Multitudinous Images, Miniscule Differences:
Moments of the Umbrella Movement in good day good night
LAW Lok Man
We can never help feeling a tinge of pain whenever we revisit the images that remained of what was the Umbrella Movement – the images remind us of its ending, and the uncertainty of whether such a predominant democratic movement will ever happen again. This melancholy had been hovering in the air during the last days of the movement, alongside the many photobooks and video footages, accumulating in the occupiers’ sentiments, mixed with a sense of helplessness and anger against the dark shadows of Hong Kong politics. Yet if we are to resist the dissipation of information, if we are to attempt to grasp what the movement meant to us, we cannot but end up like a victim of OCD, and keep revisiting these images over and over again; we cannot but try to retain and reconstruct our memories through images in this rapidly changing political atmosphere.
Flipping through South HO’s good day good night, other photographers at the scene come to mind – photojournalists, independent fine art photographers, amateur photographers, and many others such as myself who took photos with a smartphone and shared it instantly on Facebook – the images in their smartphones, computers, memory cards share the same motifs: umbrellas, helmets, people sitting, people lying down, people enclosing, empty streets, streets covered with tents, banners and yellow ribbons…… images that once amazed, empowered, stimulated us; images that we had to capture. Some of them had been circulating through various media during the movement; some of them had eventually been published. What distinguishes good day good night from the other photobooks is that there are no injured people, no crying people, no angry face, no disappointed face, nor any other human traits such as exhaustion and signs of weakness. What we find is a detached gaze directed towards the flowing of people, the gathering of material, or the singular and neglected. Our moments of perseverance, howling, bravery, all fixated within the static square frame; an aesthetic organizes within the frame the chaos, the flux and the transformations of the movement’s reality, thus creating another view of the Umbrella Movement: one that is calm, peaceful, and quotidian. One that is closer to the experience of the occupier.
HO spent many days and nights in Admiralty, and employing his usual way of constructing an image, he captured the Umbrella Movement with a traditional photographic aesthetic, implying that it is only one incident among the many moments throughout man’s history. On the top left corner of an image, along a slightly curving street, a salary man is walking past a pile of collapsed barricades. This image reminds me of FRANCE. The Var department. Hyères. 1932., the famous work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The curving streets, the diagonals created by the lines of the railings and the barricades, the directions toward which the man on bicycle and the salary man are heading mirror each other as if in a moment of reincarnation – it happened, and will happen again. Just like the history of man.
Several times, since I had invited him to photograph the movement for the cover of the 52th volume of Fleurs des lettres, I came upon HO in Admiralty. Sometimes we walked along, sometimes we parted. But I remember the moments he pressed the shutter and the images I saw at those instants: a line of office chairs under the Hong Kong S.A.R. flag, tents below Christmas lightings, squashed objects during the clearance – they remain vividly in my vision. I did not take any photographs, and my memory of the scenes almost always presents a gap from the landscapes represented in these photographs, where the noises have ceased to exist. Flowing pedestrians, floating banners are not included in the frames. No matter how many times I revisit these photographs, or other images of the Umbrella Movement, I can only see the distance between my own experience and that of others. In one single movement, different individuals and time frames link up different stories, and manifest meanings of each their own; albeit we have assumed that since we were all there at the same time, we would have developed a kind of synchronicity, and can recognize each other in our differences.
But what about those latecomers who were not or could not be there? Some think that the occupiers and non-occupiers share totally diverse experiences and that communication between them is impossible. In addition to the current political discourses, absence from the movement has become an original sin, while the attendees have been granted a halo – such is the distinction. Yet when I revisit HO’s good day good night, a lot of images carrying special meanings keep reminding me that even for attendees experience can differ, and different experiences must become the mirror through which the latecomers come to learn about this movement. They can only approach a fuller picture, one step at a time, just like each passage, each photograph that attempts to open a world which cannot be defined by one single moment of the Umbrella Movement.
LAW Lok Man has obtained a BA in Philosophy and MA in English Literature from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She was Editor-at-large of Fleurs des lettres and Festival Manager in Hong Kong International Literary Festival. LAW currently works as an organizer of literary programs, editor and poet.