Shutter island secrets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 2010, 12:00am

Photography is Joseph Fung Hon-kee's all-consuming life-long passion. 'To me it is like a drug,' says the 72-year-old photographer, teacher and curator. 'Once you touch it, you get addicted for life.'

So it comes as no surprise that he is one of the driving forces behind the inaugural Hong Kong Photo Festival, which kicks off on November 27. Presented by the Hong Kong Photographic Culture Association - a group started by Fung and 17 other local photographers last year to promote the city as a regional photographic hub - the month-long cross-regional event will include nine exhibitions, an array of workshops and seminars, and a photography competition.

The highlight will be three major exhibitions that promise to provide glimpses into early photography in Hong Kong and life on the mainland in the past few decades, and to showcase the medium as a means to pursue contemporary art in Greater China. Fung, the overall curator of Four Dimensions - Contemporary Photography from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Macau, says photography can reflect differences in the areas' social and political life. For example, a 'sense of belonging' has been an issue in Hong Kong since 1997, he says, while on the mainland, there is a 'very strong' sense of identity - and the photographers there have made some bolder statements.

But, on the whole, there are more commonalities than differences between the approaches of the photographers chosen across Greater China, Fung says. The veteran photographer has also spotted a recent trend: Chinese photography is no longer purely of a 'social documentary' nature. but there's an increasing desire to 'want to show something broader ... more artistic, personal and conceptual'.

For example, in her series of work that depicts Taiwanese apartments built from the 1960s to the 80s, Lin Yu-ting sculpted facades of these buildings from a cake before taking photos of the miniature model. Lin says she used cake as a medium because she wanted to give familiar scenes a different look, while still conveying the warmth and evocativeness of these homes.

'You can almost taste the sweetness of the visuals. Photography today enables many more layers of interpretation,' says Chou Ching-hui, curator of the Taiwan section in Four Dimensions. Chou's own recent project, Wild Aspirations - The Yellow Sheep River, takes that multi-layered approach. The piece depicts a village in Gansu province that was chosen to receive computers from a charity.

He asked the village children to paint their 'dreams' about computers and took portraits of the children along with their paintings. Chou, who has a background in photojournalism, says he is interested in exploring 'how to weave the essence of storytelling from photojournalism into photo art. I believe the stories behind the visuals can really move people'.

Fung says the Four Dimensions curatorial team's aim is to move away from traditional approaches to photography. Photographers can be regarded as 'artists using the medium of photography', he says.

In a separate show, Suspending Torso: Body As Machine, also part of the festival, artist Julian Lee Chi-chiu uses moving images of nudes to explore human movement. This new series of interactive nude art is a response to Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the father of action photography whose classical nude male and female figures on photo paper helped analyse the movement of nude figures, Lee says.

'I find Muybridge a big inspiration,' says the author and photographer. 'He initiates the idea of my creative experiment, even pushes my creative thinking beyond the traditional photography by using digital panels to replace photos on paper. The result is a remake of his old tricks as a new interactive animation.'

The Tate Britain is holding a retrospective of Muybridge's photography to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Photography has come a long way since its 19th-century beginnings, when it involved bulky equipment including fragile glass plates and chemicals. Images taken in Hong Kong from 1858 to 1875 - most of which have never before been publicly shown here - will be featured in the Canon Presents First Photographs of Hong Kong exhibition. Edwin Lai Kin-keung, co-curator of the exhibition, says that at the time local photography served two purposes: portraits for compradors (Chinese merchants who worked with foreigners), and documentation of social changes since Hong Kong was ceded to the British. Examples of the latter include early photos of Happy Valley racecourse and Government House. Both Chinese and overseas photographers at the time needed to be confident that the fruits of their labour and cost-intensive efforts would sell, Lai adds.

Today, digital photography and the availability of increasingly cheaper and more compact equipment has brought unprecedented photographic convenience and creative possibilities to the masses.

The festival's theme - 'Photography for all, all for photography' - reflects its inclusive approach and its intended broad appeal. 'We are not just focused on the high end of photography. We also ... look at other applications of photography,' says Lai, who is also a founding member of the Hong Kong Photographic Culture Association. 'In a way, you can say that [the festival] reflects how photography has permeated our lives.'

The Sea. Sky. Stars exhibition will feature underwater photography plus contributions from the Hong Kong Astronomy Association and the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society. The Against All Odds section features work by photographers with disabilities. Another exhibition will focus on photos by the 'post-80s' generation.

The closing exhibition, China's 30 Years, will offer an overall portrait of life on the mainland since major economic reforms began. When China opened up in the 1970s, Hong Kong photographers went there and influenced their mainland counterparts, says Fung, but 'in the last decade, the tables have turned because Chinese photography is so strong'.

However, in a few recent photo festivals on the mainland, some works have been taken down because of political sensitivities, Fung says. Local photographer Ducky Tse Chi-tak says that while the mainland has the benefit of space and a number of large photo festivals have been held there, he believes Hong Kong is an attractive choice of venue for the festival. 'There is more freedom to show different images in Hong Kong,' he says.

The Hong Kong Photo Festival 2010, Nov 27-Dec 31. Various venues. Inquiries: 2777 1955 or www.hkphotofest.org