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Ka-Man Tse’s narrow distances
Photography Ka-Man Tse

Beautiful photographs of queer Asian communities in Hong Kong and NYC

Photographer Ka-Man Tse discusses the importance of documenting the queer diaspora

Ka-Man Tse’s project narrow distances began with an intimate scene that the artist witnessed over a decade ago, yet missed the opportunity to photograph. One humid night in Hong Kong, Tse was in the midst of taking a half-hour exposure with her view camera, when two teenage girls emerged into the public square flirting and laughing, “in that way that only adolescents do when they are discovering their bodies and desire; like when two people’s knees touch for the very first time. It was electric!” she recalls. “They were full of hope, defiantly oblivious to their surrounding world. I was in my mid-20s, and it was the first time I had seen a queer lesbian couple in public in Hong Kong.” Tse hesitated, an inexperienced photographer at the time, unsure of how best to immortalise this sight, and so the couple disappeared into the night before she had a chance to photograph them. “Their image, so brazenly full of promise against the stifling backdrop of Hong Kong, replays in my mind like a loop.” It’s this picture that she has been chasing ever since.

The relationship between LGBTQ and Asian Pacific Islander identities is a complex one. Public sexuality in Asia sits within a liminal space:  while it’s not completely frowned upon to be queer, it still isn't fully accepted either. As a result, many members of the LGBTQ community find themselves existing in an in-between of belonging and longing. Tse’s portraits, taken over the course of 14 years between New York City and Hong Kong, bring visibility to subjects who are often marginalised. In doing so, their occupation and queering of public spaces becomes a political statement – a refusal to be made invisible.

Tse’s talent lies in her ability to tap into her subjects’ vulnerability. In narrow distances, she elegantly photographs slow, peaceful moments of reflection in the middle of bustling cityscapes. As a queer person herself who has lived in both Hong Kong and New York City, she possesses an innate understanding of her subjects. Despite existing in far corners of the world, a pulsating thread of commonality exists between the people in Tse’s photographs.

Tse was the recipient of Aperture’s 2018 Portfolio Prize, and subsequently is showing at its NYC gallery until 2 February. Dazed spoke to the artist and Parsons lecturer about visibility and belonging, what it means to be seen, and the importance of physical artworks in the face of censorship and the disposable world of online content.

“I photograph people I want to see – to reflect the world I want to see. I’m speaking about the exclusions from art, history, and representation” – Ka-Man Tse

When did you first start documenting the intersection between the Asian Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities? And what was it about those initial photographs that made you want to continue taking them?

Ka-Man Tse: I started photographing within the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community in 2002, and more specifically the convergence between the API and LGBTQ communities around 2008. The deep well of queer longing is not necessarily for a person, but a different, a better world. I was longing for this connective tissue. I was looking for community. Over time, what I may have wanted as merely an image has changed. Strangers have become friends, and friends become collaborators, close friends and family; people who have pushed me and have helped me grow as an artist and a person. The camera has allowed me to connect with people and these seemingly disparate worlds and to understand that it’s larger than me.

When did you feel like the series could become a project?

Ka-Man Tse: The book, narrow distances, spans photographs made between 2004-2018, and includes portraits, landscapes and still life photographs made between New York and Hong Kong. The sequence in both the book and in the Aperture exhibition jumps in time and place, and is really about the idea of diaspora, place and placelessness, and belonging.

The concept of waiting and time is key to the project, which has been ongoing. After more than 10 years of building this work, I was feeling like it was at a critical mass. There was enough momentum to be a book. I started to edit for a book around 2017 and it was published in July 2018.

Originally, the work was made not with the intent of being in a book or necessarily even being exhibited. It was about building the world I wanted to see, and making and sharing this together with my community. In a time where so much is online, we are craving the tactile, a physical print that counteracts the levelling that happens on a screen. The photo book is also a foil against a world of online content and platforms such as Facebook or Tumblr, that are largely owned and controlled by corporations or governments.

