Tam Hoi Ying (Chris Tam) studied photography and design at Barcelona School of Design and Engineering. Last week, she received the D&AD Next Photographer Award in partnership with Getty Images for Being Disappeared, an unsettling series which challenges legislation limiting freedom of speech in China.
Shot in Barcelona while Tam was studying, her images capture a sense of powerlessness – each set of six shows someone revealing their thoughts and feelings, writing on walls, roads or even their own face, before being silenced, their words wiped away or ‘disappeared’.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Tam Hoi Ying says she saw China – where artists and journalists have been detained and placed under surveillance after voicing criticism of the country’s government – as a different world. “I always felt lucky … for being able to enjoy modest democracy and freedom, which is something exceptional among Chinese society,” she says. “Even though the people in there look so much like me, share the same language with me, they just couldn’t have a similar life … they could be arrested for sharing their own opinions toward the government; they could be killed for protecting their own human rights.”
Through her images, Tam says she hopes to question China’s National Security Law, a piece of legislation which the government says has been introduced to counter national threats and protect citizens, but which critics say is being used to crack down on activists and dissenters. She also says she hopes to draw attention to the importance of democracy and freedom of expression around the world.
“Being lucky enough to enjoy my luxurious freedom and execute my [human] rights, I see no reason for not using it in my photography – and maybe, in a tiny little step, I could help achieve a better world where we can all be free and equal,” she adds.
CR: Tell us a little more about your work…
THY: I always want to focus on social issues that concern me, any topics about freedom, equality, humanity … as long as I feel like speaking up, that would [be] the motivation for me to work.
Though I am still exploring my voice for photography … I find my works quite literal and raw, always with a sense of ‘unpolished’. And I prefer it this way, because through the roughness, in a way, it tells the weight of the messages that I want to communicate.
What sparked your interest in photography?
In the beginning, I was more intrigued by instant cameras and photos like Polaroid – I loved how a little moment could be frozen…. As an introvert I always reserve my emotions, and somehow photography came along and became one of [the] channels that allows me to speak freely about the things bouncing inside my mind, things that concern me, or about how I see things and what I cherish.
How did the idea for Being Disappeared come about and what did you want to convey in this series?
It’s always the best for audience to interpret the works but for me to conclude my photo concept in a word, it should be ‘helplessness’. I think the idea has been in my mind for quite a long time, since I was a child and realised the difference between me, as a Hong Konger, and other Chinese, – I can enjoy my freedom of speech freely while it could be fatal for them to execute their basic human rights in mainland China.
I hope by questioning the meaning of communication, the format of expression and the reason for National Security Law, people will start paying more attention to the human rights situation in China or actually, all over the world.
You mentioned that the series aims to challenge the hypocrisy of laws protecting freedom of speech in China – could you tell me a little more about this?
I think it’s not uncommon that governments use ‘security’ as a shield to restrict the rights of citizens and control society, but somehow we are too mindless to notice or to speak up. Maybe it’s easier to speak with examples.… There was a case when a citizen in China wrote articles to criticise shoddy school construction in the Sichuan earthquake zone [see here for more info on the Sichaun schools corruption scandal], he was then being charged for ‘Inciting subversion of state power’ and sentenced for 10 years. There is another case where a civil rights lawyer was being charged for ‘Inciting ethnic hatred and picking quarrels and provoking incidents’ because he was making comments about public figures and incidents through web micro blog.
It actually happens everyday but we have just started to getting used to it…. Though human rights is what we born to have, I can see that more and more people are agreeing to giving this up in exchange for the delusion of security or even worse, for their own benefit.
What are you working on now?
In parallel to the second phase for the project Being Disappeared, I am developing another project that is less political but personal, focusing on the social expectation of women, especially in patriarchal society.
See all of this year’s D&AD Awards winners at dandad.org