Text by Chui Wan-Chun

At the Hong Kong Photobook Fair held last week (24-26 April 2017), photographer Dustin Shum, who is also the owner of a local photography bookstore, announced to reporters, “This is the last time we are participating in this book fair. We will be ending the business later this year.” Shum founded independent bookstore and exhibition space The Salt Yard with two partners in early 2013. The space ceased operation in 2015 and subsequently, The Salt Yard became an online bookstore, which is due to close down this year.   

Shum said he wanted Hong Kong’s photography culture to become more multi-faceted. Starting with operating an exhibition space and later an online bookstore, he hoped to bring non-mainstream and alternative photography works to reader’s attention.

Bookstore income not sufficient for survival

Shum explained, “I can’t see any way to run this business in a sustainable way.” Look around here,” he pointed out, referring to the book fair in general, “even more well-heeled publishers are down-sizing, so independent exhibitors like us are feeling the pinch all the more.”

He asked reporters, “I’m sure you must have asked around, how many people in the business are making money? The current situation is quite unhealthy. Paul Yeung’s photography book, Yes Madam, Sorry Ah Sir, for instance, was only made possible with crowd funding. Many of the publishers and book sellers at this exhibition, be they Japanese or local, are using their own money, and they are all struggling,” Shum said ruefully, “I can’t pretend everything is alright.”

Shum revealed that it was not possible to survive on his book store’s income alone, and therefore could only work on it part-time. He was mainly in charge of its daily operation, and aside from his bookstore duties, he had to work as a teacher to make ends meet. Lately, because of family problems, he found it difficult to manage his responsibilities. “As a photographer, I want to spend more time on my own works,” he added, “I have sacrificed too much of my time already.”

Local business only made up one-fifth of total

This stark reality was at odds with what Shum expected at the start. “Most of the orders from our online bookstore came from overseas, with local buyers comprising only one-fifth of our income. At the beginning, we hoped to promote good photo books to local photography fans. However, our business ended up serving mostly people from overseas, so it has lost its meaning for me.”

Despite the fact that many people from all over the world used the bookstore as a resource for the works of Chinese photographers, Shum thought that, “It means we do not have many local customers. Perhaps due to the fact that there aren’t many physical bookstores left, business has grown in the past few years, although the growth is not apparent and insufficient to sustain the business in a healthy way.”

Shum said that photobooks cater to a niche market with a limited readership whose numbers will not increase, nor will such books become mainstream.

Shum and partner Gary at the Hong Kong Photobook Fair. Shum saw the book fair as a book club and welcomed people to come and look at the books even if they didn’t buy anything.

Guerilla tactic is not healthy

Shum cited another independent publisher, brownie, who also participated in the book fair, “They are a full-time publisher with a clear system and direction, and know how to work with photographers. This is the proper way to go.” At the same time, Shum pointed out that due to the lack of a systematic sales and distribution system, many photographers were forced to self-publish. “This sort of guerilla tactic is not healthy, and we did it because there was no other way. No one was willing to take on this role and so we had to.”

Aside from the lack of local readers, Shum also felt that publishing photography books was more complicated nowadays. “You have to plan a whole campaign around it. In addition to book publishing, you need to organize exhibitions to attract media attention. Using exhibitions as a platform to launch photobooks is a common tactic.”

Shum mentioned the time when he published the 2008 photobook, Themeless Parks, “Back then, the internet was not so popular, and I could only distribute the book to the larger bookstores, but no one bought them. Now photobooks have formed a niche market, but since it is a niche product, there is only a limited number of readers which will not increase, nor will such books become mainstream.”

Shum recognized the importance of the publishing and sale of photobooks, “Someone needs to do this, but I myself can’t be a full-time publisher. There is only so much I can do, so it is best that I spend my energy on my own photography work and let other more competent people take my place. I’m done,” he sighed.

More an audience platform than a photographer’s platform

Shum had said that he hoped Hong Kong’s photography culture could become more multi-faceted. Starting with opening an exhibition space and operating an online bookstore, he had tried to bring non-mainstream and alternative photography works to the public’s attention and to find an audience for such works, as opposed to giving photographers the opportunity to exhibit their works. As he pointed out, “This is more an audience platform than a photographer’s platform.”

At the book fair, he showcased some alternative and challenging photography books, “Like Richard Mosse’s book of photos featuring refugees, taken with infrared cameras. Even if I’m not a fan of his work, I still want to introduce it to readers because photography needs to break new grounds.”

“In addition, I want to promote local low-key photographers, like myself, “ he joked, “or Tam Chi Wing’s book about the Umbrella Movement, We Are Not A Mob. He went through a lot of trouble in publishing the book but did not really promote it. Another example is a series of works I did in collaboration with photographer Chun-Dong Lam on behalf of the Society for Community Organization, and also the photo magazine Mahjong that I published alongside Kan-Tai Wong, Vincent Yu, Paul Yeung and Karl Chiu.” Shum saw the book fair as a book club, and welcomed people to come and look at the books even if they didn’t buy anything.

Another way of keeping in touch with photobooks

Shum told reporters that in the past couple of years, he had not begun any new projects due to illness in his family. At the moment, he would like to gradually lessen his workload so that he could devote more time to personal pursuits, including writing.

Over the past few years, Shum had been promoting books on photography at various organizations. For example, when the Goethe-Institut Hongkong was planning to present the German Photobook Award last year, Shum was asked to provide a list of Hong Kong candidates for their consideration. He also served as the editor for photographer Paul Yeung’s photobook Vajrayāna. In addition, Shum was a well-known photography criticism blogger. He stated, “The Salt Yard will not just disappear. We are just temporarily ceasing online retail operation but will continue with organizing and distribution work behind the scenes.”

Shum concluded, “I want to maintain my connection with photobooks and will continue to make books in the future. After all, I love photobooks. I just can’t keep up the retail part.”

Screenshot of the website Salt Yard

About the photographer

With more than ten years’ experience as a photojournalist, Dustin Shum has been the recipient of multiple photography awards including those given by the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Press Photographers Association, Amnesty International and Asian Media Awards. He has held various solo exhibitions including (Don’t) Dare to Dream, Alias: Xianggang, Photogenic Olympians, BLOCKS, BLOCKS phase II and Life and Times, a photography exhibition of People with Mental Illness.

Shum has also taken part in numerous local and international exhibitions, including City Flâneur: Social Documentary Photography, Pingyao International Photography Festival, Jimei X Arles: East West Encounters International Photo Festival, and has published numerous photobooks, and founded the photography exhibition space The Salt Yard in 2013. His works have been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

This article was first published in HK01 on 2017-03-29.
Translation: Simon Chung