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Interview: Ka-man Tse on the power of portraits

"When you walk into a home in Hong Kong, there are always pictures of families on the walls. But that never happens here with queer couples"

We llive in a city with stories everywhere we look – and even in places we don’t. It’s this quality that makes our town the perfect creative canvas. And Hong Kong-born, New York-based photographer Ka-man Tse is just one artist who has found inspiration on our streets. Her new exhibition, Narrow Distances, is a series of powerful photographic portraits – all shot on a view camera – showcasing our city’s queer stories with subjects ranging from young couples to drag queens, from bankers to writers.

Walking into the exhibition at Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre’s Lumenvisum feels like entering the living room of a doting relative, portraits lining the walls. This is no accident. “When you walk into someone’s home in Hong Kong,” says Tse, “there are always pictures on the walls of their families, wedding celebrations and multiple generations. But that never happens with queer couples in Hong Kong. They’re never on the wall.” Tse’s works are thus about more than her subjects. They’re about possibilities.

These possibilities extend to the use of space. “A lot of the images are about more than just portraiture,” she says. “They’re about the city. About Hong Kong. About minimal interest spaces – spaces that people can carve out, outside of the structures of consumption.” The exhibition also looks at questions of privacy in our dense city – particularly for queer people. “How do you find a sense of privacy or your own space that is truly yours in a place where it’s almost impossible?” asks Tse. “It’s actually quite rare to see two men being publicly affectionate in Hong Kong. When that happens you usually get stares or comments.”

Location thus plays a significant role in the construction of each image – Tse has photographed her subjects in locales as diverse as Kowloon Park, rail lines in Kwun Tong, and even in a manga store. “Each time we make a photograph,” she says, “the prompt that I give each person is ‘is there a space in Hong Kong that has significance or meaning to you? Is there a space you can find that is yours and you can feel comfortable in and connected to?’” Places and spaces, though, are necessarily ephemeral. “Even if you find a sanctuary,” says Tse, “there’s an inevitable erosion and an inevitable sense of loss. Is it ever possible to have ownership of this city?”

Domestic spaces are also explored, and the subjects who opened up their homes to Tse are also quite varied. There are LGBTI singles and couples, and of various ages. Tellingly, an image of a lounging lesbian couple in their 40s is placed next to a portrait of a significantly younger lesbian couple in their Sham Shui Po apartment. Though the setting of each image suggests a difference in socioeconomic status, they both also have a powerful common thread. “I wanted to show that you can have a really non-eventful, almost boring Sunday breakfast, just reading the paper, and that’s part of being queer, too,” says Tse. “Queer bodies are often oversexualised. I wanted this edit to show the other side of how queer bodies are normally imaged.”

Indeed, the collection of nearly 30 images is but an edit of an ongoing series. Tse estimates that the number of photos now totals around 70, though the rhythm of the photo-taking is at best staccato – Tse spends her summers in Hong Kong but lives full-time in New York with her wife, maintaining a busy work schedule and lecturing in photography at institutions including Yale. Does she foresee a situation when her project will come to an end? “I don’t think it’s going to stop,” she says. “I don’t think it has to. I mean, I’ll stop when I feel like I’m taking the same pictures over and over again, but it still feels new each time. Everyone has been so incredibly giving and amazing. And everyone’s stories are totally different.”

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