Adventure photography is a broad church and it’s essence extends beyond simply capturing nice scenic images of landscapes and action pursuits. At the heart of this is to convey drama, danger, risk, and to document this in all it’s vagaries. Being too emotionally invested in one’s subject matter and indeed subjects (eg. my BASE jumping associates) can impair one’s capacity to remain detached and dispassionate when watching the action unfold, hoping everything goes to plan. When things have gone wrong, as did on a recent shoot, although I thought I had continued clicking away, in fact on review of my footage I had actually stopped taking pictures when it became obvious things were definitely going south. I was admonished (more cajoled in the spirit of cameraderie) later for not having continued rolling as it were!
My recent travels were short on life threatening drama to photograph (despite ever present warnings about crocodiles and other marine hazards out in tropical Queensland I was there on holiday!) ! However, my return trip took me through Hong Kong and at a particularly fraught time of civil unrest given the recent protests that have been disrupting life on the streets and making international headlines.
I touched down on Monday and into a day of turmoil as violence escalated to it’s worst level yet, with shocking footage played endlessly on news channels and enough to put me off my dinner whilst ensconced in a ‘locals’ food establishment. A point blank shooting by a police officer of a protester dressed in the menacing black garb of the ‘official’ uniform of the protest movement. An argument with a pro-Beijing supporter suddenly erupting into literal flames as an unseen provocateur suddenly douses the individual in petrol from a squirty bottle and flicks a match into the proceedings...(and having reviewed other available footage online from the likes of BBC, CNN etc. with warnings of ‘graphic violence’ I hasten to add that these outlets have heavily redacted said footage compared to what is actually seen on the news in situ).
Based as I was in the central district where the situation was at something of a flashpoint (protestors’ strategy being to create disruption to the infrastructure at the territory’s heart by strewing rubble at key road and rail junctions), it was difficult not to find myself proximal to the ‘action’. Given my photographic (and photojournalistic) proclivities, coupled with a desire to be better informed of: a) where the danger was and therefore where to be in order to not become unwittingly involved in it, b) what is the situation all about, I exercised a cautious approach, camera at the ready to navigate my way through the city, and ultimately back to my hotel (I was flying out later that day so needed to be aware of how the situation would encroach on my travel plans).
As it happens, I was surprised to find that the Central Business District was party to a so-called ‘flash-mob’ protest that had ‘sprung up’ around lunchtime on Tuesday (protestors had vowed after the sickening violence – particularly with respect to the perceived heavy handed police action and subsequent shooting of an individual – to make a vocal stand through Tuesday and beyond). They were railing against Chinese authorities given a contention that they are gradually eroding the previous democratic freedoms that the Hong Kong territories have embraced due to special status arising from previous British colonial governance - the so-called ‘One country two systems’ dictum. Tuesday morning violence had again ignited on University campuses and also around the metro system (actually by the station next to my hotel though I didn’t witness the incident where a bystander was injured by objects hurled from the overpass above).
Now a huge crowd had gathered and the standard protocol was in place as chants swept through the masses and rose to crescendo, whilst rubble was hurled across busy intersections and organised chaos instigated.
What struck me initially as nervous anticipation built was how the throngs of people clamoured to see what was going on, and formed several layers deep audience on the gantries of the overhead walkways above the street. Crowd psychology is an impressive and unnerving thing to witness, particularly when one takes into account how a situation such as this can rapidly turn ugly as has been clearly shown to be a pattern in previous days and weeks.
I am not a fan of being in crowds, where one’s autonomy is at the whims of a collective energy that can sweep one aside or worse in a moment of unpredictable momentum...My own philosophy is to become very much switched on, skittish even like a wild animal scanning for danger, keeping moving, looking at all times for exits and places to seek cover. But at the same time to embrace the risk and try to steady nervous energy and see adrenaline as an enabler of performance!
Initially I did not know what was going on, and was reluctant to mingle in with the audience and become a sitting duck. One gantry was more open to the elements and I noted that there was a stash of bricks atop this and by a small group of black garbed and masked individuals. What was their intention? Perhaps to disregard any sense of public safety and create maximum destruction by pelting those below? In fact at one point as those at the vanguard on the street below hurled mortar onto the junction, one did in fact launch his skywards and up onto this balcony. I had moved on from it earlier but it was jam packed with rubber neckers. There didn’t seem to be a subsequent commotion so I can only assume that no harm was caused and the brick either landed miraculously in between people, or someone caught it and averted serious injury...
I can’t be sure who threw the missile up into the crowd but I did witness (and photograph) a somewhat manic individual who was striding out from the rest of the pack with a brick in hand and looking intent on casting it to some malicious purpose. He was pursued (and manhandled) by another more sincere looking individual who was striving to calm him and prevent him creating the flashpoint that would indeed bring the heavily tooled-up police into the fray. The guy did a good job to diffuse this incendiary situation. Interestingly I noted that the would-be agent-provocateur was of ethnic bearing distinct ethnic from the majority of the protesting crowd, and also by his manner seemed to be high as a kite and not on subjective appearance acting in the spirit of a meaningful, peaceful protest. The take home from this is that a precarious situation like this will attract elements who wish to revel in disruption, anarchy and the anonymity afforded by such a crowd to create mayhem and destruction for it’s own sake...possibly derailing the efforts of the sincere core membership.
A little later I found myself down amongst the gathering and began to appreciate more about the situation and the nature of the protest. Office workers, old, young, different mixes of demographic groups united in solidarity and the chants against the repressive edicts of the Chinese governing authorities. A lone and impassioned young man danced and cavorted before the world’s press (who were also togged up heavily in protective equipment, including gas masks anticipating reprisals from the riot police). He whipped the crowd into a fervour.
Groups formed under multicoloured umbrellas and gathered on the pavements, chiselling away at the brickwork to create more of an aresenal with which to blockade the traffic junctions. Items were strewn across the roads and petrol doused on boundary lines for later utility. I spied a molotov cocktail in a wine bottle again for later purpose...
Part of being an adventure photographer encompasses acknowledging risks or stepping out the comfort zone to get the best coverage that conveys the fundamental essence of the narrative. An adventure by its nature involves undertaking challenge, embracing novelty, uncertainty, and employing one’s skills to their best potential in order to be successful and to grow as a result. It was a difficult undertaking to get into decent positions and to sift through the complex scene components to attempt to capture meaningful stand out moments. A balance to strive for in photography is to become part of the scene: immersing sufficiently within it to understand the narrative and to give back a faithful rendition of what is occurring. Yet at the same time being somewhat dissociated and dispassionate in order to remain aware of the surroundings, adapt to the circumstance and also create that narrative to an extent, painting the scene with the brush that is the camera...
Only then can one hope to do justice to the unfolding story.
Sometimes adventures lead one in unexpected directions. But then that is kind of the point!