Hillary Johnson, a Chicago-based fine art photographer and photojournalist, embedded herself in Hong Kong last year as relations between China and the youth of the city started to deteriorate. She spent time with frontline protestors, their families, and interviewed citizens on all sides to gain a better understanding of the conflict and its impact.
Johnson sat down with FRONTRUNNER to discuss her work, as China’s involvement in the city, this week, became violent once again.
Tell me about your initial inspiration for traveling to Hong Kong and photographing the protests?
My husband is a martial artist so he’s really the one who connected me to Hong Kong. He teaches Ving Tsun. He’s been traveling to Hong Kong, every year, for over 20 years to see his teacher, Ip Ching. Over time, he’s established connections with the whole extended family and friends there. This martial arts family is very traditional, very close, they really are our family. I went to Hong Kong for the first time a few years ago. Since that first visit I went back more frequently, so I got to know all the same people, and the extended community. When the protests started, I was really worried because I’d fallen in love with the city, with the people, with the spirit of Hong Kong, and Ving Tsun. I became kind of obsessed. It really just came from my personal connection of feeling, “Wow, I know all these different people because of the Kung Fu, and they have every kind of job, they are in every kind of walk of life, and they are all being impacted. What will happen to them?”
Tell me about your photography practice. How long have you been taking photographs and what influenced your decision to shoot in large format?
I first started making photographs as a kid, but at the time I didn’t really think about photography being something that you could do with your life. In college, I studied philosophy and photography. I was able to study under some incredible photographers at SUNY Purchase. People like Jed Devine, Jan Groover, and Janet Bordon. I am incredibly indebted to those people and other mentors who have come along since then, like creative angels.
In my practice today, I very much identify as an artist not as a photojournalist. I think it gives me the most freedom. I don’t have to worry so much about labelling myself as a documentary photographer or as this or that kind of photographer right now. I have the freedom to create my practice organically in a way that feels true to me, in a way that’s true to whatever the subject is. I’m very excited to be starting the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago this fall to develop my practice and take it to a whole new level. But my background definitely is rooted firmly in photojournalism. The very first photograph I ever sold was a picture of Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown, in Boston, Massachusetts. When the Associated Press bought those pictures I couldn’t believe it was really happening. That first $50 was incredibly important to me. It was a vote of confidence, a door to a whole life. I was ridiculously lucky because one of my mentors back in the 80s was Donna Ferrato. She’s just a monster of energy, vision and purpose and trying to make the world better. She taught me so much and still does today. I was also incredibly fortunate that Bill Allard took me under his wing for some time. What’s crazy is how that relationship started with a cold call from me just being a fangirl really. But Bill invited me to Washington and said, “bring your pictures,” and I asked him, “which ones,” he said, “Bring all of them!” So I did.
I started in photojournalism in the 80s, because I didn’t believe what I was seeing in the media. I felt like there was this huge gap between my life and what I was seeing in newspapers and on the news and I found this really confusing but it gave me the impulse to be part of that world and try and see for myself what was going on. I had read Noam Chomsky and some other thinkers, and so I had real skepticism about how news gets created and propagates and so that’s how I started. Then the internet happened and magazines vanished and I didn’t really know how to adapt at the time, I did some advertising work but didn’t really care for it. Then I had a long hiatus of many years of being out of photography completely, so when I came back to it, I returned with that root feeling that the only way to know what’s going on is to go see for myself. So, that’s the approach I took with Hong Kong. And like I said it felt like a kind of obsession, that nothing was going to stop me from going there for myself.
I treated it like an art project or something that might be an ongoing series but not with any intention of landing in a major newspaper or magazine. It was nice to be there as a completely independent person not owing my work to anyone who could say anything about what I would capture in terms of stories or on film or audio pieces.
The decision to use a large format camera was easy actually. I feel like that choice was a natural outgrowth of my overall feeling that one of the biggest problems the world is facing today is too much speed across the board. It’s almost like we’ve lost the past, and what we are left with is only this crush of immediacy. Everything is happening right now and so there’s very little time for reflection, or locating context. I wanted to take this story slowly and have it be about speaking with individual people and holding space for them to share their story. My 8×10 camera allowed me to create that slowness because really it’s not possible to photograph quickly with an 8 by 10, even if I wanted to. Though I did have some moments of running in the streets with it photographing some protests.
