If you live in any of the high rises in New York City’s Financial District, there’s a chance you’ve caught photographer Lani Lee prancing around naked with a camera in-hand, silhouetted behind the giant glass windows of her apartment. Easily identifiable by her long black hair and intricate, full-body tattoos, she’s recently become a happy acolyte of the belief that you either have a naked neighbor or you are one. Recently, she’s been the latter, playing around with this concept on her OnlyFans where she posts everything from lingerie photos to sneaky, semi-public selfies in airport bathrooms.
Lee didn’t start out so comfortable in front of a lens, though. For the majority of her 20-year career as a commercial and magazine photographer, she was the one behind the camera, never daring to step in front as a model herself. She never wanted to — despite being just as photogenic as any of the models she shot with, she was afraid that swapping roles would damage her career. But as the photographer-cum-model found out last year, facing her fears would truly pay off.
Lee, now 38, was born in Seoul, but she got her professional training in Seattle at the Art Institute. Since then, she’s racked up a killer client list, shooting for Rolling Stone, Atlantic Records, Revlon, Inked, Red Bull and more. More notably, she’s worked on softcore adult sets for Maxim and Playboy, boosting the careers of countless models in the process. (She’s also done a couple of photo essays for MEL, including a nude dad bod figure study.) Yet her work dried up the moment COVID sunk its teeth into early-pandemic NYC. She spent most of 2020 reevaluating her goals and managing her health, taking advantage of pandemic rent decreases to move into a building with a group of female friends, chill out and collect unemployment.
But when things came back to life and opportunities arose again, Lee had a realization: She didn’t want to return to commercial photography. With a movement disorder that limits her physical health and puts her at risk for long-term disability, she needed a source of income she could pursue largely from home. And so, with some careful consideration, she did what many people who lost work during quarantine did: She made a career change, and turned to OnlyFans.
Lee’s daily posts range from professionally lit, full-body pictures in lingerie to fun and casual topless videos shot with her iPhone. There’s a mix of both polished, glamorous content and the kind of girl-next-door nudes that gives Lee’s page a personal feel.
In the early years of her career, Lee avoided this kind of sexual expression at all costs. She had worked as a stripper while studying photography — which helped her meet a variety of models and furthered her connections in the field — but she never made eroticism part of her own public image. “There was this mentality in my head that if men found me outwardly sexy — or if I contributed to them finding me outwardly sexy — people wouldn’t take me seriously,” she tells me.
This fear wasn’t unfounded. No matter how seriously she took herself, she still experienced creative directors and producers from various magazines and companies who, while impressed by her work, didn’t treat her with respect upon meeting her in person. Instead, they judged her by her appearance, assuming that her attractiveness somehow made her unprofessional.
“They weren’t expecting me to be so young, weren’t expecting me to look the way I looked,” she continues. “It was really damaging early on. It made me kind of recoil and be like, ‘Well, I don’t want people to look at me like that, because I want to work. I want to be taken seriously. I want my work to speak for itself.’”
It’s an issue many other female photographers have experienced as well. “[It’s] not always a female-friendly environment,” photojournalist Katie Orlinsky told Photo District News in 2017. “There’s a higher standard of professionalism expected of women.” More than that, opportunities for female photographers can feel slim, with some 92 percent of advertisements and 85 percent of magazine covers being shot by men, according to a TEDx talk by photographer Jill Greenberg cited in The Guardian. For a young woman of color like Lee, this discrepancy felt even more daunting.
Often, things aren’t much better on the other side of the camera. Models are often subject to exploitation and sexual assault that can lead to long-term mental health issues, and numerous female photographers have publicly reported discrimination and sexual assault or harassment by fellow members of the industry.
So, for much of her career, Lee avoided highlighting her own image. Then, in her late 20s, she was hired to shoot a scene for Playboy, something she says was “validating” for her career. There was a catch, though: Playboy didn’t just want her to work as the photographer — they wanted her to appear in the shoot as well. In fact, the goal was to capture the image of her as a beautiful, young photographer, the very dynamic she’d been afraid of showing.
“When I did the thing with Playboy, I was excited about doing it, but I was very nervous that it would set me back or I would look stupid,” she says. “That day, I remember getting my makeup done and just feeling so ridiculous. I cried in the kitchen. I felt like I had sold out or something.”
Still, she decided to go through with it. In the video, titled Girl on Girl, Lee is seen fully clothed, taking selfies with the model, applying makeup in the mirror with her and shooting with a variety of cameras before they get in the tub together for close-up pictures. While her role as the photographer is clear, the video focuses as much on Lee as it does the model. Despite her initial fears, Lee loved how it came out. “It was beautiful,” she tells me. “I love the video to this day. It’s very accurate to what it’s like to be on set with me. It’s fun, and I’m proud of that.”
The video further proved to Lee that her career wouldn’t fall apart if she allowed herself to be sexy (as a friend told her at the time, being beautiful and professional aren’t irreconcilable). Though she didn’t act upon it much between that shoot and the pandemic, it still provided a fundamental shift in her attitude that ultimately allowed her to take the OnlyFans plunge.
“OnlyFans feels like more fun,” she says. “I get to stay at home and play with my dog and make videos and answer messages.” Moreover, she has “all the pieces of the puzzle” to do it well. She can shoot, she can light, and having worked on the other side of the camera, she knows exactly how to make quality content at home.
Lee primarily works alone, though she’s venturing into working with other photographers and doing shoots with other models. She says she enjoys making content outdoors and in semi-public spaces. “It’s been fun to make a little bit of sneaky stuff here and there,” she tells me. In her pay-per-view content, she features longer, more explicit videos of her outdoors or taking pictures on public trains. She’s only in her second month on the platform, but she already ranks in the top 3.2 percent.
She has plans to use her OnlyFans cash to fund some other artistic endeavors — “I have a project I want to do called MILFhood, with prenatal and postpartum photos of women that are erotic and sexy. I want to talk about how we stigmatize moms for being sexy. How do you think they got pregnant?” But beyond that, Lee has no real interest in returning to commercial photography. “I feel like I’ve met a lot of my photography goals already,” she explains. “Now, I really want to put out projects I care about, and I want more creative control. But the main thing, I think, is just enjoying my day-to-day life.”
For now, that means taking hot pictures of herself around her apartment, something her subscribers are more than happy with. “They love seeing me in my windows,” she says. Which, in turn, makes Lee everyone’s naked neighbor.