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City Weekend

Hong Kong’s contrasts and contradictions take centre-stage in Canadian-born photographer’s work

Kirk Kenny, 42, finds inspiration in city’s mixed heritage and juxtaposition of old and new

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 2018, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 February, 2018, 2:31pm

A new photography exhibition at one of Causeway Bay’s trendiest co-working spaces aims to shine a light on the hidden juxtapositions in Hong Kong’s urban landscape.

Canadian-born photographer Kirk Kenny, 42, was immediately taken with the city’s vibrant street life when he first moved to Hong Kong in 2009, after spending nine years in Beijing working as a journalist and Mandarin teacher.

He worked in marketing for a number of years before deciding to take the leap to become a full-time photographer, with the support of his wife, who is from Hong Kong.

“As far back as I can remember, I was very visual,” he says. “I grew up in Saskatchewan, a very rural part of Canada, so would spend hours outside every day being surrounded by nature – it’s basically just prairie. From a young age I had an appreciation for observing things.”

Kenny partly credits his mother’s old film photos taken in far-flung locations such as Australia and sub-Saharan Africa for his fascination with capturing the outside world on camera.

“I enjoyed photography in high school, but it was never something I thought would be a calling or a vocation,” he says. “Starting around university, when I started to travel on my own, the camera then became a more meaningful way of documenting experiences I was having.”

Kenny moonlighted as a photographer alongside his day job in marketing before finally setting up his own studio a few years ago.

He works mainly on editorial and commercial assignments, but the pieces in his exhibition, titled Disappearing Hong Kong, are the result of his personal photography.

“I like to think of it as ‘food for the table, food for the soul’,” Kenny says. “There’s some photography work that you do to pay the bills and other stuff that’s more meaningful.

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He describes most of the work on display as “photos that revealed themselves to me through serendipity” instead of the highly planned and stylised images he produces on commercial shoots.

“It started out with me walking round the street with my camera,” he says. “I found that I really enjoyed that sort of photography, almost as a respite from the sort of work that I was doing as a professional.”

Kenny was drawn in particular to the gritty street life of Kowloon neighbourhoods such as Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po, as well as the interesting characters who inhabit those places.

However, he stresses that he does not want to photograph cliched scenes, those commonly shot locally and among expats.

“Hong Kong is unique in that it really has this mixed heritage of a colonial past and also a very distinct identity as well,” he says. “In stark contrast, you see this stunning modernity and all of these seemingly incongruent things buttressing up against one another.”

Some of the photos displayed in his upcoming exhibition are shot at night in low light, so that hidden corners are brought to life by the neon signs that are a common feature of the cityscape. Others show scenes from local residents’ daily lives at the temple or at a fortune-teller’s street stall.

Besides Kowloon, Kenny enjoys shooting in places he has not been before, including very gentrified neighbourhoods:

“You never know what you’re going to come across. Sometimes in very unlikely places you discover photos that you didn’t know were there.”

Above all, Kenny wants to document the city for his newborn daughter, so she can see the familiar scenes that have become a part of his life before they change in the future.

Disappearing Hong Kong will be showing at theDesk, 1 Hysan Avenue in Causeway Bay on February 22.