Paul Yeung has worked as a photojournalist for over 10 years in Hong Kong. His “Flower Show” series is a humorous approach to the consumerism and mass collective behavior of Hong Kong people. His images are analogous to puzzles, requiring the viewer to complete them with their imagination. Let’s get acquainted with Yeung and his Hong Kong roots.
Name Paul Yeung
Location Hong Kong
1.Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience while studying abroad at the prestigious Goldsmiths in London?
I was a Hong Kong photojournalist for 10 years after graduating with a BA in Journalism and Communication from CUHK. In the beginning, I used photography as a means to express my feelings towards society and myself. After being inspired by local experienced photographers and photobooks from foreign photography masters, I started to develop a few photo-documentary series that challenged the mainstream media’s traditional and aesthetic norm, by combining my strong sense and ideals with social issues which I’m particularly concerned with such as trade fairs and exhibitions (including book fairs, food fairs etc.) and Hong Kong’s entusiasm with the Beijing Olympics. Meanwhile, I worked with a few amazing local photographers to start up two photography magazines: “Not accord with…” and “Mahjong”. Being passionate about exploring the form and language of photography, I went to Goldsmiths College for postgraduate studies in Image and Communication.
Studying at Goldsmiths and living in London was a great experience. Hundreds of talks, exhibition and workshops took place in London every year, and I visited many of them. The open-minded and creative atmosphere really inspired me a lot. I learnt some artistic approaches to understanding photographic work and began to find my own way and style when tackling any project. “Serious with Fun, Documentary in Art, Social and Personal” is my motto when creating in the moment. During the 1-year course I created a number of videos and animation on top of my photographic works. My final photographic pieces “The British Museum”, which contrasted historical space with modern time in the Museum as well as experimented with the semiotic properties of photography, was exhibited at our MA graduation show. I was fortunate enough to have had a chance to participate in “Count to 12”, a part of “The Road to 2012” project commissioned by and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London. These are all invaluable experiences I gained lots of knowledge from while in London, but I’m still taking the time to digest them into my own mind.
2.As you’ve expressed in your Flower Show series, there’s a humor behind collective behavior. How did your focus on this social process come about, compared to all the others out there?
When I was a photojournalist, I attended many trade fairs and exhibitions. Within these shows I observed an interesting and ambitious collective behavior displayed by the visitors: mass consumption. I found a strong sense of capitalism and consumerism at the fairs, particularly the Book and Food Fair. People in attendance appeared as though they were being brainwashed and driven crazy to queue, rush and buy. This amazed me, and I think that it’s not only about the buying, but also about the orientation of collective and identical thought of the Hong Kong people.
Hong Kong’s Flower Show is not solely a trade fair show, but a display show that attracts thousands of visitors wanting to take pictures. It’s such a phenomenon that everyone possesses at least one digital camera or camera phone nowadays. They took photos in a pursuit of beauty; especially some photographers still focused mindlessly on the cliché of flower images, aesthetically and symbolically. Moreover, if somebody chose to dress in flower patterns to visit a flower show, I could think of anything less interesting, non-surprising and cliché that this. They consume the flowers and themselves through the pictures. So key words like “consumerism”, “mass collective thought and behavior” and “photography” are all linked together in this series.
3.What’s the significance to the calligraphy featured in your work? Do you know how to paint using this traditional technique?
Calligraphy came to my mind during the process of creating the works. I wanted to add new elements to my photographs inorder for them stand out from their traditional documentation purposes. I expect the work could create a sense of humor but meaningful, both in the form and context. In this sense, calligraphy of the Chinese poems about flowers is a great fit to the works. It is important as it is related closely to the pictorial tradition of Chinese photography, in which photographers wrote poems on the prints to resemble Chinese paintings. It was really stepping backward on photography language. Besides, I tried to choose the poems in a context or story that could contrast and interact with the image, and let the audience to feel something out there.
I don’t know how to write calligraphy in a formal traditional way. Teachers did teach me some basic skills in schools, but not in particular styles and form. However, in this case, I think it’s not so important about the skill and technique; it’s about concept and idea and sense underneath.
