Meet the Hong Kong social worker who can solve your problems – without talking
Monique Hung Tjoe-foen uses a unique brand of therapy based on photography and an attentive ear to turn her clients’ lives around
It’s 5.30pm on a Monday, and Monique Hung Tjoe-foen has just finished a day of work at her primary school in Sha Tin. The social worker is next off to her “other counselling job”.
With no fixed office, no pay and fluctuating hours, Hung’s job after school is to be a good listener, wherever and whenever that may be. It is something she has mastered over 23 years.
“No one has the authority, or is even qualified to evaluate or determine who you are or define your values. It can only be done through your own interpretation and presentation, because you, being the protagonist in your life, have the right to represent yourself in a very personal and powerful way,” Hung says, reflecting on her role.
Hung, now in her 40s, doesn’t usually make dinner plans as she is never sure how a night might pan out. An average of two evenings a week are spent talking to strangers in free counselling sessions that include discussions about photography – a combination of topics proposed in 2016 that she calls PhoTALKgraphy.
“Sometimes, I understand it would be odd to talk candidly about what’s bothering you to someone you’ve just met, without passing judgment too quickly,” Hung says. “So in order to break the ice, I usually bring along my portfolio of photography in order to open up some casual topics to talk about.”
On other occasions she takes clients on a photo-taking adventure, after which they sit down and reflect on what they have seen.
“We usually begin talking about what type of photography approach was used ... By using that as a bridge I can then lead them to reflect on their personal situation and help them explore what possibilities there are for the future,” she says. “Our conversations are based on photos, which means we actually let the photos they have taken do the talking.”
Some sessions last up to two and a half hours, during which time Hung doesn’t speak much. Instead she offers the person an opportunity to express themself freely.
“In our line of work, social workers are usually quick to make comments due to the need to speed up the recovery process. We don’t listen to understand – we are only listening to provide them with possible answers.”
But her method can help a client find answers themself, she says.
“You would be surprised to find that this talking method can lead individuals to overcome their issues on their own. This kind of discovery may help reignite their passion for something, or get to the root of their problems and eventually come up with a solution.”
The fresh idea for her sessions came about nine years ago when Hung was pursuing a master’s degree in guidance and counselling.
“In the master’s course, I was taught the narrative approach, which is reliance on spoken words to focus on the individual’s life as expressed through their own stories,” she says.
The approach seeks to bring about respectful and no-blame interaction.
“We don’t see personal problems and struggles as being part of an individual, more like separated from them. Through casual chat I will ask questions to allow them to concentrate on what they believe in, their values and competencies, as a way to assist them to reduce the negative influence from the challenges they are facing.
“Everyone comes with some sort of baggage. It’s not just about helping them offload their burdens – how we approach their problems during the process is also important. There isn’t a standardised way of dealing with each client.”