Evan Dale // May 19, 2020
Instagram is bursting at its seams with landscape and architectural photographers mistaking blue-orange filters for their own vision. We’ve reached a breaking point where once, photographers experimenting with color and advances in technology have now settled in their established space. Unfortunately, with such a signature styling becoming so cliché and so accessible, even holiday vacationers who don’t consider themselves photographers boast catalogues full of images that would have been peak portfolio just a half-decade ago.
“Everyone does the same thing, and I feel that it’s boring,” Chak Kit explains to Zolima City Mag two years ago, on the patterns he’d begun noticing not only in his stylistic lane, but also in his city.
During any given day’s sunrise and sunset, humming over New York, Dubai, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore, and Chak Kit’s home city, Hong Kong, squadrons of drones fight for space in hopes of bring their equivocal shots home to be edited using their same lightroom presets. The outcome? An increasingly narrowed field of creative vision – a lack of individuality at a time when the coalescence between architectural design, range of creatives, and technology should be producing more groundbreaking, stylistically varied photography than ever. It’s a paradox.
Overcome by the same sentiments and underwhelmed by the misrepresentation of his city from such an oversaturated market, Chak Kit set out to change the way people think about urban photography in the social media era. He removed himself from the trends when he realized his own style was either a replicate or being replicated by so many trying to capture the dizzying urban intensity of Hong Kong’s supertall skyline. Changing his perspective, he also flipped the script on the story of Hong Kong through photos, redirecting global perception of the city in the process and shining a light on Hong Kong as a human center – not just a density wonder – at a time when the city needed compassion more than ever.
His work doesn’t obsess over the well-documented truth of Hong Kong’s density or the calamity of its scale – the overdocumentation of which, hand-in-hand with the under-documentation of anything else in Hong Kong, have done a grand job of dehumanizing the city’s population and removing its soul. Instead, Chak Kit’s catalogue celebrates the details, the less seen, and the Hongkonger through a Hongkonger lens. The result? An intimate portrait of a city most have never bothered to dissect, in a unique way no one has ever attempted.
His work starts from a simple premise: why should photographers need to accentuate the already existing vibrancy in some of the world’s most grandiose cities? Why should photographers pump saturation into a place already so colorful; bump clarity into a city exploding with detail; obsess over crowding when so many intimate moments exist? Chak Kit’s colors bleed with the natural palette of pastels that make Hong Kong one of the most vivid cityscapes in the world; His detail focuses on juxtaposition where the city’s softer moments are under-exhibited; and his portrayal of Hong Kong doesn’t remove the fact that it’s a dense, urban jungle, but points out instead that Hong Kong was built to support its population, and leave them with any wanted moments of reprieve from the city.
The half of his portfolio which includes a human presence, rarely shines a light on more than one. Even his most humanistic photos include only a pair of souls – a parent and child working their way through the rarely seen emptiness of the city. For these works, Chak Kit is no portrait photographer. He likes to give his subjects space if for no other reason, to accentuate the ample space at hand in Hong Kong. His figures often walk far below his lens, or stand far above it, juxtaposed against the sky from a position hanging laundry on a balcony x stories high; juxtaposed against the markings on a crosswalk, only kept company by their shadows; ultimately juxtaposed against a world that doesn’t understand Hong Kong’s cultural value, and the thin ice that culture currently walks on.
That same affinity for juxtaposition is what separates the rest of his canon – his pure architectural and abstract portfolio – from his compatriots. Even his most celebrated of kin can’t seem to escape the high-density, structural intensity that has become baseline formula for Instagram photographers documenting the world’s most jaw-dropping cityscapes. Yeah, it’s beautiful, but beautiful loses beauty once seen a million times. Highrise against highrise against highrise, creating an undoubtedly encapsulating, but inaccurate portrayal of Hong Kong as inescapable labyrinth. Chak Kit – a product of an environment of which he knows how to balance, exhibits exactly that.
Taunting other photographers attempting to capture the spirit of the city, Chak Kit takes their overdone style and one-ups it, bringing a sense of oftentimes humorous balance into the mix by sharing the dimensional obscurity of space occupied and unoccupied by man-made structure. There are oftentimes punchlines in his work – a yellow boat squeezed painfully into overwhelming blue frame; a red Ferrari speeding I the shadow of red tenement housing. And with each punchline – with each photograph – also comes a lot of statement.
Chak Kit has become a symbol for Stand With Hong Kong – the city-state’s very public outcry against being absorbed into a larger Chinese nation they don’t consider their masters. His 2019 work was rarely without the ferocity of an angry figure waving ‘Revolt’ signs from a balcony; masked figures peeking through the blinds; or vigilantes fighting extradition – still from the place of solitude and serenity – but never surrender – with which Chak Kit has long given underrepresented voice to Hong Kong. It’s only natural his obsession with capturing the truth of his city would evolve into a pedestal for anti-establishmentarianism and bold standing. In the David vs. Goliath fight, Chak Kit is arming David with modernity’s most powerful weapon, and his enemy’s greatest tool: propaganda. And he’s doing it through the youth’s medium of choice: social media. His series of humorous, powerful big-brother-defying photos highlighting CCTV security cameras is another artful study on the Hongkonger point of view at this moment in history.
But, Chak Kit – even through all the important documentation of Hong Kong that his changed the guard for public perception and given fight to so many within the city’s walls – is an even more wide-ranging force for global artistic change. He has documented the absurdist, futurist architecture of nearby Shenzhen. He has given new voice to the vivacity and mosaic of Bangkok. He has brought a simple, honest aesthetic to the overedited Mount Fuji. And he has done the same to a number of other locales throughout East & Southeast Asia, painted exotic by so many outsiders, but spoken about with truth and clarity by Chak Kit. He is a force for doing less in photography – finding a story, and not stealing someone else’s.
But, where will Chak Kit’s story lead him? Placing himself in an undoubtedly dangerous position as an artistic figurehead for an independent Hong Kong stance against China, his Instagram account has been left vacant since the end of 2019, his website made inaccessible. We can only hope that he’s working on new content to deliver both Hong Kong and the world to a point of understanding in the existing beauty of places; that exaggeration only takes away from truth; and that change, though necessary, isn’t always.