Interview with photographer Chung-Wai Wong
Chung-Wai Wong’s project, So Long Hong Kong, So Long, captures the enhanced sense of powerlessness and loss of hope in Hong Kong at a time of transition, discovery and reflection. Wong’s work is amongst the featured artists in this issue’s ‘Portfolio’ exhibition, and we had the opportunity to explore ideas behind his heartfelt farewell to the city, and the evidence of a unique personal experience based on Hong Kong’s layers of complexity.
Cary Benbow (CB): Can you please explain the idea behind your images submitted to this issue? How do they relate to your other projects, or how are they significantly different?
Chung-Wai Wong (CW): The idea of this project, ‘So Long Hong Kong, So Long’ came when I decided to leave Hong Kong, my homeland.
Personally, I like to see this as my farewell letter to Hong Kong, the place where I lived for so long, and will love my whole life. At the same time, in a much wider perspective, this project is also my study of Hong Kong’s current situation; a hopeless and powerless city after the failure of the pro-democracy movement in 2019. As a consequence, a massive migration wave occurs, ‘To leave or to stay’ became a main concern among the Hong Kong people.
All of my photography projects up till now are related to Hong Kong, as a place and as culture itself. I guess there is just so much to tell about this place. The people, the mixed culture, the value conflicts, the complexity, the unique and tragic history, the stunning cityscape, and everything that has made this place.
CB: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
CW: Taking photographs has been always a major part of my career as a film location manager. But I discovered photography somehow carries very different energy in terms of storytelling compared to films. To me, photography is a much more direct medium, it has the ability to communicate with the audience in just a split second. And if an image is able to hit or connect to its audience, it can stay in one’s mind for a very long time; almost forever.
In 2020, after the pro-democracy movements have failed, China was increasing its control over Hong Kong; forcing a massive change to its core value and its destiny. I felt the urge to create work to tell the story of this place. Before things were disappeared or disallowed.
CB: Where did you grow up and how did you spend your formative years? What was your start into photography?
CW: I grew up in public housing in Shatin, a big town in the eastern part of Hong Kong. I would say my childhood was not much different from any other kids there – spending too much time with football, video games, and not being excited about school life. But I do recall many trips when I went to mainland China with my parents, which started my long-time interest in family roots and cultural identity.
My interest in photography started when I was studying in design school. There were photography assignments, and I remember spending hours and hours walking around the city taking pictures. I really enjoyed doing that, not just the photography part, but also the part of being able to explore the city on my own. It’s kind of funny when I look back now, that was somehow what I am doing years after, either as a location manager or a photographer, walking around alone, exploring places and taking photographs.
CB: Do you see your work as documenting your experience and environments, or commenting on them?
CW: I do believe this work is a documentary of my experience but in the most subjective way. By the selecting of subjects to photograph, and the decision-making in the editing process. The result could show a certain kind of intimacy. Which is something I do want to achieve.
CB: Was that your intent?
CW: My intent is to tell the story of life in Hong Kong in the current situation; which is not told by the news. Not the scenes of conflicts, but the story behind all those. My work makes comments on a universal level, but at the same time shows a certain level of intimacy by the connection with personal material and emotions.
CB: What do you feel are the obligations of a documentary photographer? Or what obligation do you have to the city or its people in your work?
CW: To me, I believe being a documentary photographer means you should create and tell the story with honesty. To be honest to yourself, to your subjects, and to your audience.
CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why?
CW: Literature is a very important part of my inspiration. My mind was full of Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain when I was making this project. It is about the journey of a man searching for a place that might not even exist. I think literature creates a certain mood or atmosphere in my head. Which helps me to look at the world in a different way when I take photographs.
CB: There are elements of nature, wildlife, landscape, and people’s inclusion or interaction with nature in your work – can you comment on why you choose to depict these elements in the way you do?
CW: I guess I am trying to find signs of human interaction with these elements in the world or in a place. I always feel the interaction between the people and all these other elements are essential to show who these people really are, and things like what they believe in, what they value the most, how they see themselves as part of this world.
CB: Do you feel your work falls into either categories of documentary style photography versus portrait photography – or do you feel there is a significant difference? How do you define those genres?
CW: I feel sometimes it is very hard to define photography genres. These are questions I have been asking myself but cannot come up with an answer to. I would say there is a lot of grey area. Such as, if I ask a stranger to pose for a photograph or to move to a specific spot in order to get better sunlight, would that be against the definition of documentary-style? I guess I still don’t have perfect answers yet.
CB: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self at the start of your career, what would it be?
CW: Be bold.
Chung-Wai Wong is a photographer, movie production manager, location manager, and scriptwriter currently based in London.
To see more of Chung-Wai Wong’s work check out the Portfolio 2021 issue of F-Stop or visit: https://www.chungwaiwong.com