Sunghee Lee’s mesmerizing photos of empty billboards in Thailand

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

What was it?

The Empty Billboards is a unique series produced by France-based photographer Sunghee Lee. Originally from South Korea, the artist came up with the project as a way of promoting positive thinking. With so much negative energy in the world, the Panneaux would be the legacy that surely lives on after he is physically gone.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

Before the Empty Billboards project was completed, Lee was concerned that the general population would not understand his work. This fear was occasioned by the mood of the Thai people at the time of creating his work.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

He imagined that a large percentage of those who would interact with this project would perceive the empty billboards as boring. He nevertheless went ahead, contented with the fact that his fellow artists would appreciate what he had come up with.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

What was the inspiration behind Empty Billboards?

Set up in the Thai landscape, the idea of capturing empty billboards was supposed to let loose people’s imagination. When viewers set their eyes on the billboards which had nothing on them, they would each come up with images of happy memories or imaginations.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

Lee said accordingly:

An empty panel is a perfect place on which to project our fantasies.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

Perhaps as a depiction of the unpredictable nature of human life, Lee must have intended the billboard’s content to be inspired by what his audience was going through.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

Although the photos just show bare billboards, they took time to develop. The photographer attempted to capture different angles of the same images to showcase the various stages, cycles, and seasons of life.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

The best way of bringing all that into perspective was to experiment with themes, styles, and distances in his images.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

It took Lee a lot of time to study the different techniques and he clearly succeeded. By capturing items and scenes close by and within the vicinity of the billboards, the artist gave meaning to the context in which the images were taken.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

The background of the project

The story of the Empty Billboards began in Korea at a time when almost everyone was talking about the Bechers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. Back in his native country, art lovers were either for or against the photographer couple. Armed with an 8 x 10 view camera, Lee was concerned about the predominance of blank photography.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

The Becher’s negative critics particularly challenged him and he tried to put himself in the shoes of the viewer. Utterly disturbed that blank photography would be monotonous, he endeavored to capture dynamism on an object that would never move.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

To capture a single shot often took hours or even days, waiting tirelessly for something to happen inside his camera’s frame. Simply by standing, things around the billboard would move into the frame.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

He got pictures of men who had climbed up on the billboard; others played games around the stands, while others appeared to just be walking by. Since Lee decided to add little tiny hints of life in his photographs, his works gradually overtook photography by the Bechers by injecting motion into a static subject..

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

About Sunghee Lee

Sunghee Lee is a South Korean artist born in 1974 and has exhibited in various galleries, museums and festivals, such as Les Rencontres d’Arles in Arles and Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, a museum dedicated to photography. His work has been shown alongside fellow photographers Richard Mosse and Sasha Rudensky.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

After studying at Arles, he eventually went to Düsseldorf. The temptation was just too big. Lee was curious to discover the actual traces that the school left, in particular the large-scale photo prints and the laboratory that made them.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

Conclusion

Life and personal perception play a huge role in art, as has been demonstrated by the inspiration that led Lee to start the Empty Billboards project. Through this artwork, he teaches his audience to focus on the positive aspects of each of life’s pictures.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

With time more and more people have started to understand Sunghee Lee’s work. Now they don’t just see empty billboards in his photos. Sunghee Lee’s project exemplifies that there is beauty in everything.

Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee - Panneaux - Empty Billboard (Thailand)
Sunghee Lee – Panneaux – Empty Billboard (Thailand)

All images by Sunghee Lee unless otherwise noted.

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