O’Neill Library is not the first place you’d think of to find an escape. Its walls hold the hushed silence of studious focus, the books stand as stoic reminders of research papers and dreaded readings, and its floors echo with the familiarity of stressed students furrowing their brows in anticipation of finals. But with the new exhibit by Augustus (Gus) Lees, MCAS ’24, O’Neill will feel like a completely new space: a portal to leave behind the books, if only for a brief moment, and find yourself transported beyond the first floor of the library to Malaysia, Canada, Boston, New York, Mexico, Seattle, and Singapore.
Lees is from what he calls “a multitude of places”—he was born in England, lives in Malaysia now, and went to boarding school in Canada. “As someone who’s not from the US, photos allow me to feel integrated with the culture of whatever country I’m in at the time,” he notes in his artist statement. And from the first glance at his exhibit, it’s easy to see how his photos reflect his worldliness and experiences abroad.
“I live in Malaysia so I would just wander around town taking photos of random people and places I think are cool,” he said.
Lees has been taking photos for the past year and a half, making a point of photographing the various places he visits. He said he used his travels as a guideline for the layout of the exhibit, a journey spanning several countries, an array of interactions, and eventually, three walls of O’Neill.
“I’m hoping I’ll start off with my first few photos, and end up with my last few photos in Boston or Seattle, or I could arrange it by color, I don’t know,” he said. “But most likely it’ll hopefully show an evolution of sorts.”
Lees’s exhibit is especially compelling right now, as COVID-19 restrictions limit international travel. Images of chaotic streets in Malaysia and Singapore are contrasted against a photo of palm trees silhouetted against an electric purple sky. A photo of a man loading orange fruits in his truck is complemented by an adjacent photo of a woman in saffron-colored clothing.
One of his biggest inspirations, he said, is his mother, who also traveled often.
“She used to take photos all over the place. She went to Mongolia, India, and I even have one of her cameras I use sometimes,” Lees said.
Among these photos from far-off countries and spectacular sights are equally stunning pictures of Boston: light streaming through the windows of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, making it look airy and dream-like, with the dramatic anticipation of some movie moment about to erupt from the background.
“I think my photos have a cinematic type of element,” he said. “I like to think it’s a pivotal moment in a movie, like a main character moment.”
Lees’s use of film photography adds to this exhilarating, ephemeral feeling—not only does he have to be ready to capture a specific moment, but he also has to be ready to snap a shot he won’t be able to see until it’s developed later in the darkroom.
“There’s a real weight when I take a photo, it’s like, alright, I have no clue what this looks like, I have a limited amount of shots, but hopefully this turns out. And there’ve been many times when something I thought looked good turns out horrible, but the opposite happens too,” he said.
Lees also said that his relationship with photography began as a rocky one, in a tenth-grade photography course that had a rigid curriculum and no room for artistic freedom. He thought that would be the end of his run with photography—but true to form, Lees casually picked up the camera several months later.
“On my birthday I was like, maybe I should get a camera and just shoot stuff I like...and I started taking photos of very random moments,” he said. What began as taking photos of his friends gradually transformed into a more intentional focus on people in their raw states of simply, miraculously, existing.
“Primarily, I look for people who are kind of caught up in their own world,” he said. “That’s kind of how I feel when I take photos. I’m just kind of doing my own thing.”
Lees uses his camera lens to magnify seemingly insignificant moments in strangers’ lives: a photo of someone reading a newspaper with his or her feet stretched out on a plastic chair—a brief, precious moment of leisure. Another shows a man holding out his hand to a passerby, beckoning him to buy something—a purely human moment that’s so often seen as an annoyance. A beach-goer reacts to an incoming seagull and decides to let him share the patch of sand. By deciding an instant is worthy of a photo and of an audience, Lees turns ordinary life into vignettes that leave the viewer curious about the world outside of the frame.
In a way, the meaning of his exhibit extends beyond the photographs and into the very strangers who pass by the gallery in O’Neill and stop in to create infinitely new experiences within the space. Students are caught in their own moment, peering into snapshots of other strangers existing in their own instantaneous time frame. Even with the pandemic prohibiting new interactions, Lees is bringing together complete strangers—paper and person—in entirely nuanced ways.
Lees said his favorite part of photography is color, and together with his use of lighting he creates dynamic, vibrant images: fluorescent neon signs; the golden glow of late afternoon; pale sunlight streaming through a window. These elements help further the theme, highlighting the importance of everyday moments that usually go unnoticed.
Yet another element of the exhibit is the addition of poems appearing next to different photos throughout the exhibit, written by two of his friends, Sophia Shay and Drake DiPaolo.
“[I thought] it would be cool if they wrote one or two poems underneath a couple of photos to make it even more ambiguous,” said Lees, “because I think the entire goal for me was that I don’t want to give people any impression of what I’m thinking at all. I want them to go in and feel something of their own design.”
Though Lees doesn’t know if he’ll try to pursue photography professionally, he seems just as laid-back about his career path as he is about his images.
“I think this is something, regardless of how successful it is, I’ll do anyway,” he said, “because that’s how I started off doing it.”
This is Lees’s first time publicly displaying his photos and O’Neill’s first solo student photo exhibition. Although he said he’s a bit nervous to see how other students will receive his work, he is firm in his stance that everyone has a different interpretation—a major reason for leaving his exhibit and individual images untitled—and what matters most is stirring something within them, whatever that may be.
“I enjoy it, and it’s not really about whether people like it or not,” Lees said. “I feel like if you really care about something, you don’t really care what people have to say about it.”
Lees emphasizes the importance of simply enjoying his photos, without the pressure to overthink and analyze. To him, photography is all about relishing the small moments—whether that's slinging your camera over your shoulder and going out to shoot for the day, walking along familiar streets with fresh eyes, or pulling yourself away from studying in O’Neill to visit his exhibit and find a brief bit of escape.
“It’s both passive and active,” Lees said of photography. “Honestly, I think really anyone can take photos about what you see and how you feel, and I’d hope that my photos reflect that.”