Due to changes in the legal system for considering asylum claims in 2004, Hong Kong has experienced a sharp influx of refugees. Despite the efforts on behalf of the government, the situation for those seeking asylum in Hong Kong remains extremely bleak. The high cost of living presents an almost insurmountable problem, considering the minimal living allowance that refugees receive, while they are prohibited from gaining willful employment during the tediously slow asylum application process. In addition to the economic hardship their families must endure, many of the children, whose parents have fled persecution elsewhere, are also faced with existential struggles resulting from isolation, discrimination and a lack of identity. Hong Kong photographer Leo Kwok addresses the tragic situation of these children and their families in the following series shot with the Leica M Typ 240.
You are an award-winning graphic designer, as well as a successful photographer. How did you get into photography?
I started taking photos with an analog camera while studying graphic design at university. After I graduated, I worked at an advertising agency and later started my own design company. I often worked with commercial photographers in my role as an art director, supervising and monitoring the images and visual language used in print ads, brochures, packaging designs etc. By that time, I had totally given up analog photography and I was taking snapshots with a little digital camera. It wasn’t until I bought my first interchangeable lens DSLR in 2003 that I spent more time taking photos because the digital image quality had improved a lot by then.
When did you first start shooting with Leica cameras and why?
There’s no doubt in my mind that Leica has achieved legendary status in the world of photography, helped by the fact that many great photographers have used the Leica M. I bought my first Leica, which was a Digilux 2, in 2004. As I said, I had totally given up using an analog camera, I was looking for a digital camera as close to the Leica M as I could get. It was the one at that time. Now I own a Leica M10 and an M Monochrom (I usually shoot with these two cameras), but I also own an M3, M4, M7 and X2. Not to mention that my Digilux 2 is still in good shape and fully functional!
Your series “The Right to Hope” deals with children, who are first and second generation immigrants in Hong Kong. Could you tell us a bit more about the backgrounds of the children and their families? Where are they from and what brings them to Hong Kong?
The children are really struggling to find an identity. Some of them were born in Hong Kong and learnt to speak Cantonese, but their faces tell you they aren’t Chinese. At the same time, they don’t really belong to their ancestral countries of origin. Their parents left these countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Egypt, among others, because of persecution on account of their religion, nationality or political persuasion. If they went “home”, they would be sent to prison or killed by their own governments or those in power. Their parents were forced to become refugees, having little choice in the matter, and their children had absolutely no choice at all. These families now exist in a state of limbo in Hong Kong, where they can neither work and nor leave.
What was it that made you what to cover this story?
A friend of mine works for a Catholic charity group, which helps refugee families. He approached me and asked whether I would be interested in taking photos of these children and their families. The initial aim was to use the photos for raising awareness and funds to support the charity work. Of course, I had no reason to refuse such meaningful work.
How would you describe the circumstances, these children and their families find themselves in?
They are all living in a rather appalling environment. They are extremely isolated and many of them suffer from low self-esteem. On top of all of this, they don’t even know, who they are. They can’t make new friends easily and sadly they are also confronted with racial and class prejudice. Living with a sense of helplessness, in the shadow of fear, they aren’t “people, who have the right to hope, the right to a future, the right to life itself”.
What role does the state play in supporting the families of refugees?
The Hong Kong government does provide free education to the children and some financial assistance to each family, while they also assist, to a certain degree, in resettling the families to other countries. Nevertheless the process is slow and very drawn out.
How did you choose the locations you shot at? And why did you choose to place your subjects in these settings?
In order to get to know the children and their families well, I believed I had to visit their homes and the places they usually spent their time, such as neighboring playgrounds and their schools. I believed that their environment could also tell a significant part of their stories. Moreover, the children are pretty much trapped and never go far from their accommodation, school or the surrounding area because they don’t have enough money to pay for transport. These places have become their world.
Your images display heavy contrast and often the faces of your subjects are obscured by shadow. Was it a conscious decision to portray your subjects in this way? And if so, why?
I intended to employ high contrast for this series, without the viewer being able to recognize the faces clearly. I wanted to evoke the feeling that the kids are living in the shadows of fear, helplessness and loneliness. Many even wanted to hide themselves and not to talk to anyone.
The hand-written texts, which accompany your images, provide a touching insight into the minds of the children. What was your thinking in including the voices of your subjects and not just their images?
My first idea for the title of the series was “Living in Shadows” and that’s another reason that the photos have such a high-contrast treatment. But having given it more thought, I realized that creating the feeling of sympathy alone was not enough. I remembered the words of Martin Luther King, as he said, “ We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Although the kids are poor and helpless, they also deserve the right to hope. I thought the hand-written texts were more impactful than just the images alone. Tears and a sense of tragedy cannot change their difficult situations but hope can.
Which equipment did you use for this series? And what do you see as the advantages of using this particular set up?
I used a Leica M Typ 240 with a 21mm Super-Elmar and a 35mm Summicron lens. Seeing as I prefer candid photography, I need to get close to the action. The camera must be discreet and compact with intuitive controls. I also love the rangefinder focus system. I can see the whole environment clearly and frame easily. Needless to say, the image quality is exceptional.
You are an active member of the Leica community in Hong Kong. How would you describe the community?
I have had the positive experience that most of the Leica shooters here in Hong Kong are very friendly. Whenever I see someone shooting with a Leica camera, sooner or later, we become friends. Some of them even become good friends. We go out to shoot together, always discussing what Leica camera models or lenses we want to shoot with. We submit our works to the LFi Gallery and see which photos get featured. We live in a small city but we have 4 Leica Stores, some authorized dealers and numerous Leica 2nd hand shops. It’s so convenient for us to see, try-out and buy Leica gear. Mr Douglas So, one of the judges of the Oskar Barnack Award last year, founded the F11 Museum, which showcases a great deal of antique Leica cameras and the admission is free of charge. He also promotes photography culture by holding many brilliant exhibitions by the likes of Elliot Erwitt and Werner Bischof.
You also offer photo tours and workshops. Can you tell us a bit about your work in this area?
I work together with a local travel agency to organize the photo tours. Usually I suggest the destinations and itineraries, and they arrange the rest. My philosophy in leading a photo tour is simple – the photos are paramount. I strongly recommend that all the participants develop their own vision and create their own style. I don’t want to see “stock photos” or “postcard photos”. Some people have joined my tours several times and it’s a great thing to see their passion driving them to improve. Our tours are quite tough; we may get up early and walk all day long. We shoot in hot and cold weather, as well as at high altitude. So far have been to Vietnam, Tibet, Cambodia, Sertar (Sichuan China) and Cuba. In 2018, I’m planning to go to India, Iran, Myanmar, Morocco and Germany for a kind of Leica pilgrimage.
As a photography teacher, what advice would you offer to anyone looking to get into photography in general and documentary photography in particular?
I am lucky in that photography is not my occupation and I think this allows me more freedom. For me, photography is a kind of diary, a life experience, and as such, each person’s photography should be unique and personal. I don’t think that a documentary photographer should try to please anyone. You should trust your intuition and conscience, shooting what you are really interested in. Take your camera and go as far as you can, explore the world and broaden your own horizons.
What projects are you working on at the moment? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I am currently working on a documentary project about the life of a lesbian couple in Hong Kong but I’m still figuring out how and where to ultimately publish the story. In the future, I am eager to organize more overseas photo tours and workshops. I am also planning to publish my first photo book next year, hopefully followed by an exhibition. In the meantime, my latest works can be frequently seen in the LFi Master Shots Gallery.