Sunday, 31 March 2013

Poverty, Photography and Hong Kong

The photography award spotlights the issue of the working 
poor in our city with a Gini coefficient of 0.537.

Seven finalists are selected for this exhibition.

Art school students in front of the video programmes.

It lurks at street corners where people search the bins for tin cans, drives many working on two jobs to make ends meet, and forces the unfortunate to live in concrete potholes with constant risks of fire.  Poverty in this post-industrial economy of Hong Kong contrasts sharply with affluence.  Its presence does not require looking through the microscope, it is literally found under the sun if only one cares to pay attention.

The definition of poverty may be diverse and its severity often contentious, it is up to the government and concerned groups to define and interpret with different intents.  It is not our scope here to investigate, but rather through common sense, to take the photographic works as they are presented to carry out an artistic review.

Seven Finalist Photographers

Chan, Katherine Sim-kuen   Cleaner’s Life 

As I grew up, I developed an appreciation for the patience [sic – ‘perseverance’ in related Chinese text] of cleaners.  Their job is regarded by society as lowly, but it is a very, very important job. … In my project, I want to understand more about the working poor’s jobs through their office spaces and in their rest areas in order to record the truth about their treatment – how they are ignored by society, but worthy of respect.

The set of photographs in the janitors’ room is a subdued survey of their work environment, a place where their equipment is stored and garbage is held before the disposal trucks arrive.  Discarded furniture, hung-dry uniforms and odd personal items are captured through the lens under dim lighting as if the audience had sneaked into the room whilst the workers were out on duty.  All is quiet and an overcast of wispy smell is absent to complete a fuller picture.  It is an oblique voyeurism that does not entice much pleasure from onlookers.

Were the workplace not doubled up as a common room for the janitors, this humble-looking environs, suitably printed in small and odd sizes, would not attract much attention.  However this accepted practice, running as norm in the cleaning profession and depriving people of dignity, is what makes this series of work compelling.

Ko, Chung-ming   ‘Cents’ Mansion

…these underprivileged families – with average household income of less than HK$8,000 – must spend more than half their earnings on rent. …, these families also have to live with serious safety hazards such as potential fire threats caused by overloaded electricity wiring amongst subdivided units, blockage of rear fire escape staircases and poor hygienic conditions.

With the camera set at ceiling level, Ko seizes moments of the new poor in the city exemplified by the family units living in minuscule dwellings of 180 ft² in average.  Not for artistic reason, the angle from above is almost the only clear vista the entirety of each home (excluding the toilet) is recorded in a single shot.

Among the pictures, disturbing aura of calm but not contentment is registered on the faces of the inhabitants.  Moreover a relative orderliness, so difficult to maintain in a tiny place, demonstrates the fact that they too are ordinary do-gooders like the rest of us.

Wu, Rufina and Canham, Stefan   Portraits from Above
Various government departments keep files on so-called “unauthorized building works”, coding the huts with permanent markers and photographing them. … Very rarely do rooftop residents document their own spaces: the family pictures we saw were taken standing in a field of sunflowers, or in a village in the mainland, or down on the street beside someone else’s car, smiling.

Similar to Ko’s ceiling views, this cross-media assemblage is construed as impartially as possible to document the illegal roof dwellings ingeniously built atop run-down districts in the city.  As if celebrating the unsung designers, there are scaled floor plans and axonometric drawings to assist viewings.

The sleek presentation, almost too refined to feel at ease, begs the question if Wu and Canham were orchestrating for an impression of marvel.  Like ‘Cents’ Mansion above, they do not convey the baking heat, wintry drafts, odours and noises that prevail in real life.  But on appealing for empathy, unlike the above, they seem to falter all the same.  The exclusion of people from their habitats as shown from the photographs and drawings may be cool-inspiring but the gravitas on human deprivation are compromised through stylization.

Chan, Wai-kwong    Record

“To record” is fundamental to a photographer.  I’m merely recording things around me.  As far as the intent, content or connotation of the photograph is concerned, it shall be interpreted by the viewers.

The grainy monochromes freeze the moments of the underclass making their living.  The street scenes, rightly as the author affirms, are all around us but chosen by most to ignore.  The photographs are alternative portraitures of humble working people, agreeably journalistic and sentimental, offer the audience secure detachment for watchful gaze.

Tay, Wei-leng         North Point

The project ”North Point” examines this changing district and its history of migration, through the personal lives and homes of its inhabitants.  Looking at how family spaces, personal spaces and communal spaces define and are defined by the economic and social environment, the work highlights how people deal with the increasing price and difficulties of living in Hong Kong.

