#24 Photobook Club Session by Phoboko
The world is increasingly constituted through visual mediation nowadays. Meaning, is generated overwhelmingly through the circulation and exchange of visual images and icons, in relationship to culture, politics, data, information, identity, or emotion etc. So how do we read visual codes? And how do we make meaning from visuals?
To dive deeper and talk about HK visual traits through photobooks, we felt the first step was to have a common language or structure to talk about it. Similarly to language systems, the representation system used in photography also involves rules and conventions, known as visual semiotics.
In signs, there are the signifiers and the signified. Visuals and photographs are signifiers. They are physical forms of communicating a particular sign or meaning. ‘Signified’ refers to the meanings or thoughts that a photograph expresses. The signified can be interpreted through reading physical objects from an image e.g. there are blocks of buildings with washed-out paints. This is known as denotation. Yet most of the time, the signified is interpreted connotatively. This means that we make meaning from an image via experiences, ideologies, and expectations we have e.g. the blocks relate to the grassroots community in Hong Kong. It reminds me of how we used to go to Tze Wan Shan every year to visit my uncle and my grandmother. It also led me to think about the housing structure and policies back in the 80s when HK was still governed by the UK. I expect to see elderly gathering around to play chess, and people with their frugal lifestyle and outfits.
For signifiers, Peirce categorise them into 3 types – icon, symbol and index. To put it in relation to photography, an icon is when the photograph has a physical resemblance to the signified. We know how to read these images because they clearly resemble what they are representing e.g. a picture of a rose is an icon of a rose. Most of the time, photographs are icons of actual objects we see. Symbolic signs, on the other hand, have no obvious nor natural relationship to their objects. The relationship is learnt culturally e.g. a rose is a symbolism of romantic love. However, in this case, the rose is almost universally known for its symbolism of romantic love. So depending on the context in which the image is presented e.g. museum / gallery / magazine and the kind of viewers who interpret it, the rose can be an iconic as well as a symbolic sign of romantic love. Lastly, indexical signs have an “existential” relationship to their objects. This means that they have coexisted in the same place at some time. Photographs are indexical signs that testify to the moment that the camera was in the presence of its subject. At least up until before AI photography and CG imaging, photographs are indexical in that it represents a trace of the real.
With these terminologies in mind, we confronted four generic styles of photobooks from Hong Kong that surfaced during session #23: black & white documentary, pop culture representations, the young or contemporary, and typological presentation. We were split into small groups to assess such recurring themes.
1 – black and white documentary – Blues by Alfred Ko
Blues by Alfred Ko is a photobook made in the 90s that talks about Hong Kong colonialism before the handover in 1997. At the back of the book the artist quoted, “my images represent a state of mind, an extraordinary state of mind prevalent before the founding of S.A.R.”. The book is chronologically arranged from 1989 up til July 1st 1997, the day of the handover. Throughout the book there are repeated gloomy skies and recurring icons of the status of the Queen. There is an image of people holding candles at Victoria Park, several images of airplanes against HK cityscapes and repeated images of banners with slogans that say “democracy”. They all symbolise the idea of “freedom” which was circulating in the city. In one of the images taken in 1993, 5 years before the handover, we see the back of a middle-aged man holding his left fist tight with visible veins while overlooking the harbour at a reclamation in Yaumatei. On the opposite side of the harbour parks many barges and cargo boats. It should be the view of Stonecutters Island, which was connected to the Kowloon peninsula by the West Kowloon Reclamation in the 1990s to provide land for the construction of the road and railway network to the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. His gesture reveals a kind of tension, symbolising the anxiety that people have with what is to come in the future. Overall, the black and white documentary images throughout the photobook generate a mood of tension and uncertainty. Perhaps it is this atmosphere and feeling that reflects a type of Hong Kong trait from a particular era.
