ART CRITICISM

TEXT : Ire Tsui | PHOTO : Billy H.C.Kwok @ ATUM Space

Po Tuck Street, situated along the hillside in Sai Ying Pun, lies amidst a community filled with residential buildings, restaurants, small shops and garages. In June, a group of independent documentary photographers started ATUM Space in this neighborhood. This space contains a gallery, a café, and has the capacity to hold exhibitions and workshops. The first exhibition held there is 8×10, a retrospective of works by veteran photographer Wong Kan Tai. Containing three zones, the exhibition features works taken from Wong’s books The Queen’s, which recorded the colonial history of Hong Kong and Macau in the past 30 years as well as ‘89 Tiananmen, showing the site of student protests in Beijing in 1989, and takes viewers on a photographic journey to the past.

ATUM Space is located on Po Tuck Street in Sai Ying Pun. There is a strong sense of community, and the space encourages interaction among people.

Documentary Photography’s New Role

ATUM Images is founded by eight local photographers working for various photojournalism platforms such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Washington Post, Initium Media, Getty Images and Bloomberg News. They also take part in various other photography-related works and are passionately concerned about various issues. With this bright and airy ground-floor venue and comfortable seating, ATUM Space aims to appeal to the wider community. The menu features simple fare like all-day breakfast, pasta and dessert.  Exhibitions and activities centre on local documentary photography such as documentary photography workshops run by experienced local photo-journalists, and exhibitions of works by Taiwan and Mainland Chinese photographers are planned for the future. The founding team hopes to run the space as both an education and commercial venue so that it can be sustained in the long run. 

Is photography a niche art form? The news photos that we come across every day are all works of photojournalists. As our lives become more and more influenced by digitization and technology, visual images are having greater relevance on people’s lives. However, visual image literacy is sorely lacking and is effectively side-lined. Compared with the situation in other countries, Hong Kong needs to create more opportunities to promote the culture of photography. Independent news photographer Lam Yik Fei, one of the founders of ATUM Images/Space, thinks that photography should be promoted as more than just a hobby, for it also has a social role to play. “With the popularization of digital technology, photography is no longer a specialty trade. In the past, the bar for being a photographer was higher, but now more and more people are exposed to photography. We should go beyond just taking pretty pictures, but expect that photography reflects the core values of the time as well as the industry.”

Connecting the new generation with the old 

“The current media landscape has negatively affected the development of documentary photography. If good news photography were to appear, would the public be able to appreciate it? Mainstream media is dictated by hit rate, and ultimately, who can tell what is a good or bad photo? Heads of large corporations may not be able to distinguish between the two, while small independent media platforms, no matter how well-run, are under immense operational pressure.” Lam revealed that the Hong Kong documentary photography profession is facing a talent gap whereby the older generation is retiring while the younger generation is unaware of the development of the profession up until now, and are unfamiliar with notable works from the past. Therefore, promotion and education are of utmost importance. 

“The earliest documentary photography in Hong Kong probably started with the South China Morning Post, and in most local newspapers, reporters were also responsible for the photography. With the emergence of Apple Daily in the 1990s, the news profession started to pay attention to images and documentary photography began to be developed. In recent years, web journalism has taken the lead, and photography has to be tailored for online usage.” Through exhibitions, the team hopes to trace the development of Hong Kong’s documentary photography history, as with the retrospective of Wong Kan Tai’s works. They also plan to conduct guided tours for students and hold workshops and seminars. “In addition to documentary photography, we also intend to carry out different kinds of photography workshops, such as a planned collaboration with Polaroid. This represents another kind of aesthetics, which directly or indirectly influence people who appreciate visual images. This street is interesting; it is near the University of Hong Kong and schools, which allows us to come in contact with various students. This neighborhood has a strong sense of community—the garage next door has a dog that visits us frequently. During the week, most of our customers come from around here, and many foreigners also visit. On weekends, there are many tourists and families. The café welcomes different kinds of people. It can be a working space with students coming to do homework and reporters working on their assignments. People can relax and enjoy exhibitions, browse photography books or join workshops, and connect with different types of people.”

Translation: Simon Chung