When I first encountered Ka-Man Tse’s photographs, it was a lifeline to the home I abandoned. Hong Kong was a city of appearances, and I had grown tired of performing. Three years into college at Connecticut, trawling the internet for queer Asian stories, I came across a photo feature about Asian families welcoming their queer children’s partners. On my screen was an image of Ka-Man’s parents, eating dinner with her wife Cheryl. The family-style setup of dishes on the table felt familiar to me.
I pulled my laptop closer to my body. Growing up in Hong Kong, I saw glimpses on the street of people performing and subverting gender, like short haired women holding hands, weaving their way through the teeming crowds. Yet I had never seen any images made of such individuals until now.
Unlike most representations of queerness in Hong Kong, Ka-Man’s large format portraits of queer people evoke empathy. Rather than telling a joke at the subject’s expense, they depict queer people with depth and sensitivity, implicating their interior selves. Her prolific, generous body of images—an ongoing series titled “Narrow Distances”—expands upon fragments of intimacy: a reassuring touch, a met gaze, all exist forever in the world of her pictures. Queer couples love, queer families eat, and queer individuals live, openly in front of her lens.
I felt recognized. I bookmarked Ka-Man’s website, and revisited her work every few weeks, to remind myself that there was somebody out there who cared.
I have returned to Hong Kong. My first conversation with Ka-Man, like my initial encounter with her work, takes place online. We schedule the call well in advance, noting the time difference between Hong Kong and New York, where she works. It is morning in her apartment, and white light fills the window behind her. We both have short hair and glasses.
After we exchange pleasantries, I find myself delivering a soliloquy on how strange I feel in Hong Kong. I ask her how she is able to create conditions for stillness and empathy in a city alive with seven million bodies. She nods slowly.
“There is no public space that is a safe space in Hong Kong,” she tells me. “Art[making], and even school or university is not always a safe space. Then there is the issue of actual physical space. Your [allocated] space is…a mall. I try to locate a moment of quiet where there are no guards or security staff. People find their own spaces, and take me there.”
Ka-Man describes her method as a means of “creating a sense of place, and addressing notions of placelessness and longing.” Indeed, many of Ka-Man’s photos are of rooftops, bedrooms and kitchens. But some do not need to describe an explicit setting to have a powerful effect. In one image, a person with blonde hair and thick glasses fixes their gaze directly ahead. A quiet sense of confidence pulses from their confrontational stance, their hands slipped into the pockets of their burgundy trousers. The lights of the city flicker behind them, a slight breeze moving wisps of hair from their face. It is a portrait of dignity, of care and of trust.
Ka-Man emphasizes the collaborative nature of her image-making: each portrait begins with a series of conversations between Ka-Man and her subjects. “Finding subjects is a snowball process,” she says. “Friends introduce me to friends of friends, and strangers become friends. When I photograph someone, I’m connected to someone. It’s a conversation, these interviews. We’re talking about the picture we want to make.”
The impetus for the image can be a recreation of a memory, or even a still from a film. It takes anywhere from six weeks to a year to craft the picture. While we are talking, I notice that Ka-Man uses the word “build” to describe her photographic approach: “I’m recasting and world-building a world I want to see.” The world she has built with her subjects is one where queer people of color are given space to speak their truth, to be still, and to be seen.
The sense of trust between the photographer and her subjects is palpable through the way they respond to her camera. In one image from 2015, three men stand in a fairground. They all happen to be wearing burgundy colored t-shirts. One has his back to the camera, and is taking a photo of the other two men on a smartphone. This picture speaks of a quiet yet revelatory gesture. It is an image about picture-making.
Ka-Man explains that the person making the image in the picture couldn’t show their face. “So I asked myself, ‘How do I obscure their face but give them agency?’ By taking a picture, they are engaged in the active act of looking and making.”
The image makes me think about how vivid our created worlds can be. Beyond our somewhat tangible reality, there exists a thriving undercurrent of remembered and imagined desire. Ka-Man’s portraits, by allowing subjects to find these parts of themselves, are vital correctives in a society built on rigid and inflexible ideas of gender. Each image she makes speaks to the healing power of affirmative imagery and visual presence.
I ask Ka-Man about moments of queer recognition from her youth, eager to hear what images lingered in her mind. She tells me how local director Yau Ching’s 2002 film Let’s Love Hong Kong, which she watched in her twenties, was her first cultural touchstone of Hong Kong lesbians negotiating issues of class and personal space. She subsequently details how that film, in its honest and remarkable depiction of queer women of color, changed her life. Listening to Ka-Man say this brought up my own mental archive of haircuts, photos and movies that I look to when trying to articulate my identity. Images are a kind of sustenance — the right ones can tether you to a world you’ve considered leaving.
The durational nature of “Narrow Distances” allows Ka-Man to photograph certain individuals repeatedly over time. I ask her how the project has grown. “You have to remain open or flexible; you don’t just execute your ideas,” she replies. “I’m not a conceptual artist who has an idea and executes it exactly. I work with people. People are interesting because they push back, they move, they have schedules. You can’t see if you don’t respond to the world around you.”
Ka-Man gestures between us, interviewer and subject. “I’m responding to this thing right now,” she observes. “The world can surprise you, every time.”
I consider the distance between the person I was when I first came across Ka-Man’s work a year ago, and who I am now. When I came back to Hong Kong, I was resentful and afraid. Many silences since, I have begun to cultivate a sensitivity to what is still possible. Closing my eyes, I remember the spaces in which I felt free.
Editing by Still / Loud’s Wilfred Chan.