Record 1. Photo credit: WYNG Finalist Chan Wai Kwong.
Recently, ONE President and CEO Michael Elliott was asked to write the foreword to a catalogue of striking photographs of Hong Kong that were submitted to “Poverty in the Midst of Plenty,” a competition and exhibition by the WYNG Foundation. Michael, who lived in Hong Kong and knows the city well, found that the photos nudged him to look at poverty in a new way. While ONE focuses mainly on Africa, these photographs highlight the truth that poverty is not—and never has been—just a rural phenomenon, or one limited to certain parts of the world. Here is an excerpt:
Look at old photographs of Hong Kong (the city has long been blessed with great photographers) and you very quickly become aware that it has not always been what it is now. The city suffered terribly in World War II and when civil war broke out in China, countless refugees with little more than the clothes on their backs flooded in from the mainland, living in shanty towns, crowding on to houseboats packed together stem to stern.
Today, by contrast, much of Hong Kong glitters; it is one of the indispensable hubs of the global economy. But the progress that the city has made from those days of hardship and overcrowding is precisely why the photographs taken by the finalists in this year’s WYNG Masters Award competition are so important. They remind us of something that is true not just in Hong Kong, but which is also exercising policymakers around the world: much of the planet’s poverty is now to be found in states whose average wealth per head would put them among the rich or middle-income countries.
Apples. From the series The Poverty Line – Hong Kong. Photo credit: WYNG Finalist Stefen Chow.
These photos require us to think of the world in a new way. Say “poverty” and many people think of a dusty African village with no access to clean water or electricity, where preventable, killer diseases are a constant threat. And it’s right that those of us who work to eradicate poverty concentrate our efforts on the poorest of the poor, and support programs that reduce child deaths, extend vaccination to all, and take the fight – a winnable one, by the way – to the scourges of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Looking at the photographers’ work, three thoughts kept coming to my mind. The first was about space: people deserve safe and comfortable spaces to live and work. One person’s picturesque cityscape is another’s hard living. We would do well to remember that space is a basic human need.
The second thought was about rest. It’s striking how many of the photographs show people who look exhausted. Those of us who are more fortunate take it for granted not just that we will get a good night’s sleep, but that we will find time in the day to relax, to wind down, to enjoy life without worrying all the time. It’s the things that make life enjoyable, fun, happy. Things that you can’t do if you’re dog-tired.
A family of four lives in a 100 sq. ft. mini-flat in Tsuen Wan. They hope to move into public housing soon, 2012. Photo credit: WYNG Finalist Ko Chung Ming.
Thirdly, though, I thought how many of the photographs showed the resiliency of the poor. That’s something I’ve seen throughout the world; people everywhere cope with what life throws at them, often in ingenious ways – finding somewhere unexpected to live, showing more entrepreneurial zeal than well-known corporations, doing all they can to make life a little better for themselves and their families, taking pride in the achievements of their children.
Such resilience is something that I have always associated with Hong Kong. This is the city that remade itself after the horrors of World War II, that absorbed a tide of refugees, that through hard work and determination turned itself into a marvel.
For 60 years, Hong Kong’s poorest citizens have been a critical part of their city’s success. I see these wonderful photographs as a chance to celebrate them, to give thanks for all they have done, and to look forward to a time when space and rest are things that come to them so naturally that we do not have to look at photographs and think what special gifts they are.
The WYNG Masters Award for Photography (WMA) is a non-profit project initiated to spark public awareness and to support interest in issues that are important and socially relevant to Hong Kong. View all the finalists here.