Fraser Crichton talks with New Zealander, Jonathan van Smit, talks about his graphic, emotionally powerful photography of the people of Hong Kong; “a world that’s alone and mysterious”.
“Sometimes people ask me why I have dogs in my photos, the reason for it is, they know everything. They know what you’ve eaten this morning, they know who you slept with last night, they know whether it’s your period or whatever, so I like photos with dogs. They look like they are peering into your soul. Sometimes, it’s like an accusation.”
Jonathan van Smit is a Hong Kong based photographer, who has been photographing the people of the Kowloon Yau Ma Tei, Sham Shui Po, Tai Kok Tsui and Hong Kong Island’s Wan Chai districts for the last 6 years. I met him recently, and he took me through the Yau Ma Tei district in Kowloon and introduced to me some of the places and people he takes photos of.
Jonathan’s high contrast black and white photos are graphic and emotionally powerful. They capture the nocturnal, subterranean quality of the claustrophobic alleyways, stairwells and open rooftops of the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Jonathan’s high contrast candid street photography, roof-top urban landscapes and portraits depict some of the people who live in these areas: the sex workers, tattooed bare-chested Triad members, drug users, elderly people, children and, of course, dogs. It’s a world that appears on the surface very alien, and yet in reality it’s just the same as the East End of Glasgow or the Tenderloin of San Francisco. The people living here endure the same poverty and escape from it through drugs, alcohol and sex just as they do in the West.
Jonathan came to Hong Kong in 2008 from New Zealand, where he lived for 22 years. Although he still considers New Zealand home, he retains his English accent from birth in Somerset. In person, sixty-five year old Jonathan is beguilingly open and energised. In fact the one word I can think best describes Jonathan is ‘open’; that’s what allows him access to places many Westerners never see.
As a day job Jonathan works as a wealth manager; “It’s a way of effectively funding my photography,” he says. The contrast between his daytime job, however, and the night-time world he explores is stark. “It’s just a world that’s alone and mysterious and of interest to me,” says Jonathan and unusually it’s not the act of taking photos that drives him. “It’s not about just photographs for me. I enjoy meeting those people. I’ve spent a lot of time talking and listening to their stories.”
Even spending a short time with Jonathan, it’s very obvious that even with a language barrier he still manages to engage with people in a very genuine way. Jonathan expands by saying, “In New Zealand we have this word Aroha. The literal meaning is a kind of love, but not romantic or sexual love. It’s more of a mystical, spiritual kind of love, and for me it describes the feeling I have for the people in my photographs. It’s an accumulation of all the memories surrounding trying to find them, and take their photographs in the first place. And the hard work; these photos don’t just turn up. They become quite precious to me.”
His candid photography is achieved using ultra-wide-angle lenses that force him to be within 1.5-2m of the people he takes photos of. “I like to be close . . . but I don’t want to be engaged in what they are doing, or for them to be engaged in what I am doing. I want to be an observer not a participant.”
Taking photos like this can be a risky. He has been chased, punched, threatened with a knife and verbally abused in the street. “From a rational perspective it’s a totally insane thing to do, so I’m quite driven by taking photographs.” Jonathan goes on to say, “If your demeanour is one of respect and you are not showing fear or aggression then most people are fine with it. If I’ve got some doubts I will occasionally ask, especially if the situation is a bit compromising for them,” he says.
There’s a very personal engagement and respect for the people he photographs that’s very obvious in talking with Jonathan. And, it’s also apparent in the long-term nature of his work and the various intertwined themes he identifies in it – political concerns about globalisation, poverty and marginalisation.
One of the things that drew him to photography was exploring. “Very simply, I like walking around a lot, especially at night. I have this urge to see around the next corner, to explore other realities. I’m especially interested in the margins, in urbanization, and the structures of lives different from mine.”
He organises his work online by loosely titled themes. Many of the titles – A Song of Unending Sorrow; And pass me by; Reflections of a Floating Life – are melancholic. Jonathan says “when I’m travelling or walking around or climbing to the tops of buildings, I don’t have a theme in mind. It’s just an act of exploration if you like. I think Moriyama, that’s the way he put it. It’s when I’m editing photos that I come up with a theme.“
When I asked him where his titles come from he says, “The answer is quite banal. I just needed a way to organize my photos, so these are just impromptu working titles. Maybe in a few years, I’ll have more photos I like and will be able to edit down each project, and then think of a permanent title.”
Some of his working titles, however, have a more focused aspect. Searching for Miss Wong comes from a kitsch portrait by Russian painter Tretchicoff of a French/Chinese girl. “When I first came to Hong Kong that was a metaphor for me exploring,” he says, “[I was] looking for the almost idealistic Hong Kong that might have been here in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but it’s been wiped out by new building and concrete.”
In the last 12 to 18 months his Heart of Darkness series has been focused on Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The project chronicles trafficking, or rather, those who are the traffic. It’s not an issue that fits with the neat black-and-white description of exploitation depicted in the West. Many people who are trafficked are economic migrants who choose to pay someone to open doors for them. They also know risks and consequences that come with that decision. It’s a grey area that Jonathan says, feels closer to reportage although he’s uncomfortable with the concept of objective documentary photography. He stresses that his work is fiercely subjective even if documentary in nature, “it still comes close to fiction . . . I still struggle with the idea of documentary photography”
Looking for Love in Kowloon is another blurring of fiction and documentary. Jonathan says, “It’s meant to be ironic, it’s trying to understand what love is and it’s quiet perplexing when you see all this sex on sale. What is love? It seems to have lots of different shades doesn’t it?”
Raw, emotional images like Jonathan’s often raise questions; one reason why people respond to his work. His images reflect a world that most of us never come in contact with, but through globalisation are more closely linked than we imagine.
One reason he sees these themes and titles as ‘work in progress’ is that he understands the inherent difficulty in taking good photos. “I think we all, if we become semi-serious photographers aspire to have a body of work.” He says, ”If a photographer ends up with twenty or forty or fifty classic or great photographs in his working life he’s done very well because they are very hard to get.”
Although he shares his work online, Jonathan isn’t driven by fame or artistic acclaim. “I don’t want to delve too much in my motivations, but I do it for myself. I don’t take photos primarily with a view to an audience or gallery; that’s the danger of selling photographs. The offer is very seductive at first, but then you have to sit back and think how is this going to affect me? It starts to shape your mind.” He’s wary of the influence on his work.
He goes on to say, “I have this instinctive loathing of art galleries. It’s probably a necessary evil but I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of putting my photos on the wall of a commercial gallery with the implication that they are up for sale. It makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. The inference, at least to me, is that the people are up for sale.”
It’s unsurprising then that Jonathan enjoys the democratic, if idiosyncratic and anarchic, world of Flickr. “I like it because it’s un-cool. People who are ‘proper photographers’ think that they aren’t supposed to do that, they’re supposed to do galleries and their own websites.”
Just before completing this article Jonathan sent me a link to Loring Knoblauch’s piece In Defense of Ferocity [sic]. It’s an accusational piece that critiques the homogenised, formulaic, market lead approach of art collectors to art. It says photography is in a rut and that risk taking and “Angry, harsh, even ugly pictures” – pictures that leave people with uncomfortable questions – are not rewarded; that instead, “dumbing down and safety are being rewarded.” Summing up, Knoblauch says, “Only mavericks, fools, and rule breakers would buck such a systemic trend.” Jonathan van Smit does just that and like a dog with a bone he seems intent on exploring the darker places of Hong Kong and South East Asia for sometime to come.
Jonathan’s work online –