My 8 by 10 camera is also a very beautiful object. It’s a Chamonix, made from extraordinarily beautiful materials. It naturally draws a attention which becomes a great starting point for conversation, for very personal interactions that are perhaps a bit old-fashioned in their structure. But those personal interactions give everyone a time to get to know each other and get a feel for who we’re dealing with and I think that works both ways.
So, you took many of these photos with an 8×10 camera?
I did take many of these photos with the 8 by 10 but sometimes it wasn’t possible, so I used a Leica Q. When I was making my choice about what camera to bring, I was looking at what was already being done and I felt like, you know, as far as straight photojournalism, there’s amazing people out there making pictures with deep experience. And yet, everyone sort of has the same kit, some kind of digital camera, and they’re working for a number of publications, and at this point I am really just trying to do something different, something that only I could do. So it seemed to me that the best way to approach this was to think about not only what gear I would use but my overall approach. What is very important to me is that I was not just another person coming in from the outside that thinks they know something, and imposing my viewpoint, and being, paternalistic, or whatever. I just wanted to be really humble. The photographer Sara Terry talks about the role of the photographer in a way I love. “I don’t give someone a voice,” she says, “I amplify the voice they already have.” That’s what I wanted to do; to amplify the voices of the Hong Kong people and try to get the nuance out. I just wanted to go and ask or invite people to talk and make photos, but not feel like I was trying to convince them to do something. I just showed up and said what was true for me in the moment, that I didn’t know where this was going to go. I had nothing. No publisher waiting at home, no deals. It wasn’t about making money or making a name for myself. I just said, “I have this big 8×10 camera, my Leica and here I am. If you want to talk to me, that’s great. If not, that’s okay too. And I just kept asking everyone I met. I recorded a lot of audio and we just talked and each time just saw where we went from there.
So, tell me what it was like being there and what you saw and witnessed?
That’s a very hard question for me to answer because there are so many emotions and months later, I’m still unpacking it all. Also now as China is beginning to crack down more, the existence of Hong Kong seems less certain than ever, so that colors how I feel about my experiences last fall. One of my friends posted a picture recently on Instagram of herself and her boyfriend together on a bench sitting and looking at the sea. The caption said something like, “Feeling so sad that we’re the last generation of Hong Kongers.” I just wanted to cry.
I saw the police behave in ways that were to me, very over the top. The young protesters had no weapons like the police. Everything they had was homemade. Yes they made petrol bombs but they were fighting a highly aggressive force, the police, which by the time I got there was already starting to be supplemented by special forces, PLA, men with riot gear and guns, hand guns but also big guns, AR15s. Special guns that shot tear gas several at a time. There were dark buses that pulled up on Nathan Rd. which is like Michigan Avenue on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the windows were all blacked out with curtains, and when the soldiers came out, they streamed into the street yelling. One soldier so armored he looked like a storm trooper yelled in Mandarin, “Fuck you all. We will kill you all.” My husband and I were in the street, I was making photos and they pointed the AR15s at our faces and yelled at us to move on.” The Chinese government used many forces like this. They would march up the streets in formation. You could not see their eyes. They wore so much gear, from toe to head, they hardly seemed human. One time I was shooting pictures in the middle of the road. It had gotten a little quiet and I remember wondering where the police soldiers were. I heard this sound behind me of rustling, many feet moving together and when I spun around, I was surrounded on both sides by these heavily armored soldiers, who did not look like regular police at all. Of course, it was also true that these police, these soldiers were suffering too. They were away from their families. They were made to work very long shifts. The struggle of people in what was essentially a civil war felt so painful to witness. The men got little sleep and ate crappy food. Everyone was suffering from PTSD. The protesters, their families, the police and the soldiers, the entire city of Hong Kong was traumatized.
During battles with the protesters, who were mostly young, college students or recent graduates who felt their future chances slipping away, the police came in great force against them. They used very bright lights aimed into the eyes, and water canons with pepper spray, they shot so much tear gas, volley after volley. They aimed it right at the young people, right at their faces. They shot a special kind of very loud disrupter that sounded like a bomb, it shook everything, the very air felt like it was going to shatter. One night in a lull between battles, the protesters were all over Nathan Rd. taking apart anything they could find to build barricades to stop the police. They were incredibly resourceful. The sound of everything being taken apart with this relentless energy was this intense tapping sound, metal on metal, brick against brick, was like nothing I had ever experienced before.
