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Photographing People in Hong Kong

To ask or not to ask

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Newspaper Vendor, Wan Chai

Check out my Hong Kong galleries for more people & portraits.

我影你呀?

I’ve received a couple of emails recently asking my thoughts on photographing people in Hong Kong. Are people generally quite open about having their photograph taken when I’m out and about on the streets? Do I ask permission from the people I photograph beforehand or am I trying my hardest not to be seen when I’m there? Given that it’s a subject I suspect a fair few of you may be interested in sharing your views on, I’ll try and put down my own thoughts here and hopefully open up the discussion.

So how open are people to having their photograph taken in Hong Kong? Having lived in the city close to five years, I’m still not sure of the answer. At times, it will be as if everywhere there are smiling faces eager to be photographed. At others, you may think yourself lucky to have escaped with just a hand waved in your face. Yet having also spent a good deal of time in China during the past five years, I do admit to noticing a difference when I return to Hong Kong in the way I go about taking photos.

For one thing, I definitely feel less sure about asking people in Hong Kong. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in all the time I’ve lived here, I’ve never actually figured out how to say “Can I take your photo” in Cantonese. For those of you who are interested, Ngo5 jeng2 nei5 aa1? (我影你呀?) should suffice. But it’s another thing putting it into practice.

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China vs HK

In China, I have no such qualms, and knowing there at least exists the possibility of some meaningful interaction gives that extra bit of confidence that the taking of the photograph is more than just a smash-and-grab. So in China, I’m perhaps more confident in the asking anyway. Obviously in Hong Kong there may be the possibility of using English, or at least using the internationally recognised point-and-pretend-shutter-press gesture. But there still seems something distinctly one-way about such an approach. And as such, I feel it is less likely to meet with success.

Yet even taking this into account, I still feel there is less inclination in Hong Kong for locals to say yes to photos requests. Maybe it’s the pace of the city. Maybe it’s my own personal experience. But think about it, how often do you think the people on Temple Street or Upper Lascar Row or Bowrington Road see people wandering around with cameras in their hands or pointing cameras in their direction? Enough to not be too flattered when asked if they can spare a few seconds to strike a pose, I’d guess. They are, after all, at work.

In Hong Kong, it seems everyone is a photographer. Another gweilo with a camera is much less of a novelty on the streets of Sheung Wan than in the middle of a rice terrace in Yunnan. That’s not to say Hong Kong is some kind of “no photo” wasteland. There are plenty of people to try your charm on and plenty of photos to be had. You’ve just got to choose your moment. How open are people to having their photograph taken in Hong Kong? I’d say fairly. But be prepared for some rejection.

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Having a smoke outside Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre

Asking first

As to whether I usually ask permission myself and the photos on this blog. If they’re looking at the camera, then yes, I’ve probably asked permission first. So by that rule, and regarding what I’ve said already, most of my Hong Kong portraits would tend to be more candid than posed.

Not that I go out of my way not to be noticed when I’m taking photos. Trying to “sneak” photos and pretending that thing in your hand isn’t a camera is usually a sure-fire way to take home some pretty terrible pictures. Instead, by simply allowing people to get on with what they’re doing and waiting for the right moment, you can fairly unobtrusively get what you want. Usually, by the time I get the shot, everybody’s already completely lost interest in what I’m doing anyway and I can just get on with it. If you can then find a moment to ask for something more posed, then so much the better.

Generally, as long as people aren’t too busy, you should get plenty of success in Hong Kong. If you’re respectful of people’s right not to have their picture taken, regardless of whether you’re legally entitled to or not, you should be fine. As ever, for willing posers, the teenaged guys in rubber boots holding fishing nets are pretty much a certainty. Middle-aged aunties should be handled with care. Get close. Take your time but don’t outstay your welcome. And remember, a smile goes a long way.

Get Involved: How do you find taking photos of people in Hong Kong? Easy peasy or a lesson in frustration? Also, feel free to share links to, or samples of your own successes in the comments below.

Related Posts: Check out my post No Photo! for more on the whys and why nots of taking photos on the streets of Hong Kong. For more Hong Kong portraits, visit category: people & portraits.

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Weighing up in Sai Kung

2 comments

  1. you can start a “Humans of Hong Kong” project 🙂

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