Jonathan Van Smit moved from New Zealand to Hong Kong in 2008, drawn to wandering the back alleys and side streets of the city when he’s not at his day job in the financial industry. Entirely self-taught, all of his photographs are raw, dark and gritty compositions focused on the underbelly of life in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and China. Despite being a 65 year-old self-proclaimed Gweilo (or foreigner), Jonathan possesses a remarkable ability to slip seamlessly into the underworld with his photography. Wandering the streets with his Leica rangefinder and wide angle lens, he prefers to shoot as close as possible to get a sense of intimacy. We spoke to him recently about his work and his approach to street photography.
2008年Jonathan Van Smit從新西蘭移居香港，在其供職於金融行業之餘，他常遊走於當地錯綜複雜的街頭巷尾。對於攝影，他完全是無師自通， 並以 風格粗獷、黑暗且冷峻不羈 的風格展示著香港、東南亞及中國大陸地區地下階層的墮落生活。儘管65歲的他對外自稱鬼佬（外國人），但他潛入地下群體進行拍攝的能力還是超凡的。帶著自己的徠卡旁軸相機和廣角鏡頭遊走於各種小巷街道的他，喜歡盡可能靠近被攝物以達到一種親近感。我們最近與他談論了其作品及其街頭攝影的方式。
Neocha: Coming from a different background, how did you get into photography, and specifically street photography?
Jonathan: Photography for me is primarily a way to explore this world that we live in. I don’t like to think of myself as a street photographer. I am just an amateur photographer who likes traveling, walking around, exploring other people’s lives, and trying to see what’s around the corner or behind closed doors. I’m also quite interested in economic marginalization and how people react to adversity. I also like bridges, big cities, seedy bars, intersections, alleyways, dark places, and the night time.
Neocha: Why do you choose to use mostly black and white? Why do you use your current camera setup? Have you explored other cameras and techniques before in the past?
Jonathan: I find colour really distracting in photographs. Using black & white tends to emphasis the content more, at least for me it does, and it also connects us with photography tradition.
I mostly use Leica rangefinders because I’m so used to the manual controls, which allows me to take photos faster than, say, a Sony or Fuji. Sometimes I need to be quick and change focus or shutter speed or aperture without looking down at the camera which I can easily do with Leicas. I’ve tried other brands but generally end up being frustrated as they seem to be designed by technicians rather than photographers.
Jonathan: 我發覺色彩很容易分散人對攝影作品的注意力，使用黑白攝影可以更強調出拍攝內容，至少我是這樣覺得的，而且這也能讓我們更接近攝影傳統。大部分時候我用萊卡旁軸是因為 我習慣手動調控，這能讓我比使用像索尼或富士這類相機更順手且快捷。有時我需要特別快速地完成拍攝，包括變換焦點、調整快門速度或不看取景器直接調整光圈，這些我都可以用徠卡辦到。我曾試圖用其它品牌的相機但都以失敗告終，它們似乎是為技術而生而非攝影師。
Neocha: What fascinates you about Hong Kong? Cambodia? What are some stories you return to over and over again?
Jonathan: Hong Kong interests me because it is currently my home and I have a permanent resident visa here. It also has a strong and unique culture, sadly that seems to be diluting as more and more old buildings are being demolished. I am always struck by the huge gap between rich and poor in what is one of the world’s wealthiest cities. I like the more traditional, grass roots parts of Hong Kong rather than the glitzy shopping malls with their aimless materialism.
Cambodia is very different, of course – the less developed law and order there makes it a refreshing change from living in Hong Kong, which is much more regulated. Compared to Hong Kong, Phnom Penh is chaotic, edgy and relatively lawless, which perversely enough, I find relaxing. I also have friends over there, people smile more, and I enjoy the food and music so it is a holiday break for me. In terms of photography there, I’m interested in the way women are treated, which is often shocking, and drug use seems to be common too.
For example, a common theme I have come across is that a girl gets pregnant, her boyfriend can’t or simply doesn’t want to support the child, so she needs to earn an income while her family looks after the child. A young woman can earn $128 a month in a Phnom Penh garment factory but double that working in a bar. The loss of self-esteem from bar sex work can lead to drug use, especially ice, which in turn can lead to unsafe sex and HIV.