Even in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region (“one country two systems”), the majority of bookstores are now owned by the Chinese government. There are only a handful of independent bookstores remaining in Hong Kong. The printed book is not bound to time and location. It offers me the opportunity to protect the content and the narrative in a way that a digital platform can’t, and to share without the confines of space and time in ways that an exhibition can’t. Each person can come to it at their pace; the act of reading is done without surveillance of the internet. Amongst the edition of 400, 150 copies of the book are in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and China – in independent bookstores, libraries, and in the homes.

Your subjects are very diverse. How do you find and cast the people you shoot?

Ka-Man Tse: Maybe the question points to rethinking subjecthood and who gets to be visible. What does it mean to look, what does it mean to be seen? I would like to frame this question in terms of recasting the world. I photograph people I want to see – to reflect the world I want to see. I’m speaking about the exclusions from art, history, and representation. I realised I can’t wait for others to make these images, and also we should demand more from our cultural products; images and narratives that are often whitewashed, white-centric, or heteronormative. The work is more than just a corrective, but the act of finding a community and making images that reflect our world is important to me.

In some instances, I’ve photographed and worked with non-traditional actors and performers. That said, the majority of the portraits in the book are close friends, friends of friends, my family – my inherited family and QPOC chosen family. Even when I first started, it was finding people through informal networks and communities. Slowly, through all of the years, strangers have become friends and friends have become close collaborators.

“I try to avoid words like ‘shoot’. We fall into this a lot. ‘Capture’ and ‘shoot’ are used in both hunting and photography and its inherently violent enterprise – is a history we need to grapple with” – Ka-Man Tse

When you are shooting these people, do you create a bond between subject and photographer, or is it a more fleeting experience?

Ka-Man Tse: There is so much building of relationships before the click of the shutter. We have a dialogue about what kind of photograph we want to make.

In general, I try to avoid words like ‘shoot’. We fall into this a lot. ‘Capture’ and ‘shoot’ are used in both hunting and photography and its inherently violent enterprise – is a history we need to grapple with. I – we – make photographs, not take them. I collaborate with people, not shoot them. The word also has not only a violent connotation but also one of velocity and speed. So rather than ‘shoot’, I prefer ‘build’ with, and ‘make’ with.

I ask each person to consider a place or a memory in Hong Kong that means something to them, that has significance or meaning to them, and/or a place where they feel safe, comfortable, can be themselves. If they are comfortable photographing in their home, we do that as well. 

When we finally make a photograph, we spend anywhere from three hours to even six hours for a session. Working with 4x5 allows us to slow down, which feels counterintuitive in such a city – slowness is the best foil; an act of resistance to say we are here in this space. It’s a more intimate and physical way of seeing. In a culture and economic system where speed and efficiency are valued above all else (in both New York City and Hong Kong, and within systems of capitalism and neoliberalism), I use a 4x5 camera so that we can be deliberate and slow, so that we can be inefficient. How radical it is to be slow.

Can you speak more about your interest in the deliberately slow process of film photography?

Ka-Man Tse: In a landscape or still life, working with 4x5 a view camera and film feels meditative; the process of framing and focusing, and understanding physical space, and visual relationships, as well as time and anticipation. The resulting photographs, because of its clarity and detail, can describe scale, volume, and form in a much more physical way, as an experience. In a portrait, when working in 4x5, I can make eye contact. Because there isn’t a camera or digital gadget in front of my face; I can see with two eyes as opposed to one. Working with 4x5 involves a collaboration with my sitter in a portrait session. There is no rushing, no ‘shoot-and-run’, no working surreptitiously without the consent of another person; rather the process is inherently so much more collaborative. Sometimes, with 4x5, because we slow down, I feel as if we have to breathe together.

Your subjects are cast against a variety of backdrops in cities, often located outdoors. Why did you choose the cityscapes, and how does your work in New York influence the photos you take in Hong Kong and vice versa?

