Kevin Mak was a photographer before he became an architect. In fact, photography may well be the reason he grew fascinated by cities in the first place. “When I had red pocket money as a kid, the first thing I bought was a film camera,” he says. “It started something deep inside of me – an interest in space.”
That was when he was 10 years old. Mak is now 34, with a job at OMA, the avant-garde architectural firm whose founder, Rem Koolhaas, is one of the world’s most influential thinkers on the built environment. But you are probably more familiar with Mak’s Instagram feed, where he documents Hong Kong’s urban landscape with the keen sense of someone who understands that it’s not the buildings that make a city special, it’s the space in between them.
Mak grew up in City One, a middle-class suburb of identical high-rise towers and shopping malls clustered around the Shing Mun River. “It’s nice in that it has the waterfront side of life, but in terms of visual impact, the complexity of the city, I find it a bit boring,” says Mak. He has always been drawn to the older parts of Hong Kong, with their cluttered landscape of glowing shop signs, rusting air conditioners, and crowded, canyon-like streets. “It’s the complexity when different forces come together, most of them contradicting each other. It’s not a painting on a white canvas – it’s a lot of paintings put together.”
In many of his photos, Mak focuses on a solitary character: a woman trudging through a downpour with shopping bags and a clear umbrella; a man staring at his hands on the side of a busy street; a little boy stealing a glance at the street below while his mother hurries him along a footbridge. In each case, the figure helps anchor the space, making it more relatable without diminishing its impressive scale. It’s through these quiet moments that the full scope of Hong Kong’s heaving, cacophonous, tumultuous urban life is revealed.
“Some people see noise as a form of meditation,” says Mak. “In these busy moments there are actually moments of quietness.”
Mak’s candid shots of streetlife and artfully lit urban spaces are interspersed with portraits of models posing in back alleys, street markets and rooftops. “Maybe two or three years ago, I was more shy about shooting pictures of people, and I found there was a lack of life in my photos,” he says. “So I tried to start shooting with models.”
These aren’t cheesecake photos. Instead, the models become characters in the drama of city, revealing as much about their surroundings — a dingy shopping arcade, for instance, or a row of idling red minibuses — as they do about themselves. Mak says he usually asks the models where they would like to do a shoot. “They sometimes bring me to places I hadn’t discovered before,” he says, like rooftops in out-of-the-way corners of town.
Mak’s photography has given him a front-row seat to the city’s changes, like the sudden disappearance of many overhead shop signs. He thinks he is tapping into a new current of interest in how Hong Kong works as a city.
“Every generation, the city changes a lot,” he says. “It’s just that in the past people didn’t focus on the more cultural and historical aspects of the city. I think it’s a bit sad that the changes are coming too fast – it’s not synchronised with the way people think now.”
If Mak’s substantial following on Instagram is any indication, he isn’t the only one who has found an interest in city space through the lens of a camera.
Visit @kingymak on Instagram for more of his work.