More information about the Hong Kong in Transition project:
Since the mid-1990s I have been documenting and analyzing Hong Kong’s transition beyond colonial rule, in both words and photographic images. I took the mid-1997 handover itself to be just one moment in that unique process, which still continues to unfold unpredictably, so I chose to create a photographic archive of images over an extended period of time. No one image could sum up the transition, and meaning would arise across images and not just within them. Photography was the perfect tool because of its indelible indexical link to particular times and places (its unbreakable belongingness to the moment and location where the shutter was open to the light); its repleteness (the way it contains information in every part of the image, inadvertently gathering data its maker was not aware of at the time the shutter was open); its concern with concrete reality; and its perfect memory. I am a scholar as well as a photographer, working with words as well as images, so my visual work is part of my larger critical analysis of Hong Kong in transition. I consider photography as a means to critically interpret the world, and not just as a tool for neutrally recording it.
My work on this project began with intensive documentary photography from the beginning of 1995 to the beginning of 2000, a period which marked the last five years of the previous millennium but which also had Hong Kong’s handover at its exact middle. I took at least one black and white photo a day throughout this phase, using 35mm film, assembling a photographic archive containing approximately 8000 black and white images, or 212 rolls of film. Digital scans have subsequently been created of a great many of the more valuable images from this phase (including one representative image for each day covered by the project). Work with black and white film continued in the following years, albeit less intensively, resulting in 125 rolls of film (or approximately 4600 individual images, a significant number of which have been scanned) between January 2000 and January 2005. I persisted with film during this period, even though by then portable digital cameras were available, in order to ensure a continuity for the project, which had begun before suitable digital cameras were an option. From October 2004 I primarily shifted to digital photography and simultaneously began an exploration of colour, changing my strategy and deliberately seeking out a new vantage point from which to approach the task of documenting Hong Kong. During an intensive phase from October 2004 to September 2005 approximately 9000 images (almost entirely in colour) were produced. A less intensive phase of work from October 2005 to September 2014 (mostly in colour) was followed by a further concentrated phase from October 2014. From 1 January 2015 to 1 January 2020 I took at least one black and white image per day (as well as many colour images) in order to complete a second five year period of daily monochrome photography of Hong Kong, documenting a time twenty years after my first such study and completing a quarter century of photographing Hong Kong in total. This resulted in an average of approximately 9,000 images per year from 2015 to 2019.
For much of the time I was working with 35mm film my primary camera was a Leica Minilux, which has a 40mm lens. I favoured it for its portability and thus suitability for photography in everyday life. From January 2003 my main camera became a Leica M7. When I shifted to digital photography in 2004 my first camera was a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ2O, which has a Leica lens with optical zoom equivalent to a 35-mm camera with a range of 36-432 mm. Later digital images were taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 and subsequently the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1. From 13 December 2014 onwards the most common camera being used for this project was a Sony a7 II.
Not all the photos I have taken since 1 January 1995 are shared on this website. In addition to days when no photos were taken (in certain years such as 2000 to 2004 there were relatively fewer images captured), gaps also occur because I was out of Hong Kong on certain occasions and photos of other locations are not considered part of this project. Where several photos taken at the same time are nearly identical I have often only used one, although on occasion I have uploaded a group of near-identical images to create a quasi-cinematic sequence, best viewed in slideshow mode (perhaps including photos which may not be considered strong enough to stand on their own outside of such a setting). I have generally refrained from uploading photos of very poor technical quality, except where they seem to me to have some historical value which excuses their inclusion despite their obvious flaws. Other images are excluded because of a concern for privacy, such as images of people taken in non-public settings where agreement to publicly share the image has not yet been obtained from the subject. Certain of these images may find their way onto the website at a later date if clearance is obtained, since I regard the whole of life as the proper subject of historical study, and not just major political and societal events, or the public lives of famous people. As well as the addition of further images to the website over time (either because consent of the subject needs to be sought or simply because the upload of images in general will continue after the website’s public launch) it is envisioned that the descriptive texts that accompany images will gradually be extended and increased in number. Further tagging of images with keywords is also envisaged. The creation of this website has involved a significant amount of effort (not to mention the time spent taking the photos which have gone into it), and it will be appreciated that data entry itself is a time-consuming task which may need to continue after the site has already been launched to the public, in order not to delay making it available. I encourage users to return to the site to see what new images or other information has been added since their last visit. At the moment of its public launch on 21 March 2022 there was already over 42,500 images in the archive.
My approach to photography is personal and frankly subjective. I distinguish my work from that of photojournalists, who focus on the legible representation (usually within a single image) of distinct topics of current relevance, as well as from most genres of commercial photography. I am not concerned to glamorize my subject, or to claim an objective perspective on it. Certain images might be described as artistic in intention, and indeed I have shown quite a few of these images in exhibition, but most document simple fragments of Hong Kong experience in an unpretentious way, and have value only in the context of the archive as a whole. In this respect, many of the images in the archive might be described as like individual tiles in a mosaic, of little intrinsic interest in themselves, but playing an essential role in allowing a larger picture to come into being. Because I document Hong Kong from the perspective of my own life, as a participant-observer, and have not been able to be a full-time photographer because I held a busy university teaching job during almost all of this 25-year period, the images in the archive tend to emphasize locations where I happen to be, particularly those near my home, and places and events I found myself in because of my identity as an academic and an artist. I tend to find images in the course of my life, happening upon them in the moment, rather than hunting them down in a self-conscious way. My main interest as a photographer is in the moment of exposure, so there are only minimal changes (of contrast and so forth) made in image manipulation software (if any at all), and not larger alterations which would injure the authenticity of the images as records of the time and place they were taken.
More information about my approach to photography may be found in the texts of my photobooks, Reclaimed Land: Hong Kong in Transition (Hong Kong University Press, 2002); Hong Kong x 24 x 365: A Year in the Life of a City (Hong Kong University Press, 2007); and (co-author with Xu Xi) Interruptions (University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong, 2016).