Duelling Lenses: Two Photographers’ Different Visions of Hong Kong

On a walkway nestled between vibrantly reflective skyscrapers, crowds of overseas domestic helpers come together to sit on pieces of cardboard as makeshift picnic blankets to chat, share food, and enjoy their one day of the week off. Another scene, this time a black and white shot, shows rows of uniform housing estates bracketed and contrasted by greenery. These are among 40 works that currently fill the art photography and contemporary design gallery F22 Foto Space in Wan Chai, all showing different takes on Hong Kong.

Titled HERE / NOT HERE, the exhibition is a collaboration between two artists: Hong Kong photographer and visual artist Yan Kallen, and French photographer Michel Eisenlohr. As its name probably suggests, it brings together perspectives born from differing cultural backgrounds. But it also references the hidden and the soon to be forgotten; spaces that we either don’t typically associate with Hong Kong because they depart from the city’s typical image of a frenetic, vibrant metropolis, or because they’re casualties of the city’s ever-developing landscape, falling between the cracks as yet another new high-rise is built in their place.

Photo by Yan Kallen

Michael Eisenlohr

Photo by Michael Eisenlohr

“Obviously, I’m ‘here’ and Michel is ‘not here’,” Yan explains in his Wong Chuk Hang studio, referring to his status as a Hongkonger and therefore an insider to the cityscape while Eisenlohr is an outsider. Yan in the middle of preparing for the exhibition’s opening, but he’s taking some time to further explain its concept to us over cups of tea. “On the flip side, he’s photographing what’s here. What I’m photographing now is not here. The city is developing, and all I have is memories.”

What Yan has lost ranges from people and circumstances to physical places. One of his photographs depicts Choi Wan Estate, where his grandmother — who has since passed away — used to live. “My grandparents, my mother and her five brothers and sisters all lived in this very small public housing flat,” he says. “Eventually [the siblings] became successful and moved out, moved somewhere else. But it’s where my first memories were.”

He lists other places that no longer exist. “Where I used to play as a child is not there anymore,” he continues. “I had my first McDonald’s and my first cinema experience in Yue Man Fong in Kwun Tong. Now there’s a massive [redevelopment] complex there instead.” With his wife’s help, he carries out a few of the photographs he’ll be showing at the exhibition and points one of them out. It depicts Quarry Bay, around Tai Koo Shing, where his father used to live (“Quarry Bay,” 2017). A collection of older buildings have been cordoned off, ready for demolition.

Photo by Yan Kallen

Eisenlohr’s approach is different. Since he hails from the south of France, the sites around Hong Kong that he photographs aren’t steeped in history and personal stories the way they are for Yan. Eisenlohr’s explorations of the city were more that of an adventuring traveler eager to discover a new and relatively unfamiliar place.

“I am a flâneur who is totally open to encountering the unexpected,” he says from his studio in France through a translator, as he only speaks French. “Through multiple stays, I have come to build my own narrative of Hong Kong. In particular, I was drawn to its strong contrasts and urban enclaves – these ruptures in the verticality of the city’s fabric that give Hong Kong its unique personality.” By “urban enclaves,” Eisenlohr refers to “places where the extreme density of the city seems to pause, if only for a short while”—temples, swimming pools, even cemeteries.

Photo by Michel Eisenlohr

Having originally been invited to the city as part of the 2015 Le French May program, Eisenlohr swiftly fell under the metropolis’ spell, returning thrice over the following two years to continue building the body of work that he’d show at the exhibition. During these visits, he made contact with architects, urban landscapers, teachers and researchers at the Hong Kong University Department of Architecture, who provided theoretical context to his wanderings through the city. While these contacts suggested the occasional site for him to visit, though, much of his work hinged on spontaneity. “I explored a lot at various times of the day, and I happily lost myself in the vastness of the territory,” he says.

While the two didn’t decide on a formal plan or concept for the project together, they kept up regular contact up until the exhibition, despite not sharing a common language. Yan fondly recalls communicating over photographs, maps, their cameras. The two met up a number of times during Eisenlohr’s visits, and during summer photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles in France, but only went out to photograph together once. “We were both conscious that Kallen’s insider knowledge could potentially influence my work,” Eisenlohr explains. “Despite the language barrier, each meeting has been very intense, and it has been interesting to see each other’s approaches evolve in parallel over the last few months.”

Yan Kallen Michael Eisenlohr

Michel Eisenlohr and Yan Kallen, May 2017

Aside from their differing cultural backgrounds, it’s also clear that Yan and Eisenlohr’s works are also informed by distinctive artistic approaches. Eisenlohr cultivated his career as a photographer through travel. After getting his Master’s in modern literature, he embarked on a journey through Dogon in Mali, printing his first photographs from that trip in a dark room. Since then, he’s visited far-flung destinations and urban centres alike: Marseille, Burkina Faso, India, the Cyclades. “For Michel, it’s more of an adventure,” says Yan. “A lot of foreign photographers’ images of Hong Kong architecture are very vibrant, colourful, massive, shocking, wow.”

Yan, meanwhile, is a sculptor and videographer in addition to being a photographer. Deeply inspired by Zen Buddhist philosophy, he recently started printing his photographs on handmade Japanese paper for a more “human, fragile” touch, he says. When he sets up for an exhibition, his work isn’t finished once he’s created his artworks. He sees his pieces as three-dimensional objects rather than images on a surface, almost like sculptures in themselves, and he considers how they will interact with the exhibition space. All his works are black and white, granting them a timeless effect; while the photographs were all taken within the last few years, the combination of the paper and the monochrome colours could easily place them decades ago.

Yan Kallen

Photo by Yan Kallen

Michael Eisenlohr

Photo by Michel Eisenlohr

In contrast to Eisenlohr’s dynamic, energised impressions of the city, Yan’s approach is more pessimistic – or at least more realistic. “When the moment Sun Yat-sen first arrived [in Hong Kong], it was all mountains,” he says, referring to another artwork (“Dr Sun, Sheung Wan,” 2015). “But now it’s very different. You almost don’t see the mountains anymore. Why do we live like this? It’s sad! I want to see the mountain! Why is this area becoming another commercial tower? In a way I’m questioning why we have to tear things down and rebuild, rebuild, rebuild.”

The exhibition spreads out over two floors. Each photographer takes up one side of the space on the first floor, while the second floor sees their works interwoven together. The two didn’t photograph any of the same places, but the images are connected due to being in similar areas, through visual cues, or through similar concepts. Juxtaposed alongside each other like this, the works present a nuanced, comprehensive overview of the city. What impression you come away with after viewing these photographs, though, as Yan puts it, fully depends on your own background and personal story, as well.

“Everyone has different reactions,” he says. “If you’re from here, this is your home. Or you might have no idea where this specific place is. That’s part of the magic of place – it has the ability to bring back memories.”

Photo by Yan Kallen

Michael Eisenlohr

Photo by Michel Eisenlohr

HERE / NOT HERE will take place until May 5, 2018 at F22 Foto Space.

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