Science, Lego and photography are three things most people wouldn’t think would go together.
However, for Yvette Shang, a University of Manitoba Animal Science PhD student at the St. Boniface Research Centre, the three are a perfect fit.
She first picked up a camera after earning her master’s degree more than three years ago. She started with photographing landscapes and nature.
In May 2016, she purchased her first Lego set. Prior to that, Shang had never played with Lego. So, what made her consider buying a set?
"My supervisor inspired me," she says. "One Christmas, we had a gingerbread competition and (instead of picking up a building kit made of gingerbread) he bought a Lego gingerbread house." It piqued her interest. But it wasn’t until she discovered one of her favourite TV shows had been transformed into Lego that she purchased her first set.
"I watch The Big Bang Theory and (Lego) made a Big Bang set," confesses Shang. "I was like, ‘Oh, that is so cool. All my favourite characters are in that set’… I’ve always struggle with portraits because I’m so shy about asking people to be my model and (I was thinking) ‘OK, (the figures) can be my actors.’"
From there, Shang’s interest in Lego photography grew. Her early images were photographed using a Lego Dimension Display case (with LED light), coloured paper and a desk lamp for additional lighting. If she is in the lab, she works with available light and any flat surface, such as a bench, for her figures to sit on.
Then she started photographing her Lego figures in outdoor locations. "Normally, I have a pack of (figures) that travel with me," says Shang. What goes into her pack depends on where she is going. For a trip to the Whiteshell, two of her travelling companions were a reindeer and a penguin. In more urban settings, Batman, Batgirl and a skateboarding Robin have had their turns in front of the camera.
When she is in a public location, not many people notice she is photographing Lego figures because of their small size. But there was one occasion where she built a replica of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and went to the top of the parkade at The Forks to photograph it with the actual museum in the background. A number of parkade users noticed the replica and were impressed enough to ask her if they could take its picture.
Shang is always thinking about new ideas. Sometimes, those ideas require her to build structures like a microscope or the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The time it takes to build a structure ranges anywhere from a couple of hours to a day, depending on the complexity. She is also a member of the Manitoba Lego Users Group and finds inspiration from other enthusiasts she considers talented and skilled in building with Lego. "I need to practise," she says.
Where does she go to build her collection of Lego figures and sets? "Everywhere," she says. "Toy stores, Kijiji… everywhere. (But) I don’t buy that often. There is a second-hand online market where you can search for a figure and go from there."
Not only does she acquire Lego pieces for her photography, she like to collect them, too. She currently has 400 figures, including animals, in her collection, ready to be used in her images.
Shang’s first passion — science — was developed as a teenager living in Beijing. She came to Canada eight years ago after transferring from a Chinese university to study animal science. But as she went further with her studies, she was exposed to the struggles and frustrations that come with scientific research. It wasn’t as much fun as it was before. At the research centre, her work involves studying intestinal, liver and kidney function, which includes using rats in her experiments.
Photography became the perfect creative release from her doctoral studies.
Expressing herself through Lego photography made science fun for her again. Her science-themed images offer a glimpse into the life of scientists and the work they do. She enjoys telling stories with her images.
"It’s the practice of creativity," she says. "In photography itself, you really have to wait for the right moment. But I (also) like creating a moment."
This practice of creativity has led her to Instagram. Going by the moniker @Legobiologist, Shang shares her love for science and Lego photography with the online community.
"For me, as a scientist, publishing photographs on Instagram is like publishing a paper without a peer review," she laughs. "It won’t get rejected and you can just publish and if people can like it, they like it. And if they hate it, it doesn’t matter.
"I’ve found people really appreciate it and think (what I do with Lego) is fun. The people working in the lab (with me) can relate. They think it’s fun and the lab work isn’t that tedious anymore."
Shang even injected a little fun during the University of Manitoba’s Three-Minute Thesis competition last March. Using an image of Star Wars characters Rey, Kylo Ren and Princess Leia (in Lego form), she presented the theme of her thesis — oxidative stress, as it relates to cardiac, kidney and liver function. Kylo Ren represented the free radicals (or the dark side) produced in our bodies and Rey represented antioxidants (light side). Shang was a finalist in the competition but didn’t take the win.
Through Instagram, she met local photographers Suzie Wong and Dmitry Kirshner and they teamed up to present an exhibit called Mix Tape Group Show at the Tara Davis Boutique during last month’s Flash Photographic Festival.
Shang loves experimenting with Lego but admits there have been times where she felt a little self-conscious about walking into a toy store. "Sometimes, it seems a little embarrassing to be playing with Lego as an adult, especially when the Lego packaging indicates it’s recommended for kids aged 7-14," she says.
When asked what she would like to photograph next, she revealed her interest in creating an image involving Bigfoot, a Yeti and snow.
"It’s about making life fun."