Ka-Man Tse: The specifics of space and place are significant because that’s what we’re up against. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities. Your relationship to yourself, others, and to the environment is mediated by the fact that there is very little space and very little private space. Space is largely owned by the government and corporations, and it’s heavily surveilled. The built environment is hostile to idling, and it allows for only efficiency and consumption. The space is inflexible. Households are intergenerational; many folks live with their biological families. It is one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the world, and income inequality is extreme and is at the highest level in four decades. This economic, social, and spatial pressure weighs down on the individual, the heaviness, and demand for efficiency and homogeneity. If we look at New York, it is not that far behind Hong Kong in its continual cycles of gentrification, displacement, building and re-building, and rising costs of rent and living.

For me, environmental portraits make sense, because people, especially LGBTQ folk, do not exist in a vacuum. Each person has their own map of Hong Kong. When someone tells me about a space, and their reason behind choosing it for our session, we sometimes go there together first and walk through the site and their memory. Or I’ll location scout after the interview, we talk it over, and photograph there later. It would have been a vastly different project if we had made the photographs inside a studio. A sense of place, and being in it, was important.

There’s a real sense of closeness between you and your subjects that comes through the photos. How do you tap into this vulnerability?

Ka-Man Tse: In a relationship, where we have a mutual trust and connection – one built through time and dialogue – that sense will come through in the images. I believe in radical vulnerability. So much of the book narrow distances is about care, and gestures of care – for each other, for a city, between couples, and intergenerationally.

Our understanding of intimacy is becoming increasingly blurred today in a time when we are communicating face-to-face less than ever. Close connections can be hard to find, particularly in “megapolitan” like New York or Hong Kong. Why is preserving intimacy important to you?

Ka-Man Tse: When people think about intimacy in photographs, the images that may first come to mind are undressed bodies and sex. Sometimes false equivalences are made; a conflation of skin with intimacy, the act of disclosure with intimacy, a quick reveal. There is also an intimacy of vision, as in the way a photographer sees and interacts with their subject. Here, I think of Roy DeCarava, Eugene Atget, Rinko Kawauchi.

Intimacy of vision is direct, imbued with a combination of deep reverence and awe; a knowing balanced with a simultaneous un-learning of preconceptions; a seeing with a lot of newness and a lot of heart. When I think about what intimacy looks like in a photograph, it doesn’t have to be the literal imaging of that subject matter. Intimacy can come about even if it’s a photograph of a ray of light, a trunk of a tree, a vessel on a kitchen counter, and not only in tight domestic spaces, but even in the wide open sun, in plain public. A matter of being present and alive.

In the photographs that are made in public spaces, intimacy can be that very act and proposition; an occupying of that space; an image and gesture of possibility that happens in spite of and against the backdrop of the encroaching world. Whether it is in public or in the home, I have to honour my subject, their trust, their generosity. In the interiors, intimacy can be shown in the gestures of how we care for each other, but it can also be shown in the comfort of a seemingly non-eventful and mundane moment, the quotidian, as well as in the details of how they have made their home.

“How do we break free and how do we unlearn? What does freedom mean in spaces that don’t want us or want to see us; in spaces where we are not necessarily welcome or where bodies we are policed?” – Ka-Man Tse

So much of this work revolves around the tension between the private and public self. What does freedom mean to you?

Ka-Man Tse: I wonder if we will ever be free! We exist in systems that want to control us – the way we are socialised and conditioned. How do we break free and how do we unlearn? What does freedom mean in spaces that don’t want us or want to see us; in spaces where we are not necessarily welcome or where bodies we are policed?

I actually don’t know and may need to quote what Nina Simone said, “freedom is the absence of fear”.

Ka-Man Tse is showing at New York’s Aperture Gallery until 2 February 2019, narrow distances, the book, was published by Candor Arts in July 2018, and is available here