Ho Fan, Hong Kong photographer, on retrieving lost memories

The ‘Cartier-Bresson of the East’ is developing old negatives and showing never before seen photos

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 December, 2014, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 June, 2017, 12:38pm

48 HOURS: When you were going through your old negatives to develop your latest set of photographs, which is titled "A Hong Kong Memoir" and exhibited at AO Vertical Art Space until January 31, did it feel like retrieving lost memories?

HO FAN: What you say is entirely correct, as I'm looking for things that have vanished and will never be the same again. It's a kind of nostalgia. That's why I've named my new monograph A Hong Kong Memoir. I feel strongly about this set of work — and I've always believed that any work of art should stem from genuine feelings and understandings.

Admirers of your work are fascinated by your photos of Hong Kong taken in the 1950s and 1960s. Did you take them for fun, or was it done to document the city?

I'm very sorry to say that I didn't work with any sense of purpose. As an artist, I was only looking to express myself. I did it to share my feelings with the audience. I need to be touched emotionally to come up with meaningful works. When the work resonates with the audience, it's a satisfaction that money can't buy. My purpose is simple: I try not to waste my audience's time. [Laughs]

How do you usually decide on your subjects?

I just wait for whatever gifts God presents to me. Whether it is a homeless old man who makes me pity him, or children who are apparently having great fun and enjoying life, I follow my feelings when I decide whether it is worth pressing the shutter. Another part of my practice is that the composition of many of my photos is actually by design. While my street shots look spontaneous, many were arranged. They mustn't look forced or unnatural.

You're sometimes dubbed 'the Henri Cartier-Bresson of the East'. What have been your most important influences?

That's too big a compliment for me; Cartier-Bresson was the great master of documentary photography. During the earliest stage of my career, I worked in pictorial photography. Of the 200 or so prizes I've received, most were for works in that genre. In the middle part of my career, I became fascinated with Cartier-Bresson's photos and — the Decisive Moment", which is absent — or less effective — in other forms of visual art. Since then I have been working on the border between documentary photography and pictorial photography. In my new works, the scenes are from the past, but the special effects are newly added. I'm giving the old material a new impact.

Are there any unseen works that you want more people to look out for?

There are. A young collector has just bought a lot of my works, which are neither the award-winning ones in pictorial photography nor my signature prints. The works are — and I'm being apologetic here — photos that I had looked down on. The fact somebody bought these photos has been an inspiration: I shouldn't only be proud of my award-winning works, because there are other precious shots waiting to be rediscovered. People's evaluation criteria change all the time, so you just never know. The lesson is, don't ever throw away your old negatives.

Now that people have learned about your unpublished works, maybe you can expect a lot of calls.

If you're correct, I may have discovered a goldmine. I still have so many unprinted negatives at home. I didn't do them justice then; they escaped my attention the first time around. I'll go back to look at them after this visit. There are unpublished works from the 1950s to the '90s, and some recent colour photos which — like Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams — I don't think very highly of.