Instagram feed DRKRMS a showcase for Hong Kong photography pros
Three founders of "dark rooms" initiative want it to be global platform for profession
It's tough to make a living as a photographer in Hong Kong, particularly if you charge anything other than rock-bottom fees. And despite a wealth of often untapped talent, not many photographers here have an international profile.
DRKRMS wants to change this.
The brainchild of photographers Inga Beckmann from Germany and Callaghan Walsh from Australia, and British music and events expert Charlie Toller, DRKRMS (the name is pronounced "dark rooms") is a platform for Hong Kong's professional photographers to present high-quality, nightlife-themed work to the world.
They are invited to do so mainly via an Instagram feed that was launched late last year, but there will also be an interactive photography event early this year based on the work of 10 of the photographers.
The trio behind DRKRMS met when they worked together on brand events. "The idea came about over a beer to combine our businesses, photography and events," says Beckmann. "There was no platform like it, so we created something new. There's not much space for being creative in Hong Kong - we want to create one."
"We wanted it to be a platform for Hong Kong photographers on a global level," Toller says. "A lot of brands, especially fashion brands, come to Hong Kong for shoots and bring their own people in. They don't trust local photographers."
The first task for the DRKRMS founders was to get photographers interested. "The challenge was to get people to submit work to something they hardly knew," says Beckmann.
It doesn't help that their project is not the easiest to grasp conceptually. "It's a bit of a journey to understand what it's all about," says Toller. "It's one of our biggest challenges."
So far DRKRMS has received submissions from 40 professional photographers, most of whom the founders approached personally. The result, on the Instagram page, is a mixture of posed and candid shots, many of them blurry, gritty or action-packed, with lots of black and whites, and stark Hong Kong street scenes.
The recent protests were naturally fertile territory for the photographers. There are also shots of famous people - or at least well-known faces from Hong Kong's nightlife scene.
However, says Beckmann, while the project might focus on the city's nightlife, it's not just about clubs. In fact, there's a conscious attempt to steer clear of clichéd sweaty-room, nonchalant-DJ photos, or posers in posh places.
"It's more about what goes on after nightfall, and it's more reportage than event photography," Beckmann says.
DRKRMS has struck up partnerships with several major names from Hong Kong's nightlife scene, including Clockenflap, Electriq, Cliché Records, Oma and XXX, as well as Milk Studios in New York and So It Goes magazine in London.
"Partnerships like those give us brand credibility and get our young photographers out there meeting people," says Toller.
They have also set up DRKRMS Lab, a weekly get-together for photographers, which came about "because we wanted to meet people".
The platform is limited to professional photographers, but the trio admit that they're sometimes prepared to bend the rules for people they consider particularly talented - for example Kwan Kam-cheong, who shoots atmospheric street and interior scenes in black and white.
"He only got a camera four years ago, and now he has a sort of addiction to photography," says Toller. "His work is dark, and not necessarily beautiful, but it's challenging and very honest. Some people might not like it, but it's the sort of thing we want to show."
The nearest thing to a model for DRKRMS is probably online music-performance phenomenon Boiler Room, a platform created to showcase the high-quality work of artists that quickly became popular because of its uncompromising standards and high level of credibility.
The commercial potential comes from the possible involvement of sponsors attracted to a discerning audience that trusts the brand. So it's critical to ensure that any commercial partnerships are handled with sensitivity. The one thing a project like DRKRMS can't do is undermine its own credibility with carelessly thought-out hard sell from inappropriate companies.
"We have to maintain our credibility," says Toller. "As soon as we start to take too many liberties, we'll lose people."
In particular, the challenge will be to get commercial partners to underwrite the planned event, on a date and at a venue to be decided, but involving large-scale interactive exhibits based on the photographers' best work.
"We like projecting people onto buildings," says Toller. Another idea is to project video and audio in a tent so that members of the audience feel as if they're performing daredevil stunts.
"The event is one focus," says Toller, "but the magic is in the content we're creating online. We're discovering more photographers; we're getting better at it over time."
With a critical mass of content so important to the project's success, its founders plan to take it to other cities as soon as possible, including Western hubs such as London and New York, and Asian metropolises, especially Shanghai.
"If we're able to do it in two or three places, we'll get people wanting to represent their city," says Toller. "We've already got people contacting us, saying that when DRKRMS is in town, they want to work with us."