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Harcourt Road, December 7, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
Harcourt Road, December 7, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
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Hong Kong’s Occupy Barricades: An Interview With Photographer Johnny Gin

Picture of Sally Gao
Updated: 24 September 2016
Johnny Gin is a copywriter and photographer based in Hong Kong. He graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Hong Kong with an MFA in Photography in 2016, and was a finalist for the WYNG Masters Award 2016 for his Architecture of Insurgency project, a series which captures the street barricades that were spontaneously erected by the Occupy Central protesters in 2014. We interviewed him to find out more.
Lung Wui Road, November 7, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Lung Wui Road, November 7, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

Tell us a little about your background. How did you get into photography?

I was a latecomer to photography. My undergraduate education was in literature, so I’ve always been interested in ways of looking at and representing the world, which is to say, fiction. Photography seemed like a natural extension of writing – instead of using sentences and paragraphs to organize information, I am now using light and composition, and I can also build a more coherent narrative by editing and sequencing a set of images. I enrolled at the SCAD when it first set up a campus in Sham Shui Po in 2010 because it was a good opportunity to dig deeper intellectually into the medium.

Tim Mei Avenue, November 7, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Tim Mei Avenue, November 7, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

Tell me about how Architecture of Insurgency got started. What inspired the project?

My workplace is just a few minutes from the protest site in Admiralty. During my lunch hour I would walk around the site to check out the activities and look at all the artwork inspired by the movement. I soon noticed that the barricades looked different every time I walked by. As a photographer interested in vernacular expressions in the built environment, I wanted to document these makeshift structures as a way to examine how public and private spaces were being contested.

Tamar Street, November 28, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Tamar Street, November 28, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

What did you want to convey about the Occupy Movement through these images?

All human landscapes have cultural meaning. They reflect our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form. We are essentially describing ourselves through the shaping of the land. I hope that my work can provide an open perspective from which to view social and political issues and to generate a more contemplative, more considered discussion of our identity as individuals and as a society going forward.

Sidewalk Escalator, December 7, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Sidewalk Escalator, December 7, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

You’ve described the barricades as ‘communal sculptures’. Can you talk a bit about that? What’s the relationship between protest and public art?

There are many benefits to public art, which contributes to the aesthetics of a place, and creates a sense of belonging and attachment within the community. Protest art is very different, though it is often carried out in public spaces. It’s more concerned with activism and social movements. The barricades are likened to communal sculptures in that they were shaped by an anonymous collective. The barricades were both inclusive and exclusive, and the insurgent space that they created challenged the conventional notions in the practise and making of public space.

Murray Road, November 9, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Murray Road, November 9, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

One prominent element of the photos seems to be this juxtaposition of the barricades with the orderly city architecture. Can you talk a bit about the significance of that juxtaposition?

The barricades were photographed as a type of vernacular expression arising from protest culture, representing the material and metaphorical emblems of an anonymous ideological collective. Pictured against monolithic government buildings and office towers, this nostalgic form of resistance underscored the opposition between traditional power structures and their subversive counterparts.

Legislative Council Road, November 9, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Legislative Council Road, November 9, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

There’s a decided absence of human movement in this series. Why did you make that decision?

During the occupation period, we saw a lot of outstanding photojournalism. But I’ve never been comfortable photographing strangers, so I asked myself, ‘How can I as a landscape/architecture photographer respond to this historic event and contribute to its narrative in a way that furthers the conversation about us an individuals and as a community?’ People say we should venture outside our comfort zones, but sometimes our best work is created within it. In my images, humanity is evoked in the form of banners, tents, clothing, and all the objects piled up to construct the barricades themselves. Because of the absence of human movement, these images hint at a pause in the narrative, telling viewers little of what happened, or what might be about to transpire.

Access to Central Government Offices, December 6, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Access to Central Government Offices, December 6, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

Do you have a favorite image from the series and why?

My work is best considered when viewed as a set. But if I had to choose one, it would be ‘Queensway, October 12, 2014’. It was the first barricade I shot, made with a 4×5 view camera.

Queensway, October 12, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Queensway, October 12, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin

What’s next for you as a photographer?

The photo critic David Campany said that photography is a passport to the world around us. Photography is a way for me to stay grounded in the present (even if it is always about nostalgia) and to stay engaged with different things and issues that interest me.

Harcourt Road, December 7, 2014 | © Johnny Gin
‘Harcourt Road, December 7, 2014’ | © Johnny Gin