4.I like your description of our world being “a game that full of repetition”. What’s your favorite childhood game?
I’m not sure, as I believe I played various games in my different ages when I was young. Playing magic is the first came up to my mind. I even had made my own magic box to make something appear and disappear. Playing mahjong is another one; I would play with my neighbors at the corridor of the public housing estate where I lived.
5.If your works are critiques of clichéd beauty, what is “beauty” for you? Could you give us some examples?
I don’t criticize beauty, but cliché. I don’t appreciate the beauty that is mindless, no concrete content and non-inspirational. On the contrast, sometimes I love “ugliness” and “bad taste” if there are strong, fresh and valid ideas behind the works. For example, Martin Parr's strong and saturated color photography is a cliché beauty in a sense of traditional documentary. But he made use of this cliché language of photography, which the commercial and advertising photography adopted, to mock on the culture of consumerism and globalization. It is what I love.
6.What’s the process of your project? Do you take pictures on a daily basis?
I brought my 35mm SLR digital camera with flash to shoot this series. I tried to shoot on sunny day as it provided a bright and saturated color in photos with flash. I walked around and observed the behavior and clothing of the visitors. I don’t snap much, just a few shots on the same object. The process was more or less as the same as documentary or street photography. I would always be interested and amazed by the details, which was like a game for me to understand the world.
The Flower Show was held around 2 weeks every year in spring. I’d try to go there if I was free or day-off from work. It almost took 4-5 hours every time.
7.Many stories surface in my mind just by just looking at the fashion your subjects display. What’s your view on story telling through photography?
Being a photojournalist trained me to tell stories through photography, but it is quite straightforward in Hong Kong media. If a car accident happened, the editors and audience need to see the whole cars to know how the cars being damaged. Journalists somehow need to tell 5Ws (When, Where, What, Who, Why) for reportage. It’s a mainstream requirement and also a limitation on photojournalism, especially in Hong Kong.
However, image is ambiguous to a certain extent. I like the photos raising questions and curiosity, but there are also some hints for the viewers to guess and understand. A good image can provide a space for the audience to feel, to think, to reflect. Narrative in the image actually requires the audience to complete by their imagination. These are the properties of most of the photos: factual and fictional.
8. Are there any unforgettable events that have happened during your career as a photojournalist? Did you enjoy working as a Newspaper photographer?
I covered the aftermath of Tsunami in Thailand in 2003. Seeing hundreds of corpse lied at a temple after the tragedy in Phuket is really shocking and unforgettable. Although thousands and thousands home were broken, I was very impressed with the optimistic of Thai people. Their religion offered them a peaceful and positive spirit. I worked in newspaper, news agency and magazine during my photojournalism career. If you only talked about local newspapers, generally I think the limitation is too much and the autonomy of the photo editors and photographers to choose good images is low. But whatever newspaper or news agency, I did enjoyed the job as I could go to the frontline and feel the pulse of our society. It is a window for me to connect with the variety of people and understand how the world works.
9.Could you tell us about the magazine you published in Hong Kong?
There are 2 independent magazines I published with 2 different groups of local photographers. One is called “Mahjong” and has published 3 issues from 2009. “Mahjong” gathered 5 photographers from different generations, and we published our works only with various themes in each issue. The printing is in high standard, and only 500 copies for each issue.
Another one is called “Not accord with…” (與XX不符) and have been published 5 issues already. There are 7 main core members in the group, who are all passionate photojournalists but would like to try something different from, or even challenge to, the photojournalism. The magazine also welcomed to publish any good photos from others. We had different themes and titled in every issue. It is free of charge and about 1000 copies for each issue.
10. Could you tell us a little bit about your plan for your next series of work and upcoming exhibitions?
I got lot of ideas in my head, and I am planning how to execute. Sorry it’s still an unknown for me at the moment as well. But whatever, my projects would always about my roots and my soil: Hong Kong.