Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q&A with Photographer, Video Artist and Educator Ka-Man Tse

IMAGE HEADER: Ka-Man Tse

Stunning, beautiful and insightful photographic storytelling can be found in the work of Ka-Man Tse. With a body of work that makes queer identity visible through portraiture and contextual environments, her work integrates her own position as a Hong Kongese-American lesbian, centering a nuanced perspective that is also influenced by her birth in Hong Kong and coming of age in New York. Recognized for her vision, Tse was the winner of the 2018 Aperture Portfolio Prize for her series, narrow distances, which was published as her first monograph that same year.  We reached out to Tse to hear her thoughts on the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, what the pandemic has meant for her practice and more.

Ka-Man Tse, from the series narrow distances

DUGGAL ART SCENE: The relationship between your birthplace, Hong Kong, your second home Schenectady, New York, where you migrated as a child with your parents, and the place you chose to live as an adult, New York City, have all been in conversation in your work. Functioning as social landscapes that inform your exploration of Asian LGBTQIA identities, two of those places are central or highly active in recent and ongoing protests movements in the United States and Hong Kong. Do you see any connections between these two movements? Has the simultaneous nature of these two sites of protest influenced your thinking or work in any way?

Ka-Man Tse: This is such a great question and something I think about all the time.  Protests and movements inspire each other…What often feels impossible…imagined and demanded.  There were many simultaneous protests across the globe in 2019 and 2020; obviously the conditions and geopolitical issues are always unique and nuanced. Protestors were sharing notes and tips from Hong Kong on how to organize in a non-hierarchical manner, how to deal with tear gas, and how to move supplies. 

Hong Kongers are perennially creative – from repurposing barricades and umbrellas to police cones to put out tear gas canisters, to using tennis rackets to volley it back; the use of cooking gear – the lid of a steam pot. I write all of this not to digress, but to talk about the creative ways that resistance happens using the everyday.  I think about the everyday and the quotidian a lot in my work, and how they are modalities of resistance.  To think about scale and power -- a state and government that is heavily armed, and financed, with water cannons, tear gas (chemical warfare), to what individuals have—what does resistance look like – non-cooperation, strikes, boycotts, disruption of roads and tunnels; disruption of business as usual to demand for a better more just world. 

There are many connections - both movements speak to greater and deeper inequalities that COVID or a protest bring into sharp relief.  That a moment, an uprising, a reckoning has taken years, decades to seed and maintain and build: BLM (Black Lives Matter) has been active for eight years, since Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted; in Hong Kong, anti-government protests had been seeded with umbrella five years prior to the anti-extradition law protests.

When we gathered on June 12, 2019 in Admiralty, chanting “cheet wu” we actually had camped up as if it was umbrella. The escalation of tear gas – chemical warfare, and police violence elevated each week -- it happened much more quickly in 2019.  The two million strong march felt galvanizing. When things happen in the midst, there is this feeling of a ‘sudden reckoning’, but understanding the groundwork, as well as how to keep the momentum alive after the news trucks are gone – is so key.  And to add to that -- we shouldn’t need to perpetuate images of bloodshed and tear gas and the destruction of bodies to do so – consciousness raising can happen in other means and visual languages. It has been something that has frustrated me as a photographer; understanding that violent images sell papers and clicks; that the proliferation and practice of photography (cell phone or journalistic photography) can perpetuate certain narratives. As the weeks progressed, I put my camera down. I made pictures of and around the movement; the long-term project I had been working on was on pause; the protests had consumed me entirely in 2019 for months.  

Other connections: Both movements call for the abolishing of police, both ask us to rethink and undo power structures. That said, they are not 1:1 or interchangeable. One set of protests exist in a democracy (flawed, but a democracy and with rights), another under increasingly tyrannical rule. From the withdrawal of the extradition bill, we tumulted into further state sanctioned violence against its citizens, the violence against and suppression of journalists, to the chilling national security law, and the criminalization of free speech and dissent; and, at the time of this writing, another round of lawmakers being recently disqualified and expelled on the grounds of being “unpatriotic.” 

But both have learned lessons from each other – solidarity, coalition building. 

Divergences: The movement in the U.S. is intersectional; at the forefront of the organizing work and the conversation, is solidarity including all Black lives matter—not only including but centering queer and trans folk. The movement in Hong Kong has had to shift in shape so many times. Movements can fracture, so it is super complicated. During certain moments, some protestors turned to Trump and other figures such as Mitch McConnell; the strange turns of the movement have been discussed in the diasporic community; and highlights the problems of a lack of a nuanced understanding of politics on either side. One could say that COVID-19 helped squash the movement in HK in January; it helped fuel the protests in the U.S. because COVID-19 was bringing into sharp relief deep underlying fissures in terms of structural inequality, systemic racism, and state sanctioned violence against Black people.  

