Chan Dick’s photo series Chai Wan Fire Station is a bit of an anomaly. When most of us envision an image of a firefighter, we imagine an individual kitted out in neon-yellow-striped turnout gear rushing out of a terrifying conflagration, perhaps cradling someone they’ve rescued in their arms, or with the spray from the hose at their back. This is the sort of visual that’s most bandied about in the media, after all. But Chan Dick’s photographs are quiet, minimalist and geometric. Rows of people in navy uniforms stand at attention in a light green outdoor courtyard that’s divided into neat sections by white and yellow lines. In another shot, the same courtyard is bisected by a bright red hose dragged along by a single figure. In yet another, the courtyard is discoloured by a multitude of darker green swirls — drying water from a hose that the firefighters had sprayed earlier.
Chai Wan Fire Station is on show this month at gallery and cultural centre Novalis. The series comprises 50 shots — whittled down from over 1,500 — depicting different scenes taking place at the eponymous fire station. The photos’ framing is limited to a single courtyard because of Chan’s vantage point — he shot them all from the bathroom window at his 14th floor studio, which he was later forced to leave due to an increase in rent. Noticing the firefighters for the first time lead to a 15-month journey of documentation where Chan would check his view of the fire station several times a day, balancing on his toilet bowl and sticking his camera precariously out the window, sometimes waiting up to an hour for the perfect shot. “I wanted to challenge myself to only shoot from one angle and see what could happen within the same spot,” he explains.
We’re standing with Chan in the gallery the night before his exhibition opening. Photo frames and other bric-a-brac are strewn around as he and the gallery staff set up. Cutting a humble figure in a simple black t-shirt, Chan speaks in slow, considered Cantonese, taking his time to think our questions through before he answers. “I’m a person who hates repetition, but through this observation I found that even though they were doing the same things every day, there were slight differences, and I developed a patience to look for those differences.”
For the last few years, Chan has dedicated himself to taking poignant, intriguing photos addressing social issues in Hong Kong and uncovering unexpected curiosities in everyday life. No Compromise focused on Hong Kong student activists, while CEMENT-ARY rendered views of the city into monochrome abstracts. He’s had solo exhibitions across the globe. But the bulk of his experience has been in the commercial realm. “I’ve worked in commercial photography for over 30 years,” he says. “But no matter how big the commercial job is, or how big my works are displayed, it’s very temporary. Commercial photography is a way to make a living, but I also want to leave behind something that people can appreciate over a longer term.”
Considering the reception Chai Wan Fire Station has had so far, winning multiple awards and earning recognition from foreign media like WIRED, Chan is definitely on the way to achieving that goal. And yet, despite the accolades, this is the first time the series is being exhibited in Chan’s native Hong Kong, even though Chan completed the series in 2015. His photography took a somewhat circuitous journey from studio to gallery. Originally posted online, his works won in the third Hong Kong Photo Book Awards, leading to 30 photos from the series being published in a limited edition tome. Then, while attending the Hong Kong Photo Book Fair, Chan was invited to the Mount Rokko International Photography Festival in Japan, where a Japanese publisher was so impressed with his works that another book deal was proposed — this time at a more accessible price point compared to the first volume.
Through contacts Chan made at the photo festival, arrangements were made for the series to be exhibited in Japan and beyond, in countries such as Cambodia and the Netherlands. It also attracted the attention of curator Chiara Caratti at Novalis, who contacted Chan directly to express her interest in exhibiting his work. “I didn’t really seek out galleries,” admits Chan. “What I do is go with the flow. I’m always spontaneous and keep myself open to whatever happens. But once you get more well-known elsewhere, people in Hong Kong say, ‘Oh, you’re a better known photographer, so maybe you’re actually good.’”
For the first time, the Hong Kong public will be able to see Chan’s works up close rather than on a computer or phone screen. “I’m quite nervous,” says Chan. “The exhibition is coming home, my friends are coming to see it, so there’s more pressure.” Among those friends is a firefighter pictured in Chan’s shots, who proudly brought his entire family to the exhibition opening. He befriended Chan after discovering the photos on Chan’s Facebook page and messaging him about them. Though Chan spent over a year photographing these firefighters, he didn’t meet most of them until a year after he completed the series, when he visited the fire station for an interview with RTHK. “I was able to ask them the questions I always wanted to ask,” he says. “It felt like watching a long movie and then getting to meet the cast. I could even be friends with them and go out and have dinner with them.”
In spite of the lack of direct contact, it’s difficult not to form a connection with one’s subject after photographing them every day for so long. Chan recalls being able to pick out certain individuals from their hairstyles. “Because I’d been shooting them, I also felt more concerned about them,” he recounts. “During the 15 months I was shooting, three firefighters died while doing their jobs.” He describes the Amoycan Industrial Centre fire, which took place in 2016 in a 66-year-old industrial building in Ngau Tau Kok. Hong Kong’s longest fire in two decades, burning for a total of 108 hours, so intense was it that firefighters were sent all the way from Chai Wan to help.
But the firefighters’ efforts are far from being in vain, Chan thinks. “Firefighters have a very positive image in Hong Kong people’s minds,” he observes. “What they do is very dangerous.” The most common feedback he’s received so far are comments appreciating the glimpse of life inside the fire station, into all the work done behind the scenes to ensure that fires across the city are successfully doused. “Firefighters from other countries who saw the photos liked the series as well,” he says. “They didn’t expect someone to recognise their sweat and hard work. No one has done a serious record of what happens within a fire station before.”
Chai Wan Fire Station is currently on show at Novalis until June 9, 2018. Click here for more information.