I feel I was very fortunate to go there and bear witness to history. I suppose the most honest thing to say is that I feel simultaneously honored and heartbroken. Especially because of all the young people who are putting their lives and their futures on the line, The families who are struggling to understand what’s going on. There’s such a sense of purpose but at the same time a sense that none of this is going to end up anywhere good. Though of course I hope it might turn out differently. I met all these people that were involved in the protests, and some of them were folks who were helping with on the ground logistics, sending gas masks, and all the things you need to fight against the police bringing in bigger and bigger weapons. So, they agreed to talk with me and in the beginning it was like, everyone was wearing masks and then finally they were like we totally believe in you and they would take off their masks and just meet me for coffee and said, ‘here’s my phone number’ and so now we are friends and I pray we will be able to enjoy each other’s company in better times.
I was so moved. Everyone said, ‘thank you’, and I felt so timid, I was like, ‘can I talk to you?’ I am an introvert by nature and I can be extroverted on purpose for a mission, but I was like, ‘oh, is this ok?’ People would tell me these incredible stories. A lot of young kids were really at war with their parents. The parents were disowning them and kicking them out and the kids were sleeping in McDonalds and stuff. The protesters organized older people to help create safe houses for some of these young people to make sure they got food and clothing and a place to sleep. They would drive them to protest and pick them up when they ran from the police.
This one family had a particularly strong faith and that has supported them so much so they are very lucky. I took a photo of them with their hands covering their faces because it would have been strange to bring masks outside without drawing unwanted attention. The son is a frontline protestor and his involvement almost completely broke the family apart. Finally after much discussion the young man’s mother came back to him one more time and said, “I really want to understand what’s going on. Please tell me, why are you protesting?” She worked for the government, for the police for many years. Finally she watched all the videos that show very clearly how the police were doing these outrageous things, locking people in the subway stations, preventing medical care from helping injured students, and she understood, “Oh my god, the government is lying.” And so they have been strengthened as a family but it’s unusual, a lot of people, the parents wouldn’t look, refused to listen. It’s like still trusting the government, saying, “China good, protestors bad.” It was pretty intense.
I can imagine that from a western point of view this must be difficult to watch. There is this younger generation in Hong Kong that grew up with a very different reality, very different mindset from their parents, and value system when it came to civic action.
It was! I went in really with a genuine ‘I don’t know what’s happening’. Let me come-and-see attitude. I had the conceit that I could get an answer. You know, if I do enough research, if I talk to enough people, I will come to a conclusion. But it wasn’t like that at all. The situation seems beyond any level of complexity I’ve ever encountered before. We were there for one big battle that went on outside the hotel that went on for 36 hours, these kids against the police, and the police only took the intersection twice, it was hard not to be totally impressed and moved. It was very hard for me not to feel nearly entirely sympathetic to the protestors.
There was this sense of them wanting things that are so basic, you know for us. And maybe that’s my western perspective, I asked them what they want and they said, “We want to go out and not have to wear masks again. We want to have coffee, we want to have a future”. You know, really simple things. And so it was impressive to see older people, grandmothers and grandfathers, out in the street helping the kids break bricks better and passing out water and helping them. They could understand the spirit of wanting to show how unjust what’s happening is. Of course there’s lots of people who feel otherwise too. Many of the older generation also were frustrated and angry at all the destruction and disruption of daily life the protests caused. But now many of the young people are reminding the elders of what they went through to get to the promise of Hong Kong and what the city was supposed to be, and saying now we have to fight to protect this place, this very special place.
The problem with China is, it’s all about the money: how many eyeballs and how many dollars are attached to those eyeballs, for a TV show or a product, anything that can be sold both within China and to the outside world as well. As long as we in the West are pursuing growth at any cost, then we, who consume those products are complicit, the companies our government supports doing business with in China are complicit, and we are fucked. As a planet, as an interlinked species, we are playing a zero-sum end game I’m afraid. What makes this extra painful at a base, emotional level to me is that Hong Kong society is incredibly polite. They are so concerned and mindful of the community, and take pains to watch out for each other. This is one of the reasons they fared better collectively than many other places when the coronavirus started. Everyone knew to wash their hands and wear masks whenever they go out of the house. Not just to protect themselves but more to protect everyone else who was vulnerable in the community.
I just came away feeling inspired by the protestors and wanting to see some start to the complex work of finding possible solutions – hoping that could happen. I don’t think it could happen. But I hope. I have been talking to people lately about how they can possibly negotiate their way out of this and have genuine dialogue. It’s not clear to me how.
