After the ravages of the second world war and the horrifying realisation of Nazi genocide of Jews, Serbs, homosexuals, gypsies and other innocents – not to mention the real fear of a cold war atomic disaster – Edward Steichen, the respected photographer and a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, believed the common universality of humanity should be celebrated.
Steichen’s ambitious “The Family of Man” exhibition showcased 503 photographs by 273 photographers from 68 countries. After the original New York exhibition ended, in 1955, the show toured internationally, sponsored by the United States Information Agency as part of its cold war propaganda push.
Millions of people saw the exhibition, but not all were admirers. Despite having seven of his photographs on display, Robert Frank questioned the show’s optimistic world view and went in search of the real America. Frank’s now-celebrated book The Americans, photographed in 1955 and published in 1958, documented the country on road trips he made with his wife and children. His America was a raw, multilayered, diverse place and his work was pivotal to the rise of tough street photography in the 1960s and 70s.
Inspired by Steichen, the current Hong Kong International Photo Festival’s highlight exhibition, “1,000 Families”, has a similar feel-good intention and depicts “the family” through the lenses of 13 photographers.
The curators, Bobby Sham Ka-ho and Blues Wong Kai-yu, have adopted a liberal definition: “Family is defined differently by everyone – happiness, the ability to love and be loved, and wonderful memories can all be elements that make up ‘family’”. As such, “happiness”, “love” and “memory” are the categories that make up the exhibition and each photographer has been placed within one of the sections. This seems unnecessary: the exhibition is not large and each photographer has these elements in their work anyway.
Despite an all-embracing definition of “family”, the depictions here are generally conservative. The cultural diversity of Hong Kong, with its Indonesian, Filipino, Indian, Pakistani, Nepali and other communities is unseen. A diversity of family composition is also generally missing. The nuclear and extended family dominates and the stories of single parents and LGBT people are unheard. Likewise, family life is generally presented as middle-class, despite research showing that 25 per cent of Hong Kong people live in poverty. With these omissions, “1,000 Families”, unlike Steichen’s original in its post-war context, lacks inspiration. Hopefully the show, like Frank’s work, will motivate the city’s photographers to depict other aspects of Hong Kong. And, away from the family-themed group format, the exhibited photographers each show considered projects.
Masashi Asada’s Asadake (2004-2007) is the only humorous presentation in the show. Producing “commemorative pictures”, Asada and his family take holidays together and then rent spaces “for shooting, [we then] choose each other’s costumes and decide on the situation before taking the pictures”. We see Asada, his brother and parents in various guises: a rock band, firefighters, a yakuza gang, peace demonstrators and hospital patients. These images get closest to life’s happy absurdities, and are thoroughly enjoyable.
Chan Kwok-chung’s Pets’ Human Families (2016) are images shot from a pet’s point of view, accompanied by a comment, for example, “I am one of the fish in Jackson’s family’s fish tank. Jackson sees me as his companion.” We see a fish, the tank and a smiling young Jackson. With curatorial assistance, Chan’s images and captions could have been, like Asada’s, an ironic/funny commentary on family life rather than just silly.
Doreen Chan Wing-yan’s installation 28.6 (60.2) (2016), about her relationship with her mother, comprises an evocative poem (“Holding one’s breath / To live as if to remember / For so long so long …”) and projected images of daily scenes, food and accumulated possessions in plastic bags. Rather than being resolved ideas, it felt as it looked: a tentative series of images. Again, the advice of the curators should have made this a tighter visual idea.
In contrast, the successful simplicity of Chan Dick’s Afterglow (2016) installation honours the artist’s father. A bed is placed in a darkened room. The audience may lie on the bed to view a slideshow of dreamy photographs accompanied by plaintive music, with a final shot of Chan’s father. Outside the room, a box of possessions provides a memorial: a tie, a pager, a plastic food container and shaving gear.
The inclusion of photographs of former Chinese leaders with their families takes a cue from the propaganda aspects of “The Family of Man”. Shot by Xinhua photographer Yang Shaoming – the son of Yang Shangkun, a former president of China, although this information is not provided in the exhibition – the images do unintentionally depict one aspect of the exhibition: privilege.
Joe Lau’s ONE “FAMILY” (2016) is a refreshingly alternative photo essay of single people and their living spaces. And he critically tackles those living alone – and anyone estranged from family: “Should ‘family’ or ‘home’ be simply where the heart is?” ■
“1,000 Families” will be on display at ArtisTree, Taikoo Place, until September 4.