Man Cheung’s Hong Kong

Words by
Jo Hoban
| December 2, 2015

Life has an uncanny way of changing its course. We fall into familiar patterns of behaviour, or take a particular focus for a time. But sooner or later, the seeds of an idea sprout, beckoning us out of modus operandi and inspiring us to try something different.

For photographer Man Cheung, it was time spent photographing the urban landscape in Hong Kong that cemented his interest in developing a more sustainable lifestyle – his experience of the city inspired him to refocus his lens on botanical subjects.

Man is a commercial photographer with degrees in both fine art photography and commercial photography.  He spent his early years in Hong Kong, before his family immigrated to Brisbane, Australia, when he was seven. Now in his thirties, Man has a solid commercial photographic background, particularly specialising in portraiture, in both Australia and the UK. In the UK, Man was involved in numerous community-oriented projects, including working as a facilitator for the 2012 London Olympic Photographic mentorship for young adults. Man also spent time as the official photographer for London’s annual Inter Faith walks, which unite people of diverse religious beliefs for a 12 hour pilgrimage to different places of worship.

It was during my six years in London that I started to really think about how photography can be used as a tool for meaningful communication and to connect people.

“I started to engage more in photo projects that were community-oriented. I also developed a strong interest in the impacts of modern civilization on our natural environment, human behaviour, and alternate ways of living (other than what we’ve generally been conditioned to believe is important).”

In 2013 Man left London and travelled to Hong Kong, foremost to visit family. He was immediately struck by the repetitive nature of the high rise metropolis, and set about photographing the mega residential blocks shooting out of the ground, presenting the eye with layer after layer of windows, balconies, air-conditioning units; the strength of this imagery was entrancing. While Man’s photos were largely focused on the patterns within the built environment, his eye sought solace in the way plant life managed to creep in. This led him to start consistently featuring plants in his compositions. The small oasis that a bit of plant life could provide to so many urban residents grew into an obsession, significantly shifting Man’s focus as a professional photographer. The Planthunter caught up with Man to find out about his recent work.

Windows, balconies and air-conditioning units as far as the eye can see.
Windows, balconies and air-conditioning units as far as the eye can see.
An oasis of sorts, in the form of a tennis court, in between high-rise buildings.
An oasis of sorts, in the form of a tennis court, in between high-rise buildings.
Trees serve as camouflage while development goes on.
Trees serve as camouflage while development goes on.

The small oasis that a bit of plant life could provide to so many urban residents grew into an obsession, significantly shifting Man’s focus as a professional photographer. I caught up with Man to find out about his recent work.

You’ve freelanced as a photographer in London, Australia and Hong Kong. How important is travel to you in relation to your photography work?
Travelling is a privilege that has provided me with so many experiences that have shaped my perspectives and opinions, which have helped me navigate through life so far. This ultimately translates into the choices I make in deciding what subjects I would like to focus on. It has made me way more understanding and accepting of others, because you realise that everyone has a different perspective, and yet fundamentally we’re not that different.

How would you describe Hong Kong?
I found Hong Kong to be a very extreme form of modern living – it’s very condensed, fast-paced, busy 24/7, financially driven, and feels almost completely disconnected from nature. Walls of buildings surround you in every direction, with no horizon in sight. It’s normal to live in a 30 to 40 story building – my cousin lives on the 60th floor! On cloudy days, their apartment sits above the clouds!

Much of your past photography focuses on people, both on their own and set within their unique, cultural context. Your Hong Kong series ventures away from people and looks at the larger-scale environment. How did being in Hong Kong inspire your photographic work?
Before I arrived in Hong Kong, I’d been thinking a lot about how a set of human ‘invented’ values has been placed on the natural environment that has nothing to do with how it operates. Being in Hong Kong confirmed for me that we’ve normalised an unhealthy and destructive way of living. I felt a strong urge to capture the intense urbanism of the city, but to intentionally include plant life in my compositions – the creeping in of plants is a metaphor reminding us of how far we’re edging away from our basic requirements: healthy plants, clean air, clean water, local food, balanced environment, and connection with our community. My current focus on photographing plants reflects my desire to gain a deeper understanding of the plant kingdom and its relationship to us. I want to encourage greater respect for the plants and environment that directly support our survival.

'I want to encourage greater respect for the plants and environment that directly support our survival,' says Man Cheung of his photographic work.
'I want to encourage greater respect for the plants and environment that directly support our survival,' says Man Cheung of his photographic work.
No plants here - only blue skies and skyscrapers!
No plants here - only blue skies and skyscrapers!
One of Man’s favourite Hong Kong photos – for him, it encapsulates his experience of the city.
One of Man’s favourite Hong Kong photos – for him, it encapsulates his experience of the city.

Do you have a favourite photo in your Hong Kong series?
There’s one photo where two massive grey high-rise apartment buildings flank a tiny playground. There is a gap in the middle and all you can see through the gap is more buildings – they seem endless. This image encapsulates my recent experience of Hong Kong.

You are now pursuing a number of plant-focused projects, both self-directed and otherwise, and have been collaborating with a couple of Botanic Gardens in the Asia-Pacific region. Could you tell us more about some of this work?
During 2015 I travelled around South East Asia for a few months pursuing a personal project documenting various plants with a lighting method which I’ve developed and refined over the last few years. This culminated in a small self-published volume called Flower Thief. During that time I proposed project ideas to various botanical gardens in the region. This resulted in a project with Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. They granted me full access to their world renowned modern conservatories – the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. They are two massive climate-controlled, glass dome structures (each the size of a football stadium) that house various exotic and endangered plant species from all over the world. Gardens by the Bay provided me with a space under the Flower Dome, which I converted into a studio. Every day for two weeks I photographed as many plants as I could, shooting 12 hours a day. It was amazing to have access to such a vast array of plants! Since then I’ve been collaborating with publisher, Marshall Cavendish, and the result is a 136 page, hardcover book entitled Domes which will be out in Asia just before Christmas and then released worldwide in 2016.

How has your photographic focus on plants affected you? And how do you hope your work might affect others?
I look at the world differently now. I’ve become obsessive about noticing plants anywhere that I go – and I’ll take the time to examine their finer detail, and of course, photograph them! Plants are magnificent in their structure, colour, function and beauty. I hope my botanical images will inspire people to read more about plants and why it’s so important for us to look after our natural environment.

View more of Man’s photography at his website and keep up to date via his Instagram @hellopictureoftheday. ‘Domes’ will be available in 2016. ‘Flower Thief’ is available now at Loose Leaf in Melbourne, Violent Green in Brisbane, and directly from Man Cheung.   

All images courtesy of Man Cheung.

An impressive - and adventurous - root system.
An impressive - and adventurous - root system.
Garden-to-apartment ratios seem out of balance, and perilously so, in Man's images of Hong Kong.
Garden-to-apartment ratios seem out of balance, and perilously so, in Man's images of Hong Kong.
Man in the Cloud Forest at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.
Man in the Cloud Forest at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.

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