Art & Photography

The city and all it holds

Hong Kong-based photographer Roni Ahn remedially lenses adolescence and uncertainty during a difficult year in the city

Cherry and Zac

It’s an undeniable fact that the youth of today have been hard hit by the pandemic. Mental health, education and job prospects have all waned, with repercussions heightened in isolation and from a lack of support throughout the year. Even returning back to schools and seemingly normal life has proven to be tricky for most – with 67% of UK youths who responded to a Young Minds survey believing that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. Clearly, there’s much to be done in the way of bettering the lives and minds of the younger generation, and the effects are being felt worldwide.

To alleviate some of the year’s trembles, Roni Ahn, a photographer based between London and Hong Kong, turned towards her medium as a remedial outlet. Originally from Korea, Roni moved to Hong Kong at the age of nine before flying the nest to university in the UK. And just moments before the first waves of the pandemic were felt, she’d flown back to Hong Kong to reapply for her UK visa, which “happened to be when the pandemic blew up in Europe, in March 2020,” she tells me of the experience. “So I decided to stay here until things settled down, but ended up staying a lot longer than planned.” Filled with doubt about what may happen in the future, let alone the present, Roni found this point in time to be difficult – and rightfully so, particularly as she didn’t know how long she could extend her visa for. 

Although, it wasn’t just the pandemic that ensued anxieties; Roni felt like she didn’t have much of a creative place in Hong Kong as she did in the UK. “There are a lot of brand shootings and less room for creative freedom,” she explains. And with the recent political events unfolding – such as the protests led by the city’s youth – this naturally added to the political uncertainty in the area.

Kitman and Kuku

Roni’s camera is therefore her antidote, employed to build on her own personal project that turned out to be unambiguously close to home. Titled The city and all it holds, the documentary-in-style series has now reached completion and compiles various images shot between the months spent back at home in Hong Kong. The imagery, as a result, is both powerful and soft, capturing the moments of idleness and the unknown as her subjects roam the familiar landscape around them. “Working on my personal project gave me a sense of purpose and excitement in doing something that was solely for myself,” she adds. “Whilst I was taking photos of other people, the project reads like a journal of my time here.”

Indeed, it’s important to think of this work as a time capsule. When the lockdowns arose in Hong Kong, and meetings of more than two people in public were banned, Roni started to cogitate about the people she holds close. “When you’re forced to limit social interaction, you begin to narrow down on those that are more important to you – who is your support system?” Addressing this contemplation through imagery, Roni wanted to translate these thoughts into a series and thus formulated her findings into The city and all it holds; the title alluding to a shrunken world, and a place where she can look at things a little differently.

Fat, Kwan and Ruby

Most of her subjects, then, are those she’d met on set or through friends, but oftentimes they are cast on Instagram. A usual meeting would take place momentarily, getting acquainted with the her friends, lovers and family on the day of shooting, “which actually ended up being some of my favourite shoots,” she notes, specifically pointing to the ones with an “environment that feels authentic to them.” This has been achieved through the artful curation of clothes or location, meshed into a pictorial representation of the person in front of the camera, as well as the places that they are particularly font of, “whether it’s where they grew up, where they spent the most time in or has a special meaning to them.”

Setting the precedent is one of Roni’s favoured images of a group of friends – Sam, Blake, Ruby, Shui, Fat and Kwan – jumping across the waterway in the outskirts of the city. There’s an irradiating light flushing through the evening as the sun begins to fall behind the trees; the subjects appear joyous, as part of the group awaits as the others jump across the water. It denotes rebellion, freedom and strength – that nothing can come in the way of the younger generation fulfilling their youthful duties together. “I was shooting them from above a bridge and I was on my last two frames of a film roll,” says Roni. “I wasn’t expecting them to jump across, but they just started running and jumping back and forth, and I managed to catch the moment. I think the photo encapsulates the true spirit of the boys.”

Sam, Blake, Ruby, Shui, Fat and Kwan

Now that this series is out in the world, Roni has realised a shift in her role as a photographer. The city and all it holds has been the gateway for this recognition, where Roni now considers herself as a narrator who’s retelling the stories of her subjects. “I feel more accountable to tell these stories as accurately and authentically as possible,” she says, cementing the work as somewhat journalistic. But most of all, she’s telling the stories of adolescence – a universal experience felt by all. And once you observe the goings on within her pictures, it will most likely bring back a memory, feeling or relationship from your own past, too. “With all my work, I want to make people think. My favourite thing about photography is that it can be interpreted differently by everyone who views the work. What I am personally trying to tell with the pictures (often clouded by my personal experiences and memories) becomes irrelevant.”

Photography by Roni Ahn.

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