding. There, he saw the carcass of a female rhino that had  its head blown off for its horn, which, on the black market, is worth more than gold kilo-for-kilo. The animal had been pregnant, and its unborn calf was hanging out of its rotting womb.

“It was a horrific, horrific sight – one which I’ll never forget,” Lee-Davies recounts.


Photo: Sean Lee-Davies

Despite his ideological rejection of the busy consumerist rat-race that is Hong Kong life, he acknowledges the strange balance he now has to strike as both an entrepreneur and an environmentalist. But he doesn’t think the “two distinctive sides” to what he does are at odds with each other.

“I lived that whole schmoozy, high-society lifestyle, but that’s just part of the game,” he said, bluntly. “You’ve just got to play the game to be able to change it from the inside.”

Indeed, “Love Is Wild” has brought an undeniably glamorous air to the fight against illegal wildlife trade. At last night’s launch for the photo exhibition, buzzworthy models, celebrities and tycoons, such as power couple Jocelyn Luko and Anthony Sandstrom (who are featured in some of the photographs), “Father of Lan Kwai Fong” Allan Zeman and Sevva founder Bonnae Gokson, lent their names to the cause.


Anthony Sandstrom and Jocelyn Luko-Sandstrom, Sean Lee-Davies, and Mikki Yao at last night’s “Love Is Wild” launch

Together, with several wildlife organisations including WildAid, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy, as well as Hong Kong legislator Elizabeth Quat, they urged the government to implement a complete ban on the local ivory trade.

Despite his best efforts, Lee-Davies knows that some members of the public still don’t understand how he’s trying to meld high society, celebrity and wildlife conservation, or why, for example, he insists on flying models to the savannahs of Africa or the jungles of Sumatra. But he brushes off the skeptics.

“You could be the most perfect conservationist, and there is always going to be someone criticizing you… You have to tune that out. You have to take fair criticism and balance that with people who are just saying nasty stuff and being cynical – because it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

So join Lee-Davies in casting a spotlight on the planet’s beautiful endangered creatures, and go see his stunning prints at the Liang Yi Museum and Galerie Huit this month. On Saturday, Lee-Davies will be signing books and giving educational talks along with conservationists from the Ocean Recovery Alliance, the Jane Goodall Institute and the Hong Kong Explorers Initiative (founded by yours truly).

What: ‘Love Is Wild’ Charity Photo Exhibition (more info)

When & Where:

  • Nov. 12- 17 (10am – 6pm, Tue – Sat): Liang Yi Museum, 81-199 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. (Google Maps)
  • Nov. 21 – 27 (10am – 7pm daily): Galerie Huit, G/F, Shop 2, SOHO 189 Queen’s Road West, Central. (Google Maps)

Additional events:

What: ‘Love Is Wild’ Educational Talks & Sean Lee-Davies Book Signing (more info)
When: Sat., Nov. 12, 1pm – 4pm.
Where: Liang Yi Museum, 81-199 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. (Google Maps)

 

Coconuts Hong Kong is a media partner of Project C:Change. 

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