Tung Wai Waak is a Hong Kong photographer who explores people and emotions with his work. “To me, still images give me more space to elaborate and be in a particular state of mind to let myself feel that particular moment preserved in that frame,” he says. We chatted about expressing emotions, documenting ancient skills and evolving lives
ArtsCulture: Preserve Craftsmanship and Queer Embodiment are two projects that seem very different, what attracted you to them and how did you approach them? What are the similarities and differences?
Tung Wai Waak: RE : What attracted me to create Preseve Craftsmanship and Queer Embodiment
I’ve always been curious about human behaviour and would keep on wanting to ask questions, hoping to find answers through my art. The idea of creating a project like Preserve Craftsmanship, came from wanting to understand why in a fast paced city like Hong Kong, there are still old craftsmen who dedicated their entire life with the same job and skills. It’s really fascinating when I get to talk to some of them, most of whom worked in the same industry for more than 30 years. Felt like they are in a totally different atmosphere in Hong Kong, away from all the distractions and pointless worries this financial centred city tries so hard to pull us into.
Hong Kong is a big and diverse city, but very often lots of people lack self esteem during their teen years, and because we have to jump right into the big pond, we never really took the time and courage to face and learn to love our true self during our teen years. At some point I thought to myself – is this why Hong Kong is such a cold and money oriented city in a way? Because we’ve all been so hard on ourselves, and forgot to enjoy being our true selves. I’m a very emotional guy, but I try my absolute best to try and put that side when I work on my commercial projects. And that’s also how the idea of the Queer Embodiment project came by.
RE : How I approached them?
It was really hard to approach the subjects for Preserve Craftsmanship in the first place, because the old craftsmen didn’t see why their “job” was worth anyone documenting. So I began to visit them on a regular basis, so they get to know me more, chatting with them and listening to their life stories. Not sure if you’ve noticed, I’ve chosen craftsmen who have worked in that particular craft for around 30 years, reason being I’m in my 30s and I’ve been a professional photographer for around 10 years now. It was a shock to me when most of the craftsmen told me they only started to craft in that particular craft right when they hit their 10th year in the industry! Guess I still have a very very long way to go before I can even be close to where they are at now.
Honestly, these craftsmen are like Olympic athletics to me! They train themselves day and night, and yet still have so much passion in their crafts and creations. In many ways photography is the same, photographers will take batches after batches of photos, sometimes there is a particular theme, other days we’re just drawn by the mood and moment that particular scene creates.
I came up with Queer Embodiment when “Project Touch” team from The Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong (BGCA) reached out to me in early 2020, to work with them on a project about LGBT self reflection. BGCA is one of the longest serving local non-government organizations dedicated to the welfare of children and youth – physically, intellectually and emotionally. “Project Touch” invites participants from LGBT groups to participate in a behavior therapy to explore and learn about their own body especially their own body parts they hate the most as a LGBT group in Hong Kong, then they get to have a photoshoot to further explore their body emotionally and physically.
I had to work with the behavior therapist and observe each participant when they go through the therapy and express what their inner emotions are by decorating a paper mask. At first I couldn’t decide on the final approach for the photography part, until I talked with some of them and I was quite surprised to know LGBT groups can sometimes be more harsh with body shaming themselves or each other, because to them their appearance is kind of a once in a lifetime chance to grab the attention of their potential partner. So during the photoshoot, I encouraged them to feel each of their body parts, especially the body parts they don’t like the most, then the therapist will help them learn to love that part of their body again. I capture the whole process and ask them to pose to expose more of the part they don’t feel comfortable with.
On one occasion one participant said he didn’t like or feel comfortable with his own sex organ, but during the therapy he found out he was actually not comfortable being in his own skin and it had nothing to do with his sexual appearances. Another participant said he didn’t like the scars that scattered all over his body, but in the end it turned out he didn’t love his body mainly because he felt ashamed for being overweight. I’m really grateful to be able to documente this unique journey for them.
RE：What are the similarities and differences?
The similarities between Preserve Craftsmanship and Queer Embodiment I must say, is that both projects aims to explore between emotions and real life stories through photographing part of the body, telling true stories of how unique and different each individual is.
Main difference to me between these two projects: it’s about loving your skills and your job, while the other is about loving yourself. You can choose your career, but you are born with your body. The love hate relationship between these two projects are very different in this way.
ArtsCulture: Your images seem personal, how do you create intimacy in your photography?
