An impressive skyline, colourful lights by night: When you think about Hong Kong you have a booming and vivid city in mind. But behind this facade of the first impression an important and proceeding problem becomes visible: the city is overcrowded.
An area of only 1104 km2 is home to more than 7 million people. That makes the Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. And there are only two ways to face this challenge: land reclamation by mounding or building up.
As the protest against the recreation of land via artificial large-scale dumpings is prevalent in wide sections of the population, high rise buildings are common to meet the constant demand for housing. Numerous skycrapers shoot up into the sky wherever there is space left. Recent statistics show that Hong Kong has more buildings higher than 150 metre than any other region in the world. Most buildings are built for the necessities of the masses without much aesthetic appeal. Urban canyons and narrow inner yards create an effect of oppressiveness. Most apartments in these densely-packed towering buildings are small and have no natural daylight. Residents live in cramped conditions, barred window next to barred window, balcony next to balcony.
Chinese Civil War and the economic boom in the 1970s caused many people to migrate to Hong Kong which lead to a dramatic population increasement. The government built several public housing estates but was not able to handle the extremely large number of people. This development forced thousands of citizens to move to so-called „cage homes“, a type of residence that is only large enough for one bunk bed surrounded by a metal cage or a wooden box, mostly only 2 m3 in size. Escpecially low-income, low-skilled and elderly people were affected by this development and forced to live in that kind of housing conditions. In Hong Kong approximately 100,000 people (according to aid organization Miserior) live in cage homes today. In 2007, there were approximately 53,200.
Australian photographer Peter Stewart captured the character of the vibrant communities of these residential towers in his series ‘Stacked’. He tried to shine a more positive light on the dense conditions revealing the city in a colourful light and from various external angles that also create optical illusions. The key elements of the series are pattern, symmetry and repetition within the density of the modern cityscape. From a distance the images appear to depict giant constructions of repetitive objects.
Stewart says that Hong Kong is probably one of the most exciting cities he has ever photographed in. polis asked him about his motivation, his intention and his choice of motive.
Through the lens of a camera you get a unique view of cities. How do you perceive them?
I have always been fascinated with the theme of urban density in the modern world. I like to play with the architecture to create moody, thematic styled images overwhelm the viewer with all the little details in the frame. I have been inspired by the visual imagery in films such as Blade Runner and Akira for a long time, with cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo providing the perfect backdrop to explore these types of visuals.
Do you try to create an impression – your impression – of the city or do prefer to show a rather objective image?
I have always approached photography as a means of creating art that appeals to me rather than to others. My attention is to shoot locations in a way that will look visually impressive and often surreal. This is why I never set out to tell a story with my images, or try to portray a location with certain connotations. It is all about the visuals for me. With the series ‘Stacked’, i try to provide a new way of looking at such structures, and to appreciate the strange beauty they provide.
Do you choose special themes for each city / series?
Next to most artists, i often find my ideas accidentally. Whenever I am travelling I usually have a prior researched list of locations to shoot, and occasionally from that ideas a theme may follow. The ‘Stacked’ series for instance, was born out of myself outgrowing the touristy photo spots in Hong Kong and venturing into the industrial and working class neighbourhoods.
Do you also communicate with the people or do you see yourself as an observer?
I am usually quite a shy and reserved person, so in general I prefer to blend in and just get on with the job. Many locations I visit are private residential areas, so I always try to be as incognito as possible. Occasionally, a curious local or security guard may approach and wonder what on earth inspires me to be taking images of boring tower blocks but in general there are no problems.
Your pictures from the architecture series ‘Stacked’ are taken from an angle that is not often noticeable from street level. You have to look way up. How do you create this perspective?
The majority of apartment blocks in Hong Kong are built in groups, with each neighbouring structure mirroring the others‘ design. This makes it very simple to place myself in the correct position at ground level to get the right perspective for pointing directly upwards. I use a super wide angle 14mm lens, which not only provides a 115° field of view, but gives the very pronounced effect of stretching out the subject in the frame. This results in skyscrapers and towers that appear taller than they really are. It’s an optical effect I love to use with many of my architecture images.
What is so fascinating about the residential towers in Hong Kong?
I often ask myself what attracts me to photographing these structures. You could say there’s an almost exotic appeal there is apart from. Singapore, I’ve not encountered any other cities where the majority of the population live in high rise housing. The volume of apartment and office towers in Hong Kong is overwhelming, which in part is what keeps me motivated to explore and seek out new locations to photograph. Each structure has it’s own design, and it is which geometry and structures catch my interest.
Could you imagine living in cities like Hong Kong?
Having spent considerable time in Hong Kong over the past six years, I have moved quite a bit around the city with regards to accomodation. Some have been glamorous, some less so! Life in a busy city may not be prefered by everyone, but I love the vibrancy and pace that comes along with it. High rise housing is a way of life here, so I don’t view it as a negative. The biggest issues however, are housing prices and waiting lists for public housing. With nearly half the population in government subsidised public housing, there are still huge waiting lists for lower income earners to get into the programme. This is partially why you may have heard or read stories about Hong Kong’s ‘caged homes’.
Which was the most interesting project so far? Why?
My personal favourite project were a series of images I worked on in Japan last year exploring petrochemical factories just outside of Tokyo. These huge steel structures were like something out of a futuristic dystopian nightmare, but for me it was like a photographic paradise. It was quite difficult to get to these locations, along with having to work around finding the right photo spots outside the restricted areas. You can find a sample of some of the images taken here through my website: http://www.peterstewartphotography.com/Portfolio/Chain-Reaction-Chemical-Plants
Do you have recent projects or projects scheduled for the future?
My current project is called ‘Taxiland’ and is a look at the transportation methods that keep large cities on the move. Naturally, I started working on this by looking at Hong Kong and have taken an initial set of images that juxtapose the major methods of transport together: taxis, trains and planes. These images have a more grounded/realistic visual approach yet employ the use of multiple exposures and Photoshop to achieve the final result. My hope is to expand on this concept in other major cities, so this may be a work in progress for quite some time! In the meantime, I have the initial series of images available to view through my website: www.peterstewartphotography.com/Portfolio/Taxiland-Hong-Kong
Thanks a lot for this interesting insight into your work!