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The Art of Citizen Tsang: Photographing Hong Kong’s scavengers and political campaigners

By Pierre Martin.

In recent years, an increasing number of professional photographers, including Almond Chu, Dustin Shum, Yvonne Lo, Tse Pak-chai and Vincent Yu have shown growing interest in the life of the most destitute segments of Hong Kong’s society, and in the campaigns of its blooming civil society.

benson tsang photography

Leading their ranks is renowned veteran Ducky Tse Chi-tak, who followed the occupiers of the Queen’s Pier in 2006/2007 and, in 2009, distinguished himself by covering the (now destroyed) houses of Choi Yuen Tsuen with giant, melancholic black and white portraits of their former residents.

This was an effort reminiscent of Walker Evans’ 1941 classic Let us now praise famous men, the haunting illustrated portrayal of sharecropper families from Alabama, United States, during the Great Depression.

protest benson tsang photography

Benson Tsang is lesser known. In real life, Benson Tsang is an interior designer, and his art has never been exposed in any physical gallery. Yet, in the past few years, his pictures of Hong Kong’s scavengers and political campaigns have received increased attention from the online community.

Published on Facebook, which allows for free and unrestricted access to them, Benson Tsang’s pictures seem to have been taken without the least conscious aesthetic research. Black and white for the most part, sometimes taken from a bird’s eye view and occasionally focusing on small details or gestures (like the rice in the palm of the hands of the young activists participating in the protests against the Express Rail), his photographs are spontaneous shots and convey a sort of immediate, unadorned beauty.

protest benson tsang photography

A world away from the stilted and high-brow theoretical discussions contemporary photography is sometimes ensconced in, his work is close to that of a photo-journalist cautious not to make judgments nor statements, a kind of visual diary of what the life of the city looks like.

There is no staging whatsoever; the pictures seem to have been casually snapped while walking around, without the least intention to interfere. In fact, they are more aptly described as a citizen’s act than as an artist’s work, with Benson Tsang playing a double role: that of detached observer, and that of the engaged passer-by.

protest benson tsang photography

In November 2010, Benson Tsang published a series of pictures entitled See/Can’t see. The pictures capture the passing shadows of an all too-familiar yet nearly invisible feature of Hong Kong’s urban districts: the scavengers, the people collecting trash, painstakingly pushing their heavy carts along the steep slopes of the city seven days a week for so miserable a wage that they would probably envy the living standards of the characters of Charles Dickens’ novels if only they had any spare time to read them.

The scavengers pushing their carts sometimes look like real-life Sisyphus, the king that was punished by being compelled to roll a huge boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again.

Like him, those of the excellent series: “Work hard, upward ??” and its follow-up “Keep going ?? Downward !!”, both published in March 2010, seem to perform an endless labour.

Suggesting placid acceptance of their fate, the stoic faces of the hard-up scroungers even add to the drama of the pictures. It is little wonder that most of the numerous comments left by friends, strangers, artists, activists and legislative councilors under the series express either pain or indignation.

 benson tsang photography

In the second part of Regarding the Pain of Others, the essay Susan Sontag dedicated to people’s capacity to respond to images of pain and atrocity, the American essayist asks a simple yet pertinent question: what is the use of such images? Is it ethical to look at images of people suffering?

Being moved, she says, is not incompatible with a taste for brutality. As to compassion, it is an unstable emotion: if it doesn’t translate into action, it dulls and it dies.

In fact, the scavengers are no doomed Sisyphus: as hinted at in Benson Tsang’s pictures, there is no fatality in their labor, which is not an act of God, but the mere byproduct of a social and political context which can be changed and which, indeed, is currently being renegotiated.

The play on colours Benson Tsang indulges in in the “See/Can’t see” album, where he left their colours to the scavengers only, while denying them to the rest of the picture (turned into black and white) is not only a way to make the scavenger more conspicuous to those watching the pictures.

It also seems to convey the idea that the scavengers can only exist/be visible in opposition to the current state of society. This tacit invitation to reform the latter gets clearer in the light of the main body of Benson Tsang’s work, mostly dedicated to social movements.

The many albums he devoted to the mass rally of July 1st, the 623 campaign against the political reform package proposed by the government and the various steps of the struggle against the Express Railway and for the preservation of the village of Choi Yuen Tsuen, indeed suggest a viable exit for the “compassion” which Susan Sontag warns us might die out if left idle: political action.

protest benson tsang photography

Photography is often associated with death and commemoration: the photographer freezes a moment with his camera lens, turning the resulting photography into the memento of that lost moment.

Serving as substitutes for what has been lost, the pictures that Ducky Tse Chi-tak pasted on the wall of the houses in Choi Yuen Tsuen which we mentioned in the introduction are a perfect example of it. But Benson Tsang’s pictures are somehow different.

They don’t kill, they do not even mourn: by reckoning the existence of a sector of the population totally ignored by the mainstream society, they give birth. And because representation is the first step toward empowerment, I regard his art as profoundly democratic in essence.

Later on, Benson Tsang invited visitors to his Facebook page to take part in a project called “Survivor” (“倖存者”). They were asked to take a picture of all toys, furniture or any trivia saved from the soon-to-be demolished village of Choi Yuen Tsuen and to transmit those pictures to him. Somehow, Benson Tsang’s pictures are just like those objects: surviving pieces of evidence of a history that is every day trampled on.

Since his first encounter with Hong Kong, in the midst of the campaign to preserve the Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier, back in 2006, Pierre Martin has developed a long-standing interest in Hong Kong’s society and politics. Some of his musings have been published in Monde chinois, on Slate.fr and in local magazine Cultamap.

The Art of Citizen Tsang: Photographing Hong Kong's scavengers and political campaigners