Neocha: 香港或柬埔寨有哪些吸引你的地方？ 有哪些主題是你一再反覆拍攝的？
Jonathan: 我對香港感興趣是因它現在是我的家 並且我也有這裏的永久居住签证 ，並且它有強大而獨特的文化，然而很遺憾的是它正在被稀釋，許多舊樓也在不斷被拆除。作為世界上最富有的城市之一，香港一直以來 讓我很震驚的是其貧富差距的巨大鴻溝。比起那些耀眼且物欲橫飛的百貨商場， 我喜歡香港更傳統、低層的部分。
Neocha: What’s your routine, if you have one, during a day – do you go out to take photos during certain times of day? Are there favourite neighborhoods or parts of a city you go to first for inspiration?
Jonathan: To be honest, I don’t really have a routine… I am fairly random most of the time. Assuming I am not working, meeting friends, or have something planned, I’ll start walking in the morning and keep on going all day – sometimes until late at night with a couple of stops for coffee or food. I like the Kowloon part of Hong Kong, and go there a lot as it’s easy to get to. Sometimes, I’ll get on a bus or train, and then get off somewhere at random. I like the freedom of not having a plan.
Neocha: 你是否有一套例行程序？ 如果有，你通常在一天中的什麼時候出去拍照？你是否有在自己所著街區特別喜歡的會在第一時間去那裡找尋靈感的地方或城中其他某個地方？
Neocha: Language – how do you find access to your subjects especially in such unguarded, intimate moments, and without a common language? How many times do you revisit subjects before you feel the connection? When you’re walking around on the streets of Hong Kong or elsewhere, how do people react to you?
Jonathan: It is not really a big issue for me, and language isn’t the only form of communication. For example, there’s mime, smiling, signing and body language too, and I use all these when gaining access to what I want to photograph. I guess I’ve found a way to cope with my very limited language skills, and also I usually prefer to be a passer-by than a participant when taking photographs. I generally don’t want my subjects to be engaged in the taking of a photo. I am just another Westerner with a camera, I guess.
Neocha: 關於語言 —— 你是如何在沒有共同語言為基礎的前提下與被攝者接觸並抓到那些自然、親近時刻？在你感受到彼此感覺對應之前，你會反覆拜訪幾次被攝者？當你在香港或別處的街道上散步時，人們的態度是怎樣的？
Jonathan: 對我來說這不是什麼大問題，而且語言並非是溝通的唯一方式。 譬如，模仿、微笑、手勢以及肢體語言，在我嘗試接觸想要拍攝的任何人物時我都會用上。我可能是找到了一種方式來應對自己十分有限的語言技巧，在拍攝當中 ，比起作為參與者， 我更願意 作為一個旁觀者的身份。基本上我不想讓被攝者有感覺像是在擺拍。我只是另一個拿著相機的鬼佬，我想。
Neocha: How often does fear cross your path? How often do you have to diffuse or leave situations?
Jonathan: There’s a fine line between exhilaration and fear, and I get a bit nervous sometimes when drugs are involved. It is not a big deal. Most people I meet are charming and friendly.
Neocha: 你多久會出現一次憂慮感？ 多久你需要驅散一次這種糟糕的狀態或者完全任其發展？
Neocha: What are your influences and inspirations? From photography, literature, or experiences?
Jonathan: I haven’t had a TV for many years so I read a lot, and I manage to get through two to three books every month. Plenty of non-fiction books like River of Time by Jon Swain which I’ve just read for the second time but also fiction authors like Jim Harrison, Annie Proulx and Raymond Carver. I also keep myself up-to-date with current affairs.
I sometimes look at other people’s photos but I’m more interested in getting out and taking my own. I think the most important thing to me is moving outside my own day-to-day existence and comfort zone, and gaining a wider set of personal experiences through exploration and travel.
Jonathan: 由於不用電視機多年所以我讀了很多書，基本維持在一個月2-3本的量。許多並非小說類讀物，譬如我剛剛重讀了來自Jon Swain的作品《River of Time》，當然我也喜歡一些小說家，譬如Jim Harrison, Annie Proulx以及Raymond Carver，此外，我也會關注時事以便讓自己跟上時代。
Neocha: What are you working on currently and are there any projects you’re looking forward to in the future?
Jonathan: I’d like to spend more time traveling in Asia especially the area from the Bay of Bengal over to Vietnam and West China. I’m also trying to move away from darker subject matter but maybe that’s just a temporary phase. I don’t think of a specific theme when I’m taking photos. That comes afterwards when I’m editing.