Jonathan van Smit: Raw Hong Kong

Jonathan van Smit is a self-taught photographer from New Zealand who has lived and photographed in Hong Kong since early 2008. His photographs are a stream of stark, grungy, snapshots mostly taken at night in Kowloon with wide-angle lenses. His work has been described as ” raw, sometimes shockingly so, but never sensationalist. It’s full of boredom, sadness, loneliness and neglect”. Eric Kim had the chance to chat with Jonathan about his work.

Q: You currently work in the finance industry and yet you shoot your street photography at night in some of the roughest places in Hong Kong. How did you first become interested in street photography and why do you shoot in the places that you do?

A: I wasn’t able to do much street photography back in New Zealand as I was living next to a beach and there simply weren’t many streets or people! I had been lucky enough to make regular business trips to China since 2003, and loved being able to take a few days off work after each trip to take photos. I’m now a sort of corporate refugee. I was bored with corporate life so I resigned from my job in late 2007 with the idea of somehow finding work in China so I could have access to a photography environment that was more interesting to me. I was lucky enough to end up in a self-employed role in Hong Kong which I love.

Q: Describe how you shoot when you are out on the streets. What focal length do you use on your Leica and how do you stay discreet?

A: I like getting up really close so I use 15mm and 21mm mostly. I need to feel something when taking photos and I don’t get that if I’m standing several metres away with a longer lens. I’m not sure that I’m especially ‘discreet’ when I’m taking pics … after all I’m standing right next to my subjects. A head-to-toe photo taken with a 15mm means that I’m less than 1.5 metres away. I don’t use the viewfinder very much and often just guess the focus and exposure. The actual moment of taking the photo is quite important to me. People can move quite a lot in a second or two and there’s rarely enough time to compose and focus so I’ve taught myself to estimate all that on the run and can change shutter speed or aperture without looking down at the camera. The form-factor of Leica rangefinders is perfect for that.

Q: How important is the viewer’s interpretation of your work? Do you prefer to keep your photographs open-ended or do you want the viewer to get a specific message through your photographs?

A: We can’t really control how people interpret our photos, can we? They bring their own point of view and life experience into any interpretation, and that’s fine with me. We’re all so saturated with images that I don’t think mine make any meaningful difference anyway. All I try to do is tell a story, and ideally, I like to do that with a long sequence of images rather than a single image.

Q: When you are shooting on the streets, are there certain images or themes you are constantly looking for or do you shoot what you find captivating at the time?

A: Well, basically I just walk around for hours, sometimes all day, taking photos of anything that looks interesting to me or fits into one of my themes. I’m particularly interested in cities, how they change, the lives of people who have become marginalized by economic change, and in how they deal with adversity. I explore buildings too, especially the old tenement buildings in Hong Kong. I’ll often walk through open gates, up several flights of stairs to the rooftops.

Q: How have you found your work evolve over the period you have been shooting and how do your photographs represent who you are as a person?

A: The evolution to me has been working to much more focused themes rather than just trying to make photographs. This is also my biggest challenge, and one that I don’t fully understand where I’m going yet. I frequently have frustrating periods when I experience blocks, when I can’t seem to get the photos I want without repeating myself. I’m not sure how to answer the last part of your question. Some photos stem from personal tragedy, for example my ‘sing to the sky’ photos of kids and photos of empty chairs & tables which relate to the loss of two of my children.

Q: Who are some Asian photographers who have influenced you and your work?

A: I don’t look at photography that often anymore, and prefer painting to photography. In terms of photographers whose work I enjoy, I like Moriyama & Araki a lot, and I own a few photos by Cang Xin that I bought in Beijing a few years ago, and a couple of platinum prints by Lawrence Aberhart, a New Zealand large-format photographer.

Q: How much do you interact with your subjects when you are out shooting on the streets or elsewhere? Do you take photographs without them noticing, with consent, or something in-between?

A: All of those, depending on the circumstances. I’ve been walking around West Kowloon for nearly four years now, and know quite a few people there. I like listening to their stories. For example, hostesses in karaoke bars, Mr. Number 2 who spent 18 years in jail, Connie who lives on the streets but speaks perfect English, a few drug users who come and go, a couple of social workers, and so on. I sometimes do some community work in Sham Shui Po so I also get to know people through that.

Q: Describe any stories of any close-calls or dangerous moments you might have encountered while shooting in Hong Kong.

A: I had my M8 stolen in a mugging a couple of years ago, a drug user once pulled a knife on me in an alleyway behind Chungking Mansions, and three pimps chased me down the road once, and another drug user punched me last year, but Hong Kong is generally very law abiding and people are very friendly too.

Q: What are some current projects you are working on and any other future projects you foresee yourself working on the future?

A: My main projects are ‘City of Dreams’, ‘Real Lives’ and ‘A Song of Unending Sorrow’ which are about marginalization; ‘Love in Kowloon’ which is about sex; and ‘Looking for Miss Wong’ titled after the painting by Vladimir Tretchikoff, but which is about the Hong Kong that might have existed many years ago before I came here. In the future, I’d like to do more work on drug use.

Q: Who are some people out there that you would like to give thanks to or mention?

A: Too many to mention! I’m always thrilled when Flickr people get in touch when they’re visiting Hong Kong and I really appreciate all the people in Hong Kong who have given me their friendship. And lately, Yoav Horesh, the professor of photography at SCAD HK who has invited me to participate in their visiting artist program. They’ve also offered to print 30 of my photos on their new inkjet printer … a print for them and a print for me so I’m delighted with that!

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Jonathan’s work on his website www.jonathanvansmit.com and on Flickr