Reviews & Articles
拍攝愚昧 Photographing Stupidity
at 11:41am on 19th August 2015
Photo: John Batten
(Please scroll down for English version.)
這個路標對於攝影師來說，到底有什麼吸引力？法國理論學家羅蘭•巴特（Roland Barthes）的攝影著作《明室》（Camera Lucida，1980年出版），是經常被引用的書籍，當中便透露了一些端倪。巴特在書中提出了一套理論，說明每天數以十萬計的照片中，如何判別與眾不同作品的方法。
‘Big’ news isn’t big for very long in Hong Kong. The fast pace of the city forces anything newsworthy to be quickly assessed for its topicality. And, those that write-up the news – mainly journalists –quickly seek new stories to ensure the ‘old’ news is never perceived to be stale. Nowadays, social media emphasizes the momentary nature of all events, whose histories are quickly swiped away, replaced by other, soon to be replaced events. As I write, the latest scandal is lead contaminated water in public housing estates. By the time you read this, consider whether the water story is still receiving the attention it deserves, or has become a lesser headline or disappeared, despite the seriousness of the issue.
On 18 June 2015 I took a photograph of this seemingly insignificant roadwork sign placed near a tram-stop on Johnston Road, Wan Chai. The same sign has been there for at least two years and I am not the only person to photograph it – well-known artist and designer Stanley Wong Ping-pui has also photographed it, he told me.
What is the attraction of this sign to photographers? French theorist Roland Barthes’ much-quoted book about photography, Camera Lucida (1980) gives an insight. In his book, Barthes offers a theory for identifying photographs that are distinct from the millions of undistinguished photographs taken every day.
Barthes suggests that a good photograph must establish a cultural and political context, allowing for its interpretation: he termed this as a photograph’s ‘studium.’ And, giving greater depth to a photograph is its ‘punctum’ – it is a photograph’s edge, a kink or detail that establishes the personality of the photograph and gives a direct or personal relationship with the viewer.
The road sign I photographed simply warned drivers of the construction of a lay-by being built for mini-buses near the Southorn Playground tram-stop. I first noticed this sign after its initial erection, as one of the lines in the hatched area defining the construction zone was missing. It looked odd with a missing line; it was a small error in what was a very effective, hand-produced construction sign using vinyl tape of a type seen throughout Hong Kong. This small error gave one layer of the photograph’s punctum.
However, the sign took an even more interesting look on 18 June. This was the date the government’s political reform vote was taken in the Legislative Council. Around this time, stickers promoting universal suffrage were added to the sign, these additions gave the sign (and my composed photograph) an overt cultural and political dimension: the photograph’s studium was established. Further layers of the photograph’s punctum include the hidden figure whose blue trousers can be seen from under the sign, adding a small sense of mystery. The tram on the right and a passing couple with a child in a pram both add a domestic element.
This scene was momentary – but all the elements that give the 18th of June some historic cultural and political newsworthiness have been preserved in this photograph.
The events of 18 June are well-known: pro-establishment legislators walked out of the Legislative Council and because of their bad organization (or as pro-government legislator James Tien Pei-chun bluntly observed, their “stupidity”) missed the final vote, thus the recorded vote was an overwhelming rejection of the government’s proposed political reform package. Much news involves simple stupidity; recently, these include: the water scandal, the MTRC’s cost over-run for the cross-border fast train line, bureaucrats charging an old man for repairing bicycles on a pavement without a hawker license.
The Johnston Road sign is still there: pragmatically it is now used to warn of more construction a further 100 metres down the road. Always, and historically in the form of this photograph, it reminds me of institutional stupidity.
Originally published in Ming Pao Weekly, 1 August 2015, translated by Aulina Chan.