What are a few takeaways for you after witnessing all of this? Where do we go from here and what might we learn?
For me, on the negative side, I have a sense that if you think any government cares about you, you need to think again. I think there are some pockets [in the world] where that may be possibly different, but I don’t know of where specifically. In Hong Kong, for the younger generations in particular, there is this terrible sense of abandonment. It’s very sad because you have the loss of all of this incredible potential. So much brains and talent and love of the culture of Hong Kong, and no way to fulfil it. How do people find meaning in their lives this way? Some people are planning on leaving Hong Kong and will do their best to make their lives elsewhere. It’s just awful.
I’m not sure where we go from here realistically in terms of Hong Kong and China but I think the larger sense what we might learn as human beings, is that what is essential is true deep listening and empathy. I believe that if the world’s people would come to understand that we really are interlinked and that our survival and thriving, our flourishing depends on opportunities for everyone. We have to let go of the sense its scarcity says there’s not enough for everybody. That is just simply not true. I would encourage people to look at Joanna Macy’s, “Work that Reconnects.” I believe this work could be deeply healing not only for Hong Kong and China but for people across the globe. There’s a spiral of awareness in this work that has incredible potential. If we can be truly considerate of each other, perhaps seven generations from now people will look back at this time as a great turning toward what is good rather than falling apart because of greed and self-centeredness. But right now, everyone is locked into fear mode over there and nothing good ever comes from that, only more suffering.
Tell me about looking at some of the work now. What is it like. What resonates with you and what are some of those moments, you are happiest with and you were able to capture?
One of the things that I feel good about is going in as an artist and not as a journalist. I am still figuring out the work as I am looking at it now. Especially because conditions are changing so fast over there. I am just trying to make sense of it, especially with some of the portraits, the loveliness and the fragility, and the resilience, the act of going and making the pictures is kind of dangerous for them, not for me. I guess I could have been arrested but I didn’t really think about that much. I think one of the moments that will stay with me for a long time was the night of going into Poly U right before it was surrounded by the police and soldiers. As the evening went on, there were some tense moments and young people running with bows and arrows to shoot petrol bombs to keep the police from entering and it was surreal. One moment interviewing some young women who volunteered to be there to help support friends, some of them therapists who were offering therapy as a gift, as their contribution. One moment they would kind of giggle and we could almost forget that we were in this very surreal and dangerous situation, and then as the police came closer my friend who’d brought me in asked me if I wanted to stay. I had this very certain feeling that things were about to get very bad and that we had to leave right away. We got lost trying to exit the university because exits that might normally have been there were barricaded against the police. I feel happy that I was able to get some of the stories of these young people recorded and to make pictures with them. But I know some of them didn’t get out and I wonder what happened to them. Some are still missing.
Going with people and making these portraits, in alleys and wherever we could, and hearing their stories, creating a dialogue, a conversation, that has begun that people from outside Hong Kong could see and hear, I hope they can feel moved and maybe to … to help them really start thinking. I think about how to show the work, and how to put it out there, especially some of the interviews, the sound too, to somehow show that this is all something that is worth fighting for. There are some photos, I am frustrated because I can’t show them, because it’s not safe for the people in the pictures right now.
And maybe as you said before, the fact that you are an artist and you are taking more of an artistic perspective, is important to all of this. Rather than if you are a photojournalist and shoot for a newswire that is going to be one segment of an article that’s going to be posted where you won’t have much control over what the narrative is.
Yes it is. I think it affords me more permission in how to work and try to express something beyond the literal. The whole time there I was thinking about trying to record images and sound for history.
I’m starting the MFA program at Columbia College in Chicago this fall. One of the beautiful people who wrote me a letter of recommendation for the program, Ann Wilkes Tucker, said, The thing about your Hong Kong works is you are interested in drastic and brutal change that is happening to delicate and beautiful places, peoples, things, all this traumatic upheaval, and you are documenting it in a way that is totally different. To have connection with people, to sit and take the time, and make real relationships, that is what I wanted to do, tried to do. I always think I could do more and better. I pray I can go back soon and do more work there as things keep changing. As an artist, I am responsible to different things. I don’t have to toe a line or editorial viewpoint. I can go with my whole heart and try to respond to what was happening and try to express something that others can encounter.
I feel like as an artist, as a human being, I could go and try to hold space and listen, bear witness and share what those words and images are. That’s what I tried to do in Hong Kong.