Whereas I had participated in the Hong Kong protests in the summer of 2019, in the U.S. in June 2020, we couldn’t go out onto the streets. We noticed the police using similar tactics from city to city – there is evidence that the HK police were trained by the U.S. State Department. I had spent a year, it seemed, crying while fixated on the movement. We had to make that decision as a family, during a pandemic, and with an infant, to not go out, and when the protests moved through our neighborhood, that we would stay at the end and fringes to show support. We worked to show up in other ways as best we could.

The simultaneous nature of these two sites of protest has influenced my thinking and work in that I’ve been rethinking what protest and unrest and uprising looks like, feels like, and means. (And, how they function, as the result of deeper injustices – ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’- Martin Luther King). I’ve been thinking about what unrest and dissent looks like throughout the world – what it means to protest, and what resistance can mean on a daily, lived everyday practice. I’m hoping that the visual vocabulary continues to build and expand. Whereas direct action or frontline work is needed, having a full range of visual strategy from abstraction to poetics is just as necessary to demand for a better world, logic.  

Ka-Man Tse, from the series narrow distances

DUGGAL ART SCENE: What is the power of the constructed or staged photograph versus documentary photography in the visualization of LGBTQIA narratives?

Ka-Man: This is another great question! What the constructed or choreographed photograph allows (versus ‘documentary’ or ‘candid’ or other means), first, is we are building an image together. Fully, with consent, dialogue, and intention. We’re making and building a photograph rather than taking a photograph. By constructing a photograph, we are not limited to only using photography in an indexical, or literal way, or in the terms of a logic of people as ‘subject‘ or  ‘specimen.’ It can be more expansive and more free.  Not being bound to ‘fact’ or ‘documentary’ then allows more world building; a way to craft images and a world – a B-side version of a world -- that we want to see; in ways in which we want to see and be seen.

Ka-Man Tse, from the series narrow distances

DUGGAL ART SCENE: How and when did you choose photography as a medium and what attracted you to the use of a large format camera as central to your practice?

Ka-Man: I came to photography and writing around the same time, as a teenager, and really committed to photography as a practice as an undergraduate while studying at Bard College. Both writing and photography, to me, have to do with language, translation, connection and expression. It’s about the spaces in between, and understanding oneself and the world, and in relation to other humans.  Photography has allowed me to connect seemingly disparate elements of my world and life and interests; to connect with people, to expand a notion of kinship; to connect others. I have to credit my peers and mentors at school.  I learned the view camera as a sophomore at Bard, with Any-My Le, and have been using the 4x5 since (which is 20 years, now). While I’ve worked with other cameras, I’m drawn to that process of large format photography for many reasons—the slowing down, breathing with someone, the meditative quality, an ability to describe scale and volume and detail—all of which are important to me. But really, it is also about slowing down and stopping time, together. 

Ka-Man Tse, from the series narrow distances

DUGGAL ART SCENE: What are you working on now and how has the pandemic shaped your ability to make photographs? 

My work has definitely changed because of the pandemic: I miss going into people’s homes and having people over; I miss the random conversations at dinners or gatherings and how a group can grow throughout a night; and, I miss wandering.  My work was centered on people and connections and so not having that in a physical way has been truly challenging. From flying back and forth between New York and Hong Kong, which I was doing 2 -3 times a year to those moments of organic gathering, to what can often feel like a space that closes in or a world that is suddenly smaller. I’m curating a show that is opening in Hong Kong in January 2021, which had been slated to open March 2020. It is in partnership with the Hong Kong International Photography Festival, and features new emerging LGBTQ+ photographers.  We had the show postponed several times due to the pandemic. We had started a series of workshops in June 2019, and some of the work actually reflects all of those changes that Hong Kong has endured—the protests, COVID, the National Security Law.  I’m currently working on a series of portraits for a colleague’s book – I’m making portraits of the authors of each chapter, a book that centers queer non-binary artists and writers who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, POC.  The portraits will take a long time to make, because of the pandemic—but anything worth doing takes time. I’ve been making a lot of videos; I have been doing a lot of writing. The writing has really been a buoy for me. 

https://hkipf.org.hk/

Visit Ka-Man Tse’s website here: tsewhat.com 

Check the Hong Kong International Photography Festival for updates on Tse’s 2021 exhibition at the WMA Space in Sheung Wan. here: hkipf.org.hk 

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