Cover Kitman and Kuku 2. (Photo: Roni Ahn)

Roni Ahn harnesses the quiet joy of friendship among Hong Kong youth in a photo series shot during the unsettling pandemic era

At the start of the pandemic, Roni Ahn returned home to Hong Kong from London and began taking photos to document relationships of all types between people living in the city. Published as a book, The City and All It Holds, the resulting collection is understated, yet expressive, with a dreamlike quality that conveys the stasis of a global lockdown, and the connections that give support and stability in uncertain times. She describes the series as “an intimate reflection on human connection at a time when isolation is encouraged and sometimes mandated.”

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Ahn, now 24, began taking photos when she was 13 using the family's point-and-shoot film camera, which she carried around everywhere. She looks back on the photos from this time as a kind of diary from her teenage years: “The excitement I got from documenting all the seemingly insignificant moments when I was younger is probably the same kind of excitement I have when I get my rolls back from the lab after a long day of shooting.”

Her introduction to fashion photography came when she shot one of her best friends for an art project a decade ago. “I really fell in love with creating, and after the shoot I started reaching out to local modelling agencies and stylists, and it progressed naturally from there.” One of her most notable fashion shoots since is an East Asian “flower boys” series on changing perceptions of masculinity, influenced by the gender-neutral style of K-pop stars

Below, in her own words, Ahn explains how she captured tender dynamics in her lockdown series and reflects on her experience as an Asian female photographer. 

You're reading Through Her Lens, our series showcasing the female visual viewpoint—and launched in partnership with The Women's Foundation, which strives to challenge gender stereotypes, empower women in poverty, and increase the number of women in leadership roles

With the restrictions imposed in the city with meeting larger groups of people, I began to think a lot about those closest to me. Everyone was isolating in their own bubbles, and I wanted to translate this bizarre moment in time in a series of photographs. I began to photograph people in Hong Kong with those they consider to be their support system, be it a family member, friends, or lover. The close interaction and bond between the different groups of people in Hong Kong is what I wanted to capture for this project.

Logistically, it was quite challenging as we couldn’t shoot in a lot of public places without masks on. A lot of the subjects chose to be shot in residential areas (in the outskirts of the city) where they grew up or are currently living, which made things a little easier.

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I grew up in the city, so I wanted to work on a series close to home: it is the place where I spent the most years of my life. With the changing political and as a result cultural climate in Hong Kong, it also felt like documenting the people in a time and place that may never look the same. Looking back at the photos now (from London), it also serves almost as a journal of my year in Hong Kong, with the various landscapes of the city that I had previously never got to witness. I think Hong Kong is often photographed as a very metropolitan and crowded city, but this series, shot primarily in the outskirts of Hong Kong, also shows the quietness of the areas that surround it, which I think is reflected in the tender interaction between the subjects.

It was interesting to see the different dynamics between the subjects and to show this through the lens of the camera, from the free-spirited bond between large groups of high school friends to the more intimate connection between lovers. I cast most of my subjects on Instagram: I would ask them who they’d like to be photographed with and would usually just meet their friend/family member/partner on the day.

It was really refreshing as it is a completely different way to how I usually tend to organise my shoots, mainly working in pre-produced, controlled environments. Relinquishing that control and not knowing how the shoot will turn out brought me back to when I first started photographing with my friends, where I’d spontaneously bring out my camera to catch glimpse of fleeting, everyday moments. Whilst the bond between each subject was different, the overarching theme of love and close human connection they share is what links their experiences.

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I think knowing the gender of the person behind the lens will naturally distort the way you see the work, as there are certain expectations that come with either gender. I’ve been told that my work is feminine due to the softer hues and gentler interactions between the subjects in my photographs, but I’ve also seen male photographers that create dreamy and compassionate imagery that is atypical of the ‘male gaze’ in photography. Whether it’s intended or not, knowing the background of the person creating the work will affect how the work is viewed. I like viewing art without knowing any context and making my own assumptions about the work, rather than recognising the intentions of the person creating it.

It’s harder for female photographers to get their foot in the door because established photographers tend to hire male photo assistants due to the heavy-lifting involved. As a woman, it can be intimidating when you show up to work on bigger film sets and all of the photography and film crew are male. Especially when I was younger, it made it feel harder for me to have a voice in the room. Now, when possible, I like to have female assistants on my team, as I feel they relate to my work more. There should be more platforms [to help give] young female photographers the same opportunities and experience as their male counterparts.

I think it’s important to support other women in the industry. It shouldn’t be a competition. As an Asian woman working in Europe, you are almost forced to walk this narrow path with other Asian female photographers, even though we all have different styles and stories to share. I don’t want to be hired because I am a woman or because I am Asian; I want to be hired because of my work.

For more information about Ahn and to purchase her book, see her website here. And find her on Instagram here.

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