by Jonathan Thomson /
Hong Kong in Transition 1995 – 2020: An open access photographic archive for anyone interested in Hong Kong and its history
The word “monument” comes directly from the Latin monumentum, literally “something that reminds”, and is derived from monere: to remind. This etymology suggests a monument allows us to see the past in order to better visualise what might come in the future. The alternative, proposed by philosopher George Santayana, is that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
However, not all monuments are sculptural, and Hong Kong now has another, in the virtual archive of more than 40,000 photographs by Hong Kong photographer David Clarke that has been established as an adjunct to the Hong Kong Art Archive of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Hong Kong. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Clarke has been documenting and analysing Hong Kong’s transition beyond colonial rule in words and pictures, both as a professor of art history at the University of Hong Kong and as a photographer.
His archive Hong Kong in Transition 1995-2020 is intended as an open access resource for anyone interested in Hong Kong and its history. As a personal archive by just one photographer it naturally discloses his personal interests and aesthetic, including his enduring interest in nocturnes, shadows, roads, hillsides, flowers, trees, outlying islands, the built environment, scaffolding, Hong Kong under construction, the Lamma Channel and butterflies, together with his personal and professional engagement with artists, academics and the Hong Kong art establishment. But the archive is also a resource for its users to conduct their own historical investigations and construct their own stories about Hong Kong.
For Clarke, photography is the perfect tool because of its indelible link to particular times and places, forever belonging to the moment and location where the shutter was open to the light; its repleteness, with information contained in every part of the image, inadvertently gathering data its maker was not aware of at the time the shutter was open; its concern with concrete reality; and its perfect memory.
The handover of Hong Kong on 1 July 1997 is just one specific moment in the city’s transition that continues to unfold in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Clarke’s archive documents this process; its strength as a historical record is not contained in just a few iconic images which may be subject to reinterpretation over time but in its thousands of tiny details. Understanding comes not just from an individual image but across the sequence as a whole.
Clarke’s archive can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle as it appears when it is first tipped out of its box, or perhaps to a collection of multicoloured mosaic tiles or pixels – except that each piece is precisely labelled with title and date – that can be assembled by each individual user into a complete picture. What that picture is will depend on the question that each user asks, but within each will be evidence of Hong Kong’s community cultural development and the tone of its political consciousness at a particular place and time.
Clarke’s approach to photography is personal and frankly subjective, and clearly distinguishable from that of photojournalists, who usually focus on the legible representation within a single image of distinct topics of current relevance. He does not seek to glamorise his subject or to claim an objective perspective on it. His practice is based on finding images in the course of of his daily life, happening upon them in the moment, rather than hunting them down or framing them in a self-conscious way.
Clarke’s archive makes no claims for completeness or inclusiveness. His photographs are based on where he happened to be on any particular day and are made within the constraints of having a life and a busy full-time job. But for all of that, he is still an eyewitness to history – and for now, that history is well preserved.