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Sergey Ponomarev, Reporting Europe's Refugee Crisis (2016)
Sergey PonomarevReporting Europe's Refugee Crisis (2016)

What to see at the Hong Kong International Photo Festival

The Hong Kong International Photo Festival returns for its fourth edition this month. Olivia Lai speaks to the festival's chairman Alfred Ko and director Maggie Wong about the lineup and how to get Hongkongers interested in photography.

Written by
Olivia Lai

Photography is hugely popular in Hong Kong. It’s difficult to go a day without seeing someone cradling a DSLR or foodies snapping shots of their dinner for Instagram. But there aren’t enough professional photographers in the city. Back and looking to encourage and educate people vis-a-vis the art of photography, the Hong Kong International Photo Festival returns with a wide variety of exhibitions, featuring names like Masashi Asada, Ho Fan and Yang Shaoming. A diverse range of engagement programmes include talks, workshops and a flea market as a bonus.

Since launching in 2010, the biennial festival has acted as a platform to promote photographic art and culture in Hong Kong, showcasing both reputed international artists and local photographers. This year’s theme is ‘Infinite Universes’, and it comprised of three major photo exhibitions. 1000 Families (until September 4 at ArtisTree), showcases photos of families eating, highlighting Chinese family values; What Do You Want For Tomorrow (until September 28 at Hong Kong Heritage Museum), is an exhibition that showcases female artists exclusively; and the renownedWorld Press Photo 2016 exhibition (starting October 29 at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre) presents the best in international current affairs photography. With three successful runs, Alfred Ko, the chairman of the Hong Kong International Photo Festival, and festival director Maggie Wong tell us why this year’s festival is the best yet. 

What was the inspiration behind the original festival in 2010? 

Ko: It started with one of our festival members, Dr Edwin Lai, who is a professor at the Hong Kong Art School. He had just organised an exhibition on local photographers and on the closing night he and Bobby Sham, who is also the curator on this year’s 1000 Families exhibition, went out drinking. They raised the question, why don’t we organise a local Hong Kong festival on photography? That’s how it all started. We didn’t have any money at that time. Just a small team with a lot of passion for photography. 

Why do you feel it’s important to have a photography festival in Hong Kong? 

K: We’re promoting our own local photographers. That’s one of our main goals. We have international photographers and local artists, but it’s important to bring it back to the community. Besides presenting top class exhibitions, we try to influence the artistic communities. 

Wong: To give a specific example, for our 1000 Families exhibition, we organised a competition called Photoeat, calling for entries from local artists on the theme of food and family. The works of two of the winners are in this exhibition. This is how we engage the community, by asking theming to join in our projects. The festival is also important in balancing introducing overseas artists and promoting Hong Kong artists. We’re not just admiring their work. We intend for these artists to have a dialogue with each other.

How did you come up with the theme for this year’s exhibition, Infinite Universe? 

W: Infinite Universe is a concept taken from Buddhism. It’s the belief that the universe is made up of billions of smaller worlds. It actually applies to photography in Hong Kong when you put the concept into the current context. Photography is not something specific, it ranges from pinhole photography to using smartphones, flower photography-style and photojournalism. They all have different values contributing to the world of photography. Just like the small worlds making up into a single large world. 

 Why does the What Do You Want for Tomorrowexhibition display exclusively female artists? 

K: The exhibition is curated by female curators as well. We came up with the idea exactly two years ago, thinking 'why don’t we do a show on only Hong Kong female artists?' I have a feeling that the year 2016 is going to be significant for women. You have the first female president in South Korea and in Taiwan, and you can look at the rise of Hillary Clinton and Teresa May. 

W: While the exhibition is not necessarily about feminism and female issues, it’s about showing ideas from the female perspective. It’s about how women use photography as a means of artistic expression. Photography has a history of being a male dominated industry, so it’s important to take a different approach and show a female’s perspective. 

 What are the other highlights of the festival? 

K: Definitely the World Press Photo exhibition. It’s the grand finale of this year’s two month long festival. It’s a world famous travelling exhibition and an annual competition. In the competition, they select the Photo of the Year from international professional photographers and photojournalists. So the exhibition showcases that and over 150 compelling winning photographs from different categories such as contemporary issues, daily life, general news, sports, nature and people. It’s a rare chance for people to see a wide variety of great photojournalist works. We don’t get to see this type of show in Hong Kong very often. It makes for a great ending to the festival. 

What makes this year’s festival different from the previous editions? 

W: We don’t have any master solo exhibitions this year, only group exhibitions. But I think that fits with our Infinite Universe theme, bringing small elements and different artists together under one event. We’re doing other activities like workshops on pinhole photography and talks from visiting international photographers. There’s also a flea market selling second hand classic cameras, films and accessories. We try to organise a variety of programmes, not just exhibitions. [Laughs] It is a festival! 

How is photography different from other art forms? 

W: Photo exhibitions are not just about framing and hanging a photograph on the wall. Now, with technology, artists can be more creative. They can use photography as a tool or a medium, and combine it with videos and moving images. 

K: Photography is simply another means to express an artist’s idea. Most of the artists on display at the festival are not actually photographers. They are painters, ceramic artists and sculptors. Going back to theme, the festival links these artists from different disciplines together through the medium and their love of photography. 

What do you think makes a good photograph?

K: As a viewer, I need to be moved. That’s the most important thing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be creative and I don’t really care about techniques. Feelings and emotions always come first. 

There’re a lot of amateur photographers in Hong Kong. Do you think the photography scene is changing? 

K: Photography has become a hobby and a habit. Though I think that’s a good thing. Photography has become boundless because of technology. You can use techniques, from digital to analogue, and even old photographic processes, to create and take photos. The ideas are limitless.

W: We’re not pessimistic about digital photograph. Even if people are using Instagram, we’re happy that at least the public are finding interest in photography in the first place. Though they may not understand all the techniques. That’s the gap we’re hoping to bridge, we want to introduce an educational element and to organise workshops.  

Do you have plans for the next festival already? 

W: We’ve been dealing with the very serious issue of finding venues. It’s increasingly competitive in Hong Kong, looking for space. We’re aware we also have to build up our audience, especially for a young festival like us. We’re building up more programmes with schools to arouse interest in young people. They are the future of our society and we are in need more artists in the long run. 

 What do you hope Hong Kong audiences can take away from the festival? 

K: We want them to fall in love with photography. Be curious. And to take photography more seriously. 

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