Staged photography of Jeff Wall

When I first saw the picture featured in The Guardian, I was struck by the spontaneity of a domestic scene: a wife walking away from her ironing to get something in the house. Her daughter or maybe sister is lounging at the sofa reading a magazine. Both are enjoying each other’s company in a weekend afternoon.

This is, however, not a candid shot but the staged photographic work by Jeff Wall. A Canadian artist and art historian whose highly cinematic work is sometimes compared to paintings, this photo overlooking the harbourside in Canada has taken him well over a year. He has waited for the woman to decorate and arrange the bric-a-bracs, and for the right season to be featured through the window. He has to wait for the apartment to evolve over time, and for it to acquire a story.

As the critique published in New York Times points out, ‘photography has always involved waiting.’ Henri Cartier-Bresson refers photography as the composition of ‘the decisive moment’.

We have assumed that this process of waiting applies more to the wildlife and nature photographers. The bee does not pose for the camera. The waiting is a craft, and sometimes the decisive factor that makes an unforgettable picture. This is especially easy to overlook in a world that celebrates digital snapshots and instantaneous upload-and-share photography. We have forgotten that most photographic works are, to a certain extent, deliberate. Other than deliberate composition, they also involve a careful selection process and, in some cases, editing or rendering.

In another of Jeff Wall’s photo, we see a black man with his back facing the camera. He is in a brightly illuminated room with the ceiling full of light-bulbs. The room is cluttered and chaotic, and he is engrossed in his work. The art-piece exposes the black man’s private world, such that the viewer cannot ignore his presence, his strength, or his poverty.

By manipulating the composition of a photograph, Jeff Wall draws attention to the authenticity of the genre: each image is a chosen moment, and pictures don’t tell a story.

Racial equality in UK and Hong Kong

I find The Guardian’s politically correct way of describing ethnic races most fascinating. It is almost funny to me how much attention they pay to the linguistic terms. This is how it goes:

Do not use ethnic to mean black or Asian people. In a British sense, they are an ethnic minority; in a world sense, of course, white people are an ethnic minority.

Just as in the Balkans or anywhere else, internal African peoples should, where possible, be called ethnic groups or communities rather than ‘tribes’.

Avoid the world ‘immigrant’, which is very offensive to many black and Asian people, not only because it is often incorrectly used to describe people who were born in Britain, but also because it has been used negatively for so many years that it carries imagery of ‘flooding’, ‘swamping’, ‘bogus’, ‘scroungers’, etc.

The words black and Asian should not be used as nouns, but as adjectives: black people rather than ‘blacks’, an Asian woman rather than ‘an Asian’, etc.

Say African-Carribean rather than Afro-Carribean.

I remember one of my friends made fun of my ‘international’ student status when I came to England. That’s true, you cannot brand yourself international in Hong Kong: I’m a local in that city. Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong account for a mere 5 per cent, with over half of them coming from the Philippines or Indonesia, whereas in London, ethnic minorities  account for around 30 to 40 per cent of the population, and they speak 300 different languages. Whenever you call a utility company in London, you often find yourself having a dialogue with a non-native English language speaker.

Whatever application forms you need to complete here, they usually come with an ethnicity questionnaire to monitor how institutions/companies/employers evaluate your application, whether racial discrimination has influenced decisions and approvals in the process. The form is optional. On the form, I am interested to see that ‘Chinese’ has a separate category, i.e. you do not declare yourself an Asian, you have to say you are a Chinese. Probably this is because China deserves a separate category. On a global level, as China has a staggering population of 1.3 billion, which amounts to 20 per cent of the world’s population.

It is a good idea to have monitoring systems in place, and questionnaires are helpful in tracing . I am not sure how in-depth or rigourous the post-questionnaire assessment is like, but at least it gives you an impression that you will be fairly treated. I am not sure exactly how fair or unbiased it can be though, as the immigration laws are strict about immigration entry prerequisites for non-EU workers, and employers also have to justify why a native cannot be hired in lieu of an immigrant for the job. By the Guardian rule, I noticed that it is much less likely an immigrant be called an immigrant in England, however, in reality, immigration rules and declarations often remind people of their citizenship/legal status. This is quite a different way of life as compared to my home city, where cash and qualifications are used much more often as a social differentiating criteria than one’s immigration status.

In Hong Kong, people seem to worry less about racial differences. But at the same time they can be very careless in describing people in a politically correct way. There are many widespread slangs for immigrants like ‘gwai lo’ (foreign ghosts), ‘cha’ (people of Pakistani and Indian origins, for example), even the somewhat offensive ‘bun mui’ (Filipino maids). The better educated tend to be more equality-conscious and avoid these terms.

But there are many dimensions to look at racial equality. I will discuss more next time.