Protests, cocoons and shoebox homes: A look beyond Hong Kong's postcard exterior

Story highlights

  • A new exhibition showcases work from 15 photographers revealing Hong Kong's lesser known side
  • Difficult living conditions and social unrest are just some of the themes addressed in their work
  • August 19 is World Photo Day

Hong Kong (CNN)It's no secret: Hong Kong is photogenic.

With its shining skyscrapers, glittering harbor and glowing neon lights, it's easy to see why this former British colony is among the most photographed cities in the world.
    But a new exhibition of contemporary Hong Kong photographers wants the world to look past the city's postcard exterior.
    Diving deep within the high-rise jungle, 15 artists show us an intimate, often surreal side of life in this city, where space and time undergo peculiar transformations.

    What is Hong Kong photography?

    Chosen by local art group Lumenvisum and Berlin-based European Photography, featured artists say they want their work to make viewers reconsider their own lives and surroundings.
    One recurring theme in Hong Kong photography is the question of the city as home.
    "In our works, you can smell the society," photographer Dustin Shum tells CNN. "We're asking questions about our own upbringing, what sets us apart, what our essence is."
    Like many artists in the crowded metropolis, Shum is preoccupied by questions about physical space. A tenant of government-subsidized housing, Shum's photos are "portraits" of the public estates around him -- aging structures at once familiar and alienating.
    For Shum, the structures' bright, whimsical paint schemes read as shallow facades. "We are forced to have an emotional attachment to these buildings; they want you to treat it like a home. But inside there are a lot of social problems."
    This hidden plight is laid bare in the photographs of Benny Lam, who worked with a local human rights group to reveal desperate conditions in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
    In one of the show's most striking pictures, a family of four is crammed into a space barely bigger than a closet, their meager possessions packed to the ceiling of the enclosure they call home.
    Lam says the visuals only tell part of the story. "If you could experience the smell and the heat, you would feel like it is hell. When I took these photos it was more than 30 C (86 F) indoors. There are no windows; you can't breathe."
    Outside these walls, photographs convey the anxiety of a city going through inexorable change.
    A haunting image by veteran local artist Alfred Ko shows pedestrians filing across a lit skyway suspended over a dark, gaping construction site in Hong Kong's financial district -- a metaphor for the relentless, "self-destructive" pace of the city's development, Ko says.
    In the same neighborhood, Johnny Gin photographs a slapdash barricade of sticks, tarp, and tape from the 2014 Occupy movement -- an architectural motif for Hong Kong's desperate resistance against the increasing power of China's Communist Party.
    Taken together, the works seem to ask: Is there room in this city for our dreams?
    This tension is expressed eloquently in a series by Lau Chi-chung juxtaposing schoolchildren with abandoned structures. The concept questions the gap between the city's education system and the real world, says the artist.
    "In the old Hong Kong, the teacher was the authority. But after leaving school we've taken years to realize that much of what we might have learned is wrong."

    East or West?

    As a microcosm of the city itself, Hong Kong's small photography scene finds itself between worlds: neither fully at home with the West or with China.
    For artists working in Hong Kong, this has meant exclusion from the boom in international interest in mainland Chinese photography over the last two decades.
    "China says Hong Kong is part of China -- yet when it comes to photography, they don't count us in," observes Shum. "It makes us feel like we need to catch up."
    Shum theorizes that Hong Kong's socially conscious photography isn't considered "as charming" as Chinese photography.
    "Many Chinese works are more detached from real life, they're about escapism. It's easy to accept, and the market prefers it," he says.
    Artist Andreas Müller-Pohle, who publishes European Photography, says the international photography world has "mostly ignored" Hong Kong artists due to a lack of knowledge.
    That inspired him to pair with Lumenvisum co-founder Tse Mingchong to produce an issue of the magazine purely devoted to Hong Kong photographs -- the exhibition of those works is now on view in the city.
    Müller-Pohle explains, "In Germany, France, people might be able to name Japanese, Chinese photographers, but when you mention Hong Kong photography, they say 'what's that?'
    "We should make Hong Kong more visible."
    Still, some of the more internationally known photographs to emerge from the city have been made by foreign artists, who acknowledge they gaze upon the place with different eyes.
    French photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagreze admits his first major project in Hong Kong six years ago was something a "first timer" would do -- geometric compositions of the city's skyscrapers. "People outside of Hong Kong found it very stunning, but the reaction of locals was 'I see this every day.'"
    In his latest work, Jacquet-Lagreze photographed the city's gnarled banyan trees, "growing out of nowhere" on the city's unforgiving concrete walls.
    "Hong Kong people like this one a lot -- it shows something hidden and precious about the city's old atmosphere," he says. "And foreign people like it too, so I managed to please everyone."

    Camera culture

    Yet international success has remained elusive for most of Hong Kong's image creators.
    An unresolved question: How can the city develop a successful photography scene, one that stays true to its local roots, while attracting interest from the foreign art world?
    For Shum, the key lies in creating a homegrown ecosystem.
    "It's not just about creating photographers," he says. "You need an audience, exhibition space, education, funding, publications, criticism -- many of these things are still not mature."
    Shum sees an opportunity in Hong Kong's rich camera culture -- collecting photo equipment is a popular pastime here, and smartphone photography has become a fixture of daily life.
    As new generations are drawn to pictures, there should be reason to hope.
    "If just ten percent of those people can be nurtured to go deeper -- then we'll be very successful."