Tung Wai Waak: I always wanted to take away any labels or subjective mindset from people when looking at my photographs. So that’s the main reason why I rarely photograph the subject’s face. I believe a story can be told via the finest details of body parts, whether it’s a wrinkle, or the way they bend their arms, or the grease in their nails — these are all footprints of their lives.
Scars also get to me because each scar marks an event in their life’s journey, and usually it’s the most touching and emotional occasion in that person’s life. When their scars are being photographed, even though we barely spoke during the shoot, it creates a type of tension and intimacy between the subject and myself, which usually feels like they are giving out a type of energy from their deepest emotions and memory.
ArtsCulture: You’re a photographer who ‘constantly asks questions about society and cultural identity’. How does your photography help answer those questions, and what attracted you to
Tung Wai Waak RE : You’re a photographer who ‘constantly asks questions about society and cultural identity’. How does your photography help answer those questions
Once I started with Preserve Craftsmanship it’s hard to not reflect on society and cultural identity, and I want to create a movie-like atmosphere for this project as if the craftsmen are performing their craft on stage. Normally in Hong Kong culture people from older generations don’t know how to take a compliment. The craftsmen I photographed were all very famous for their crafts in preserving our local culture, yet they refused to accept any titles like “mentors” or “masters” in their field, mainly because they think they are from the working class and their craft is mainly to put food on the table, and it’s not worth any mentioning in our finance oriented society.
There is a major contrast however, in Taiwan and Japan where the craftsman are humble being a working class, yet they are full of confidence because they know they have mastered the craft and are willing to preserve it and hand it down to the next generation, they will happily accept it if people address them as masters or teachers in their craft. I once photographed a craftsman who creates tailormade high quality copper articles. He is actually the last craftsman still practicing in Hong Kong, but he was very shy and reserved about it, and I was really glad when he saw the photographs I took, the sparks in his eyes meant a thousand words, as if he never thought his talent can be something so artistic.
Hong Kongers don’t really have the courage to face our inner beauty or know how to express our true emotions, we rarely share these thoughts with our friends and it’s not uncommon for people to use criticizing others or themselves as an outlet of our insecurities, including myself. I’m glad when photographing Queer Embodiment it gave me a space to reflect on how I see myself. Our society and culture are full of labels and people are being categorized for no particular reasons rather than to cover up on our own insecurities. I used to really care about how people think of my career, outlook, statues etc, but actually these very often are the labels I gave myself in the first place and it reflects in my behaviour. And though this project I realised I need to give myself some space to enjoy being in my 30s and reflect on how I matured in my career and what are the new additional values or enjoyment I get from my work and art.
RE: What attracted you to photography?
Like most good old stories I signed up for photography class with a friend not really having too much interest in it. Turns out it was an art photography course and it was the first time I knew photographs can express all types of emotions, I’ve never been an expressive person nor am I good with words. It felt like a whole new world to me when I felt that I could express myself with photography. This feeling was a total new angle and can’t even be compared with expressing it with music in my opinion.
ArtsCulture: What do you try to create in each of your photographs – is it a story, or a glimpse into another world?
Tung Wai Waak: Same answer as question 3. I tend to create a question about this world, then find the answers by entering people’s conscious and inner world to find the answer though photographing their emotions.
ArtsCulture: How powerful is a photograph, compared to the moving image or other forms of art?
Tung Wai Waak: Moving images tend to guide you through a story and I get distracted. To me still images give me more space to elaborate and be in a particular state of mind to let myself feel that particular moment preserved in that frame. You might ask can’t a painting do a similar job? For some yes, but for me, painting still has a different connection with the real world and photography can capture the moment that can’t be created twice.
ArtsCulture: What’s your creative background and what inspires you?
Tung Wai Waak: I’ve been a commercial and film still photographer for quite some time, and love seeing different expressions and emotions the actors and actresses bring to life, especially when they don’t have a line during a scene but they still need to create an atmosphere to express the personality of the character they are playing. So I’m particularly fond of scripts and stories, this led me to start being interested in real life stories and that’s what inspired me to create art photography projects later on.
ArtsCulture: What are you looking to work on in the future and where can we see your photography?
Tung Wai Waak: Preserve Craftsmanship is an ongoing project, so I’m trying to contact some more local craftsmen in Hong Kong and hopefully this project can expand to other regions in Asia or even abroad. I would be interesting to understand the vision behind craftsmen from different cultures. I am also speaking with a few local venues for collaborations and exhibitions, but everything is still under discussion and on hold due to the pandemic. Please feel free to send me a message me via IG @shutterinhead or visit my website www.shutterinhead.com if you are up for collaboration.
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