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Internationally acclaimed Hong Kong photojournalist tries his hand at the business of art

Reporter: Billy Leung

In a small gallery on Upper Station Street, a striking black-and-white image of a simple pier poised over an ocean that stretches into infinity sits in the window, inviting the viewer to embark on an unknown journey. The journey taken by the photographer and the owner of the gallery has been anything but ordinary.

He started as a darkroom technician at the now defunct pro-Beijing daily Ching Pao and went on to win numerous local and international photography awards, including third place in this year’s World Press Photo awards (People in the News category) and second place in the US National Headliner Awards of 2004

In fact, Vincent Yu Wai-Kin has won prizes throughout his 26-year career. Yu’s name might not be well known here, but he is a world-class photographer, born and bred in Hong Kong.

Yu started learning about photography in secondary school. He bought his first camera when he was in Form Three. After studying photography at the Kwun Tong Vocational Training School, he started his career in photography, working first as a darkroom technician and then a photographer for the Hong Kong Standard.

But his big break came in 1989, when he joined Associated Press (AP).

Yu says it was not always easy. He found his low English proficiency and lack of experience covering international news hindered his work. Photojournalists for international agencies are often assigned to cover stories by themselves. Yu would find himself on a foreign assignment, not knowing how he should approach shooting the story.
He no longer has to contend with such doubt, but he still has to put up with anti-social working hours and ever-changing schedules. While these may be common to all photojournalists, those working for international news agencies can lead even more irregular lives as foreign assignments can pop up at any time.

Receiving urgent midnight and early morning telephone calls has become Yu’s routine. Yu recalls once returning home drunk from his birthday celebrations, to be told he had to get on a plane and fly to Thailand to cover a news story.

Then there was the trip that resulted in his World Press Photo prize. “I received a call from AP at five in the morning. They asked if I was ready to fly to North Korea.” First spending a day in Beijing, Yu finally transited to North Korea. His shot of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il turned towards and looking at his son and presumed political successor Kim Jong Un would be carried by newspapers and news websites around the world. Until the photos from that press trip were published, there had been few photographs of the younger Kim.

Kim Jong Il,and his son Kim Jong Un

Although he travels around the world for his job, he describes it as “passive” since he mostly waits for orders. There are exceptions. Earlier this year, Yu volunteered to travel to Japan to cover the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

He knew what a big story it was, involving a natural disaster and man-made catastrophe in the form of the damaged nuclear power plant. As he recalls the trip, he also mentions he is particularly fond of Japanese culture.

In the four weeks that Yu was in Japan covering the earthquake, he took a large number of photos with his iPhone. Yu is excited about these photographs taken on his phone. “They are square and there is less emphasis on technique and composition. The content becomes more direct.”

Vincent's iphone photo taken in Japan this year

“These photos are more than just about the earthquake in Japan, they are about more universal human issues like catastrophe and loss, about the nuclear issue.”

He is currently thinking about what to do with these photographs and hopes they will ultimately be exhibited in Japan.

Photography is not just a job or a profession for Yu, it is his biggest interest and his passion. He likes to take pictures in his spare time and has exhibited photos on a variety of themes from the Shek Kip Mei housing estate to Hong Kong’s vanishing coastline.
He says he prefers not to use the usual photo essay format which only describes the causes and effects of an event. “Photo essays are descriptive but not a kind of expression.” says Yu. “Photo essays are similar to news reports which are relatively objective. Photography should be like literature, conveying thoughts and feelings.”

Despite this, Yu thinks that news photo should not be purely artistic. He takes both objective and artistic news photo.
He believes photojournalists should put communication above all else as members of the public might not understand what is happening if a news photo is not objective. The subject of the news must be shown clearly. Although he admits it is old-fashioned, he still insists on trying to take a “best photo” every time, a shot that decisively captures the essence of the story.

“A good news photo should include human core values like the humanity of the subject and emotions. It can touch people all around the world.” For Yu, a photo should resonate with the beholder at first glance, although captions are also important in helping readers to understand the message behind the image.

As a celebrated international photographer who worked his way up from the local media, Yu appreciates the ability of his peers in Hong Kong. He quotes Olympic champion windsurfer Lee Lai-Shan’s assertion that, “Hong Kong athletes are not rubbish”. Likewise, Yu says Hong Kong photojournalists are capable.

Their only drawback is that they do not get enough opportunities to cover the big, important stories that their foreign counterparts do. Yu believes they are also saddled with unnecessary tasks. “The time local photojournalists waste on conducting vox pops could be used to capture better pictures,” he mutters. “It is a pity that they cannot immerse themselves 100 per cent into taking photographs.”

On top of these extra tasks, Yu points out that some photojournalists are now also required to shoot video for online news stories. He believes this will negatively affect the quality of the photos taken because the way of thinking about video shooting differs from still photography.

“Photography needs one to think over and capture the precious moment in a still photo.” Yu explains that taking a good photo at a decisive moment requires lots of observation beforehand, which is a luxury many of his colleagues in Hong Kong cannot afford. “Taking videos will hinder your observation as you have to shoot continuously.”

On the other hand, he is excited by the possibilities of what he considers to be true multimedia works which incorporate elements of photography, audio and video to tell news stories. However, he does not think that media outlets in Hong Kong have really made full use of these multimedia forms.

Yu says local photojournalists mainly have to work in Hong Kong and they may have to cover some boring stories and carry out menial tasks. Working for a foreign agency, he usually spends around two months a year overseas covering international news such as the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and the 3.21 earthquake in Japan. He knows he has many more opportunities than local photographers.

Apart from the nature of the job, there are also cultural differences between local and international media. The most obvious is that foreign photojournalists enjoy higher status and independence than their local counterparts.

Although Yu describes his job as passive in that he is handed assignments, he also enjoys considerable autonomy on the job. He is responsible for organizing his own tasks. He has full decision-making power on what photos to take and how to develop each story.

Once he finishes his assignments, he can send his photos to the AP Asia headquarter in Tokyo instantly while photojournalists in local news organizations need to cooperate with their print colleagues and sometimes have to follow their instructions.

While Yu is a confident and consummate professional in his job as a photojournalist, he is less at ease running a business.

He opened The Upper Station as a showcase for promoting photography and art in Hong Kong. It has been largely successful in terms of cultural promotion, attracting a constant flow of visitors to the gallery, but Yu has found he is not a natural when it comes to the business side of things.

Reflecting on his work in promoting art photography, Yu concludes, “I am an amateur artist only.” He finds it difficult to promote artwork and simultaneously break even. He also finds it hard to engage in the whole sales rap. Flitting between the two worlds, he realizes that he is more passionate about photography than he is about the art business.

The world of photography remains his true home and he is satisfied with his job at AP, enjoying professional freedom and witnessing news first-hand. “I am skilled at photography. I can show my talent when taking photos,” he says.

With so much to share and a zeal for promoting photography, Varsity asks him if he will open photography courses. Yu laughs. “I do not have this plan but sharing and interactions are always welcome!”