A single small figure beholds an overwhelming scene of neon signs. The caption below this Instagram post reads simply, “COMPRESSION.” In the comments section, amidst the usual array of compliments, one user asks “Where was this taken?” Another remarks, “Is this even real?”
The image is not, in fact, a photograph. Instead, it’s a photorealistic rendering created by Desmond Lo, who works as an animator by day and creates multimedia pieces by night. This piece in particular kicked up quite a bit of controversy. After being featured on multiple pages for street photography, the image resulted in accusations that it was “fraudulent” and even “a disgrace to photography.”
Lo is the first to admit that he has misled his viewers in the past. He is quick to smile and joke, but it’s easy to see how such jokes could be taken the wrong way online. “When people ask me, ‘Where is this?’ especially when it’s an outrageous render, sometimes I troll them a little bit and tell them it’s one of the furthest places in Hong Kong,” he says, recalling instances where Instagram users commented on his and his friends’ photographs to ask where it was shot — because they wanted to visit the location and re-create the shot themselves.
“You get these photographers who come to Hong Kong from overseas and shoot the exact same thing the exact same way,” he explains in frustration, citing the popular Yik Cheong Building and Montane Mansion residential complex in Quarry Bay, nicknamed the “Monster Building.” The densely stacked complex rose to fame due to appearing in Hollywood blockbusters such as Ghost in the Shell and Transformers: Age of Extinction. “On Instagram, you see it ten times per day!” he exclaims. “For me, as a content creator, why would I want to replicate something that someone has done before?”
The photorealism Lo employs is not intended to mislead. Rather, he hopes to preserve vanishing parts of Hong Kong’s culture by re-envisioning them in his own way. “Neon signs in Hong Kong are disappearing left and right,” he says. “I feel like they’re symbolic of Hong Kong’s identity, but they’re being taken down. So I use my skills to recreate them, preserving them with my imagination.”
It’s not all about the neon signs. Like many of his peers on Instagram, Lo is inspired by the cyberpunk aesthetic of movies such as Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Akira. But while he believes that the appeal of these films lies in their neon signs and saturated colours — qualities that play well with Instagram’s algorithms, leading to such shots showing up on the app’s “explore” page and netting plenty of likes — Lo is more interested in deconstructing the aesthetic and presenting it in a new way. He wishes to investigate what makes cyberpunk what it is, and particularly why so many other artists and filmmakers look to Hong Kong when they wish to create something with a cyberpunk aesthetic. For him, it’s less about the aesthetic of the works than their underlying messages. The eagerness and fluency with which he launches into the topic reveals his clear passion for it.
“Cyberpunk is more about the culture and life of the people,” he says, explaining how the sci-fi sub-genre is concerned with “high tech and low life.” He argues that the auteurs behind cyberpunk movies drew inspiration from Hong Kong’s cramped living conditions as much as its neon. “The Kowloon Walled City was the perfect embodiment of this,” he says. “In Hong Kong, there’s an insane gap between the rich and the poor; Hong Kong is supposed to be this financial hub and you still get this old fishing village vibe.”
Although Lo’s fascination with cyberpunk is a more recent development, he has been interested in the visual arts from when he was a child. At age 10, he was making videos and Flash animations. “I wanted to be a film director,” he says. “I used to have a board on my door with my goals — win ten Oscars.” As a teenager, he did a foundation diploma in animation and film at University of the Arts London’s Chelsea College of Art and Design before completing his undergraduate studies in animation at the University of Westminster. He continued his studies back home in Hong Kong, earning his master’s degree in animation and motion graphics at City University.
From there, it was a matter of finding a job. He made his start as an animator at a startup in 2014, going on to do special effects post-production for films. Now, he works at creative agency The Collective. On a freelance basis, Lo creates films and hand-drawn animations for the likes of IWC, Adidas, and GNC. He also does video clips for DJs, most recently producing visuals for DJ Yako, who will be performing at EDM festival Creamfields in Hong Kong in December.
Considering Lo’s multitude of skills, it’s no surprise that his artistic work sees him jumping between themes and mediums. His Instagram account is a unique blend of photographs and digital renderings, although he initially focused on photography. “I saw these rooftop photos in 2015 and thought, damn, I want to try that,” he recalls, referring to dizzying shots taken on top of skyscrapers, such as those by the likes of Instagrammer Daniel Lau. But he soon moved on to street photography and portraits taken with film cameras.
Currently, plans are in the works for an exhibition at co-working space Naked Hub in Sai Ying Pun, which will take place from February 15 to 28, 2019. Titled Someone Lived Here, the exhibition will bring together a number of Lo’s renders, exploring how the identity of Hong Kong is slowly disappearing. “I’m almost hitting 30, so this is a milestone I wanted to get out of the way,” he says.
Ultimately, though, Lo tries not to take himself — and his photography — too seriously. “At the end of the day, I’m just making images on the Internet,” he says.
Visit @des.lo on Instagram for more of his work.