Lens me your ears

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2007, 12:00am

The back cover of Fragrant Projections touts the book as presenting an 'alternate world'. Its beginnings are unconventional enough: Hong Kong-based writers James Ockenden and David Whitton use gritty snapshots of the city as the catalyst for a collection of quirky tales.

It's an experiment in how one medium inspires another, Whitton says. Their collection of short stories and the evocative images by sometime photographer Ben Sand that sparked them is released today, along with an accompanying exhibition of writing and photos.

Although the colour-rich photos by Sand, aka Ghostkamera, are the immediately striking feature of the book, it's the short stories that set it apart - as an interface of literature and Lomography, the trademark term for images produced using a Lomographische camera.

Whitton and Ockenden conceived the idea last November and began looking for photos that could inspire and illustrate their writing. Countless samples were collected from friends and acquaintances, but they only found what they were looking for after stumbling on Sand's photos on an online photo-sharing website. 'We have similar styles in the quirkiness of our stories and when we came across Ghostkamera's photos, the mood and colour just seemed to fit with our writing,' Whitton says.

When the Fringe Club offered them an exhibition slot, it spurred the pair to complete their project in eight weeks to meet this month's deadline. The 150-page book, which will be available at local booksellers, will sell at the exhibition for HK$80.

The first tale begins with an old woman at a railway platform waiting not for a train but for a story. 'Stories are everywhere,' she says. 'But one of the best places in the world to find them is right here, underground, on these trains.'

Most yarns run to two pages or shorter - in some cases a single stanza - and forego traditional narrative forms as the two writers experiment with voice and reality. Each tale is a different flavoured morsel, ranging from a dead Chinese astronaut on the moon, to a bicycle-stealing koala on Lantau, a phone call from a deceased friend, and a talking fish.

Ockenden, a journalist, and Whitton, a teacher, say most of the stories have little to do with their own lives. 'When people see the exhibition or read the book, it's a journey for them. It's got nothing to do with me or James,' Whitton says. 'A story is a story; it's universal.'

Nonetheless, personal experience informed several stories and Ockenden's decision to quit his job as an energy reporter to focus on writing provides a poignant set piece. 'I thought escaping would be a nice, easy process,' he says. 'Save some money and take a sabbatical. But I lost all my money and all my possessions. I lived on a boat for a while, I was practically homeless. But it was necessary. [Escaping] is a dream for a writer, in a way. It was painful and hard, but I was extremely happy.'

Many readers are likely to be drawn first by the photos. Most were taken by British-born Sand in 2003. A tour manager for bands, Sand is often on the road and the photos in the book were taken with a Lomo LC-A he bought for US$10 at a second-hand shop in Pakistan.

'I write my own stuff for my photos, but it's awesome that some total strangers have been inspired by my stuff and want to use them in their own writing. It's a very small world,' Sand says.

'We approached photos and writing in the same way. That was very cool.'

While Lomo shots are known for their rich colour, Sand says he achieved the saturated effect by cross-processing slide film in chemicals used for normal film. But he downplays the hype surrounding Lomography, saying he doesn't set out to be a photographer.

'I basically just take photos of my life - things I like or interesting angles. Lomo does it better than other cameras because it adds this little bit of magic.'

That special touch springs from its colour-loving Minitar lens, first designed at the production facilities of Lomographische, a former Soviet state-run camera company, in St Petersburg. A kind of Kalashnikov of cameras, the Lomo LC-A is based on a Japanese model but fitted with a stronger body and improvements such as its light-sensitive lens.

The craze for the cameras started in 1991, when two students from Vienna found an LC-A at a shop in Prague. Captivated by the colour-rich images the camera produced, the pair signed a deal to become the sole distributor of all Lomo LC-A cameras outside the former Soviet Union and their company went on to produce its own line of analogue cameras. They also founded the Lomographic Society, which boasts offshoots that proselytise the Lomo philosophy in dozens of cities worldwide. This emphasises a casual approach and 'happy accidents', with users encouraged to shoot from the hip to capture candid images.

The local Lomographic Society is supporting the publication of Fragrant Projections by giving away several cameras at a party to mark the opening of the exhibition tonight.

The last section of the book is devoted to the enigmatic images as the authors encourage readers to come up with their own stories. Their intention is made clear in Whitton's tale of the elderly woman waiting for a story. As the last train of the day is about to depart, a commuter expresses regret that her quest has been fruitless. But she tells him, 'This is the story'. We are the story.

Fragrant Projections, The Economist Gallery, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, noon-10pm. Ends Jun 2