2 – pop culture representation – The Dayspring of Eternity by Lau Chi Chung
The Dayspring of Eternity by Lau Chi Chung, on the other hand, was produced recently. It talks about the artist’s state of mind, or a representation of a state of mind, on Hong Kong colonialism as well but 25 years after the handover in 1997. The artist used a lot of found images from old newspapers, advertisements and tickets across the photobook. He also used a lot of text to narrate his nostalgic feeling towards the period of Hong Kong when it was colonised by the UK. The front cover image is an image of the sea with a purply hue and a lens flare. Some identified it immediately with Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. As D puts it, “the varying colour reflections in this image is very Hong Kong. I have only seen it here.” Others have more of a consensus feeling towards its sign of signifying dreaminess. As we went through the book, B picked up that the word 「香港」is prevalent throughout the book as well as the “Hong Kong font”「真體字」. Whether it is represented as a lightbox icon on an image or used as the text font throughout the book, there is no doubt that this is one of the iconic traits of Hong Kong.
3 – the young or contemporary – Teleportation by Lai Long Hin
Teleportation is a photobook created by a Hong Kong contemporary artist, Lai Long Hin. The photobook is a vast collection of snapshot pixelated images from his mobile phone photography. The work is split into 17 chapters. Each chapter consists of an array of images. Each image can relate to either one or the other or both adjectives from its title e.g. Treatment or Healing, Hiding or Invisible. The artist often zooms in as much as possible using his camera phone to focus on people and objects, excluding all unnecessary detail and clutter from his images. Hence, it is difficult to depict them connotatively as single images. Even when looking at them as a set of images from a chapter, they inspire questions rather than provide signs for readers to associate meanings to them.
In particular, I like Chapter 8: Still or Frozen. The first image is a girl frozen in her posture, leaning her right side against the wall while the boy leans forward. Next page on the left is an image of a few Guanyin statues. They are in crossed-leg positions and are floating on the wall. As I flip through to read this chapter, I began to question whether the images relate more to Stillness or Frozen. Other ambiguous images from this chapter such as, an image of a girl hanging upside down on a swing as if she was unconscious; an image of a pile of sand against a concrete wall; an image of many empty Bonaqua bottles uniformly standing on the floor. Towards the end of the chapter there is also an interesting diptych image. One is a close up of a man sleeping against a red pole, the other is an image of a lady with a similar facial expression but looking blank.
The joy in reading this photobook is in the details of the day-to-day that the artist directs us to see. How do we look for symbolism of Hong Kong traits from this work? Perhaps there are no commonly-known or easily identifiable signs such as Hong Kong font or people holding candles at Victoria Park. Instead, we make-meaning and associate the work to Hong Kong from the combination of the 500 pages thick photobook of images of gestures, objects, architectures and people.
4 – typological presentation – BLOCKS by Dustin Shum
BLOCKS by Dustin Shum is a photobook about the Hong Kong public housing estates. Found in the artist statement of this work, he mentioned that, “according to the 2010 statistics of the Hong Kong Housing Society, thirty percent of the territory’s population lives in public housing… public housing has come to represent typical living spaces in Hong Kong.” The photobook contains portraits of these public housing estates, almost all of them documented in isolation from people. Images are of architectural designs, exteriors and interiors of public housing communal spaces, wall graffitis, and traces of decays as well as renovations. There are a few set of images that display the before and after of the exact same location. For example, there is an image of On Yat House, Shun On Estate with handwritten notes on the exterior wall. The page after is an image of the exact same location yet taken a year and four months after. The image shows that the exterior wall is newly painted in a gradient of blue. The blocks on the sides are no longer dull in colour but in sharp yellow.
Although the work is very personal to the artist Dustin as he grew up in one of these public housing estates for 30 years, images from BLOCKS definitely have strong indications of Hong Kong traits to Hong Kong readers. Public housing estates often symbolise the low-income, ageing, and backward community that relies on social securities. They are also important monuments of the Hong Kong Government’s social policies during post-war years, as the dense multi-storey design was able to accommodate waves of immigrants from the Mainland effectively. Even without such cultural knowledge of Hong Kong, the lego-looking multi-storey design of these blocks are iconic to the city Hong Kong that can also be found in postcards, magazines and publications.
After a long and deep look into these four photobooks from Hong Kong, how do we make meaning about Hong Kong through the images in these photobooks? Are there patterns that emerge and is there a Hong Kong visual language? Is it important to recognise it and if so, archive it? Perhaps it is too early to say as we only really unfolded one small layer of this huge topic. What’s next might be to look into the history of Hong Kong photobooks and the existing archive of it from varying sources.