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Visionary Snapper Casts New Light on Hong Kong

Kevin Mak

Kevin Mak has built his reputation capturing typical Hong Kong sights such as old signboards, taxis, trams, neon lights and cluttered alleyways alongside the city’s countless high-rises, under the Instagram tagline “urban stories from a Hong Kong architect”. Mr Mak has almost 85,000 Instagram followers and his work has been exhibited in the city’s galleries.

Mr Mak divides his time between working on projects for the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) – such as the Taipei Performing Arts Center – and his own newly established practice, 1km Studio, where he takes on architecture and photography commissions.

You have more than 84,000 Instagram followers. What prompted you to set up the account and why do you think your photos appeal to so many?
I used to show my photos on my website and on Flickr before, but when my friend started using Instagram I realised [its potential] as a platform with a bigger audience. I never expected to get this amount of followers though!

In my photographs, I try to capture Hong Kong’s unique urban streetscapes, which are often viewed as too messy and claustrophobic. But when there are diverse things coming together in a little space, we can sometimes find a moment or some logic that makes sense. These moments often reveal the culture and history of urban life and are more than just an “eye candy” image.

You are an architect and photographer. Do you have much time to dedicate to the latter?
It was actually a very good balance back in the day when I didn’t do any photographic work. Photography was solely a getaway from work, observation training or a meditation where I could spend time on my own with the city, and something that helped keep me inspired. The balance has shifted slightly when I began to work on photography jobs.

What are some of your favourite places to take photos of in Hong Kong and why?
The aesthetics I capture in my photography are extracted from everyday urban life and usually not planned. I take my camera with me every day and shoot wherever I go. That’s why I can’t tell you what my favourite place is, as it might be the next junction on the street. But I do prefer streets with more variety that are not too “well designed” – so [I favour] Hong Kong Island and Kowloon over the New Territories.  

You co-founded the signboard heritage group Street Sign HK. What did you hope to achieve by doing so?
We want to expand social awareness around the value of the traditional signboard as urban heritage to a wider audience. We’ve been connecting with experts from different fields and exploring the memories and stories behind the signboards so it becomes more personal and intimate.

We give construction advice to signboard owners when they need to take down, replace or build new signs. The strict building regulations make small shop owners in particular hesitate to seek advice. We have both approached and been approached by shop owners who treasure the heritage value of their signboards. We hope to support these owners to keep their signboards alive in the cityscape.

What projects are you currently working on in terms of architecture and photography?
I still work at OMA but have switched to part-time project work. I felt working on something on a smaller scale would be the best balance for my architectural exposure, which is why I started my own studio. I used to work on houses and interiors before joining OMA but now smaller scale architecture feels like a new challenge.

For photography, I’m mainly doing architectural photography for architects, designers, developers and contractors. In the age of social media, there is actually a high demand for good architectural photographs that not only show a clean space, but also have traces of life.

You were part of an exhibition, Up // Down: Hillside Hong Kong at Nu Space in Mid-Levels earlier this year. How was that?
I learnt a lot curating the exhibition alongside the other three photographers and the gallery owner. I avoided having only “eye-candy” images in the selection. It’s something I originally learnt from street photography – the stories behind the images are more important.

My work was also on show this month at the launch of [photography gallery] Bamboo Scenes in Sai Ying Pun, with images available to purchase as high-quality art prints.

How do you hope to inspire the next generation of photographers in Hong Kong?
I don’t know if I’ve inspired anyone yet but I’m always happy to see photographers who listen to their own hearts, beliefs and dreams, and try to work towards that. A photographer’s personal works, even in a commercial setting, can be very independent, while architecture is more complex, as you’re a working in a team.

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