Window on Hong Kong's dark side

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am

A former South Island School student has been named the 2006 Observer Student Photographer of the Year.

Stephen Kelly says it was his determination to capture the perfect shot that won him the highly regarded award, and GBP2,000 (HK$30,549) in prize money.

His series of photos, The Boys of the Zheng Sheng Rehabilitation Centre, focused on a youth drug rehabilitation centre in Cheung Chau.

Kelly has been interested in photography since the age of 15, when he was studying at South Island School. He left when he was 16 to go back to England, where he struggled to settle after 10 years in Hong Kong.

'It was hard to get used to [the lifestyle in England]. So I focused my time and energy on photography,' said Kelly, 23.

'I've been interested in media since I was studying at South Island School, but there were no [relevant] subjects offered [there]. I started studying photography ... in London,' he said.

But why choose to feature a youth drug rehabilitation centre?

'I think it's interesting. When people think of Hong Kong, they think of a rich, bustling city. I wanted people to see this small aspect of life in Hong Kong - how gang activity and drug abuse have affected this fast-paced city. It's pretty much hidden from view,' he said.

Kelly spent about two weeks at the centre in September last year, where he lived in the same dormitory as local Chinese and Nepalese boys.

'These are guys who have drug abuse and heroin problems. It's a prolonged period of rehabilitation. They have to spend two years there.

'They were sent there because they committed crimes, like assault,' he said, admitting that he was scared on his first night in the dorm.

In January this year, Kelly also won the Reginald Salisbury Awards. This award is given to outstanding photography students by the University of Wales, Newport, where he studied for a degree in Documentary Photography. The award gave him #350 that helped fund his flight back to Hong Kong so he could make a second trip to the centre in March.

'The second time I went back, the boys were much more open with me. It was a gradual process of gaining their trust,' he said. 'Some of them have had pretty terrible childhoods.'

In between freelancing for photojournalism magazine Foto8 and other publications, Kelly is now researching for his next project.

'I want to do a project in Romania. There has been a massive influx of Chinese immigrants moving west from China,' said Kelly, who hopes to start the project next year. Kelly's award-winning photos can be viewed at