Featured photographer, Jonathan Van Smit
A while ago I was browsing street photography on Flickr and I found some photographs that really moved me in a way that I had not been for a while. The darkness, loneliness and sense of disconnection was something that I had been trying to convey in my work, and this photographer had hit the nail on the head. I am now very happy to be able to feature the work of Jonathan Van Smit. Please note some of these pictures are not safe for work.

Jonathan van Smit is a self-taught photographer from New Zealand who has been living in Hong Kong since 2008. During the day, he works as an investment advisor so most of his work is shot at night. Taken mostly in Kowloon, Jonathan van Smit’s photos illustrate the terrifying social power that capitalism has over the multitudes who live in the shadows of Hong Kong’s beautiful, familiar towers. With themes ranging from poverty and marginal housing conditions to drug use and sex, his work has been described as *“raw, sometimes shockingly so, but never sensationalist. It’s full of boredom, sadness, loneliness and neglect”

First of all, welcome to JCH, please tell us about yourself.

Thanks for inviting me here. I don’t really like talking about myself that much especially as you haven’t bought me a beer yet!

What pushes you to shoot?

I guess I’m a bit obsessed with taking photos, and I like walking around, exploring, albeit in a rather aimless way. I particularly like big cities, the crowds, and I prefer the more marginal areas. I like the humanity I find in these areas, the humour, the struggle against adversity and so on. I do some community work, nothing really special, mostly just running cold bottles of cha (tea) to street-sleepers and drug users in hot weather, and occasionally blankets in the winter. Sometimes, I take down beer and cigarettes too in the evening…a sort of subversion of the Evangelist groups who trade rice meals for prayers. Most of the guys don’t speak English but there’s always a way to communicate if we try even if it’s just a smile, and I get real pleasure from that interaction. This week-end, I had a long conversation with a heroin user recently out of prison who wanted to tell me about his life & family, and how heroin use was like “going to heaven”. I know it seems corny but I felt privileged that he shared so much with me, and it’s a refreshing contrast with my day job.

How would you describe your style of photography?

Well, it’s not documentary, it’s just a personal perspective, and sometimes veers off into the realm of fiction. I’m looking for content that tells or hints at a story however fleeting. It’s mostly instinctive, and I don’t think about it that much. I like the process of taking photos, a bit like hunting, I guess, and hate the editing afterwards.

You shoot the rougher areas of HK, do you have a plan of what you want when you go out, or do you just let it happen.

Mostly, I just get on a bus or the MTR, get off at random, and then walk around for hours until I’m shagged out. Most of my pics come from places in Kowloon but I explore other parts of Hong Kong too. I organize stuff into themes later if I see a series of semi-coherent photos that I’ve taken. Most of the photos I take are crap though…I’m happy if I get 5 good frames over a weekend.

Are there any photographers that inspire you or influence your work?

I don’t set out to emulate anyone in particular, and don’t look at other people’s work very often. I like Robert Frank, Friedlander, Atget, Moriyama, and Araki very much, and their work must have influenced me in some way, I guess.

Where would you like to see your photography develop in the future?

I feel like I have a huge block at the moment, and find it very hard to do stuff that isn’t repetition of earlier photos. In a small way, I think I’m a frustrated conflict photographer, and would love to be confronted by drama so that I don’t have to sweat the constant search for something interesting to photograph.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share with the readers of JCH?

I’d like to get into people’s lives more, photograph their homes and lives, and take more portraits but that’s really hard in Hong Kong when my Cantonese is minimal. It’s an arrogant aspiration really as I’m not a local….I’m very much an outsider.

Thanks to Jonathan for sharing his thoughts and his work with us. I find his work compelling and inspiring. It made me want to find these scenes when I was in Hong Kong, but it is harder to be a part of this than it looks. Jonathan has been able to portray a side of life that many people like to pretend does not exist. These shots are moving without being sensationalist. I am very happy to be able to feature this work on JCH.
Please check out Jonathan’s links and be sure to comment. I really would like to hear peoples thoughts on this work.

Please remember that the images are reproduced with the kind permission of Jonathan Van Smit and may not be used or reproduced without permission.