Picture belonging: youth from Hong Kong ethnic minority groups use photography to share stories, defy stereotypes

  • Organised by NGO KELY Support Group, RiseUp Photo Exhibition features 12 students who give audiences an intimate look into their lives and the city’s diverse communities
  • The event is free to enter and is at Platform in Sai Ying Pun until June 4, while a virtual version is available for the public until July 22
Kelly Fung |

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RiseUp’s youth photographers Mohamed Yahya (left) and Sania (right) with Cindy Ng, Senior Programmes & Services Manager for KELY Support Group. Photo: KELY Support Group

Youth from Hong Kong’s ethnic minority communities explore identity and defy stereotypes through photography and storytelling at a free exhibition organised by a local non-profit organisation.

Put together by Hong Kong-based NGO KELY Support Group, the RiseUp Photo Exhibition features the work of 12 students exploring the theme, “Belonging”. Along with their photos, participants tell personal stories to give viewers an intimate look into their lives and the city’s many communities.

Sania, who was born in Pakistan before coming to Hong Kong at the age of three, wants her art to show that she is more than just her ethnicity.

“Through our pictures, we were free. We were able to take the route of showing the way we think,” the 20-year-old said. “Showing our pictures and our stories really helped show who we are as humans.”

The student said she hoped her art would challenge long-standing stereotypes about Hong Kong’s ethnic minority groups.

“[People] have the stereotype of girls ... they would ask, ‘Do they [your parents] let you study? Or do you have to get married soon?’,” she said. “It’s always about our background and not about us as an individual.”

This programme, RiseUp, was started nearly 10 years ago by KELY Support Group, a charity providing opportunities to equip young people with the life skills that are essential for them to thrive. RiseUp trains youth from the city’s ethnic minority communities in photography and storytelling.

“We want to provide a platform and a safe space for them to be able to express what they are thinking to the public, and for other people to hear their voice,” said Cindy Ng, Senior Programmes and Services Manager for KELY Support Group.

She added that RiseUp offered opportunities for participants to learn important soft skills such as effective communication and public speaking.

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One of Sania’s photos, titled Shelter Is a Prison If Not Timed, addresses the dangers of staying in one’s comfort zone.

The work presents a mesmerising night view, though part of it is blocked by the terrace of the building. The student photographer likened the terrace to a “shelter” that might appear safe but could be hindering growth.

“If you want to enjoy the beautiful moonlight, you will have to move yourself away from the shelter,” she said. “It actually tells many stories of young people growing up in Hong Kong. We have to step out of our comfort zone. Only in this way will we be able to see and be seen.”

“We are kids in our parents’ eyes or in society’s eyes – we are seen as not knowing much ... so sometimes people might give shelter to us, telling us to stay in our comfort zone because we might have bad experiences. But it can be a poison,” she continued.

Through her photo, “Shelter Is a Prison If Not Timed”, Sania wants to remind people not to stay in their comfort zone. Photo: Sania

The other two photos submitted by Sania, If You Could Look Beyond the Mountains and If Wood Could Fly, serve as a reminder for other members of ethnic minorities to find a sense of belonging and help each other out.

“With the photo, I would like to encourage everyone to let your mind relax and travel to places where you can find peace and feel a sense of belonging,” she explained.

“As ethnic minority youth in Hong Kong, we might think about going back to where we came from or migrating to other places in order to avoid hardship we face in Hong Kong,” she said. “However, I think we should see how we could strive [to be] even better if we learn to use our setbacks as the fuel for coming together.”

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Sania’s “If Wood Could Fly” is an encouragement to find ways to relax and be at peace. Photo: Sania

Another participant, Mohamed Yahya, 17, said the programme allowed him to channel his feelings. Born and raised in Hong Kong, the teenager said he had always used photography to express himself and stay connected to friends and family.

One of his photos called My Room gives the audience an intimate look into his personality and passion for music.

“This photo is taken in my room where I find a sense of belonging. My room shows who I am as a person,” the student explained.

Mohamed Yahya took a photo of his room where he feels a sense of belonging. Photo: Mohamed Yahya

Another photo he submitted, titled The Place of Joy, captures the sunset he saw during a hike and the happiness he felt.

“Usually Hong Kong flats are really small and cramped up. I feel I couldn’t really express myself, and I wanted a bigger space,” he said. “I usually go on hikes with my friends, or sometimes I go alone. And it always brings me joy ... looking at really big spaces.”

Mohamed said that while he often felt stifled in Hong Kong, RiseUp gave him an opportunity to explore who he was.

“This whole programme sees me as a person, and I learned more about myself,” he said.

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In “The Place of Joy”, Mohamed Yahya highlights the beauty of escaping Hong Kong’s cramped cityscape. Photo: Mohamed Yahya

Both Sania and Mohamed agreed that society often emphasised the struggles and stereotypes that ethnic minority communities faced while overlooking their successes and potential.

“When locals interact with us, it’s usually for helping us. It’s like, ‘Oh, you must be struggling with money or must be struggling with your family issues’,” Sania explained.

“Most of the time, I’ve seen people just kind of degrade ethnic minorities, saying that [we] struggle a lot, and we’re not really good at something,” added Mohamed. “In fact, some people have really good talents, and they really excel.”

The RiseUp Photo Exhibition is at Platform in Sai Ying Pun until June 4, while a virtual exhibition is available for the public until July 22.

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