The world is full of anxieties at the best of times, but Cai Fox Leplaw’s photography isn’t afraid to lean into these concerns. Whether his attention is drawn towards environmental calamity or meditative reflections, his images confront his everyday thoughts head-on. Hudson Brown introduces Cai, our newest Urth Ambassador to chat about his process and inspiration.
Cai Fox Leplaw’s photography is a vehicle for his emotions. Drawing from events impacting the natural world and his own internal conflicts, the camera is his “go-to weapon” for exploring these feelings creatively. With many of these images set against coastal landscapes and rolling hills, it’s safe to say Cai’s origins in the eco-conscious community of Mullumbimby — situated in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales — inspired his anxiety-inducing direction.
Across environmental destruction and societal downfall that recalls the climate crisis, these dystopian subjects are explored through blackened skies, mushroom clouds, and cultish hordes ambivalent to their impending doom. Although the idea of sleepwalking into the apocalypse is undoubtedly confronting, Cai frequently presents this oncoming annihilation with caustic humour.
Throughout his many projects, there are ironic glimpses of sunbathers soaking up the last gasp of warmth, speedsters hooning against fiery backdrops, and couples wandering towards tsunamis hand-in-hand. For Cai, this political and environmental work aims to create an emotive response, no matter how someone feels about these subjects. “These visually high-impact works came from a place of wanting to be heard through a cheeky tongue-in-cheek voice,” he says.
“For me, I find my best work comes from a place of exploration. In a strange meditative way, photography helps me to live more in the moment.”
Environmental policy is a frustrating topic for many, especially in Australia, but poking fun at this politicised chaos is one way to deal with this disillusionment. Yet as Cai’s disposition and surroundings change, so does his photographic work. More recently, his shock-driven images have given way to a conceptual investigation of photography itself, with a “study of emotion through motion” and the impact of colour and effects on one’s perception.
By deconstructing elements of photography into their most basic form and exploring how to replicate a specific mood, even when the subject remains faceless, Cai explains this evolution is seeking “a deeper understanding of what’s most engaging in an image.” Instead of car crashes and raging infernos, much of Cai’s latest work features graceful garment silhouettes and obscured portraits warped by long exposures and water ripples.
“For me, I find my best work comes from a place of exploration. In a strange meditative way, photography helps me to live more in the moment,” says Cai. “This means taking inspiration from the immediate things that surround me in a day to day life, such as people, fashion, location and music, and pairing that with a reflection on global political, social, cultural and climate issues.”
Alongside his photographic career, Cai’s work as a fashion model in Australia and Europe has developed his eye behind the camera. Meanwhile, time spent working in cities like London and Berlin exposed him to a creative industry that offers more opportunities for artists operating on the experimental fringe. However, Cai has noticed that local companies are increasingly open-minded about their upcoming photographic projects.
“I’m really excited for brands in Australia to realise that there are so many different ways to sell a product – I think we are on the brink of this change,” says Cai. “I am so bored of seeing stereotypically attractive people standing next to a vintage car blasted over shopfronts, or half-naked women posing uncomfortably in the Byron Bay sun.”
Whether shooting for an editorial or commercial project, Cai seeks out his next client carefully. With a strong belief in the creative value he brings to a shoot, undermining his work with a tepid concept goes against his artistic ideals. Yet, as Cai describes, this decision isn’t always straightforward, as budget limitations, time constraints and expanding briefs don’t always “add up in the photographer’s favour.”
“I’m very selective as to what brands I work with or projects I take on, simply because I want a project to elevate both sides of the relationship without having to compensate or alter creativity,” he explains.
Coming up with new concepts to shoot for both personal and professional projects requires constant deliberation and refinement. Fortunately, Cai says that whenever he’s struggling for fresh ideas, he can always turn to his long-time hobbies, such as painting, music, tattooing and fashion design. “Usually, I come out the other side with more inspiration than I started with,” he adds.
Although he never planned on these photographic experiments becoming a career, Cai’s journey has served him well as he prepares to present his debut solo exhibition. Plus, he’s constantly pursuing a range of other creative outlets, including a series of clothing and product projects, and a skateboard and capsule collection with Japan National.
“When taking on creative control of a project, I am investing everything in that body of work. It is such an amazing feeling when the end result is something you and the client are both proud of.”