This is the third finalist out of seven that takes its cue from the housing issue - one of the most pressing problems of Hong Kong due to the property price hikes in recent years.  Apparently uncorrelated, the plain-looking photographs throw sketches of a neighbourhood at North Point.  With written narratives, they tell the stories of different people from diverse backgrounds that are uprooted by a re-development project nearby.  The combined mosaic of pictures represents one of the many high-end property developments that destroys the existing urban fabric and modes of living in the city.

The photographs are executed like casual snapshots edited from a documentary film; their disparities are shared through common concern.

Chan, Michael   Elite

Hong Kong has been promoting ‘elitism’, turning quality education into talent education.  The government’s main focus is on the high-reputation schools and the graduating elite. … The government has forgotten that education is fundamentally democratic – for every student.  Each student, whether elite or ordinary, rich or poor, should be treated equally.

The staged photography of phantasmagoric tableaux in classroom underscores the poverty discourse with connection to equality, education and the elite.  It may be a contentious framework of debate, even a tinge of Fascism might be detected in Chan’s statement.  The concepts of elite and elitism have somehow intertwined according to the author.  But for sure, an inadequate education system invariably withholds social mobility; this is the focus to behold.

The theatrical compositions, akin to the genre of Julie Blackmon, Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga, are enigmatic enough but the powerful visuals also muddle up the plot of argumentation the author intends to put forth.

Chow, Stefen    The Poverty Line

It is an examination of the choices one faces living at the poverty line.  I work with an economist, Lin Hui-Yi, to ensure factual and statistical consistency. … HK$44.96(US$5.77/EURO4.01) for food.  This is based on a per capita per day basis of a poverty indicator for Hong Kong (half of the median average household income), and low-income household food expenditure.

Another arranged set-play focuses on the quantitative comparison of food consumptions against the income per day of people below the poverty line.  The cold figure of HK$44.96 is represented as foods dished out on newspaper – the tablecloth of the underprivileged. 

The images make food for thought in a plentiful society we live today.  The no-nonsense arrangement of the shots is also a simple reminder of the 16% of our population, who lives on this meagre income.

Writings on the Wall

The works offer diverse points of reference to investigate on the issue of poverty in Hong Kong, which in turn represents only one extreme case of this prevalent problem found worldwide.  They may not offer any particular insight on what we are unaware of; frankly speaking, these photographs only allow the audience a steady gaze and a moment of reflection in an exhibition setting.  To some, this combined survey might help strike a chord that is lost in our daily grinds of personal duties.  It might lead to lasting awareness or even cause of action for some others.  The photographs here might be light saved for these purposes.

On the way out, messages by visitors to take home with.

The exhibition, however, also brought about a thought on the deluge of images we receive every day and its effect upon us.  We are inundated with images especially through the ever more powerful media of Facebook, Twitter and others.  The photographic works posted though powerful in general, they might not be able to overwhelm each and every one of us.  By studying the messages visitors jolted down by the end of the exhibition, there were an alarming few that display various degrees of apathy.  

Is there an antithesis of photograph-as-image that we have become too accustomed to?  Or is it the case that our eyes have developed a delayed reflex if not an immunity as we have seen too much?  Like the subject of painting itself, the vehicle of photography, ever popular due to the digital age, is slowly undermining itself with success.  Perhaps it would take a separate occasion to conduct a discourse on this phenomenon.  

It reads: The exhibition held here is too ironic!

Last but not all, a special tribute must be paid to the Swire Group.  It is one of the few conglomerates with businesses in many sectors that helps develop an economy of hegemonies.  These giant corporations create jobs at the same time driving out small enterprises, creating wealth whilst limiting social-mobility.  As one message from a circumspective visitor has rightly cast a spotlight on the irony that the venue sponsor actually gives rise to our predicament, there is a darkness permeated throughout the exhibition venue that seemingly tells as to who rules the reality registered on the photographs.

All works in this article courtesy of the photographers and the WYNG Masters Awards.  The quality of the photographs appeared here might be impaired due to reproduction.

Poverty in the midst of plenty is held from March 19 to April 4, 2013 at ArtisTree, Hong Kong.  Further information at

Article on urban design that stumbles on the social issues
 of Hong Kong at "Now and When: Australian Urbanism"

貧窮.攝影.香港          〈中文摘要〉





四月六日於 ArtisTree 舉行

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