Hong Kong in the early 1990s was a city racked by uncertainty and disquiet. A prosperous enclave built, in large part, with the sweat of millions of migrants who fled the chaos of Mao’s China, now found itself on the cusp of being returned to the sovereignty of the Communist mainland. The brash, muscular harbor skyline of high-rise glass and steel suddenly seemed more fragile – its foundations undermined by a profound sense of unease surrounding the leap into the unknown that the end of 150 years of British colonial rule represented.
The familiar colonial trappings remained – the firing of the noonday gun, the statue of Queen Victoria, the bright red post-boxes – but the collective mindset was focused on the July 1, 1997 handover date and the impact it would have on people’s lives, freedoms and aspirations.
John MacDougall’s photographs of Hong Kong and Macau are firmly rooted in this period of transition. The human subjects – isolated or in twos and threes, their faces often turned or half-turned away – appear self-absorbed and vulnerable. The same look of introspection marks the faces of the privileged expat alone at the pool and the elder man in the packed subway train. The city is here too, but glimpsed only in passing, its skyline reduced to a backdrop or softened by moisture on a window. When structures are brought into focus, they show signs of wear and tear – the corrosive impact of human use and history.
John MacDougall was born in Paris in 1965. He has worked for Agence France-Presse as a photo editor in Paris and Hong Kong, and since 1995 as a photographer in Jakarta, New Delhi and Berlin.
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