In his series “Hongkongers,” London-based photographer Oleg Tolstoy has captured the people of Hong Kong holding umbrellas, an everyday item which also featured at pro-democracy protests and became symbolic of passive resistance in turbulent times.
Tolstoy took to the streets to photograph ordinary lives in an extraordinary political climate. His latest series was shot on Queens Road Central, where pedestrians shield themselves from the rain with umbrellas, in what he calls a potent symbol of protection from both nature and nation.
“The images cried out to be adapted to reflect the changing landscape,” said Tolstoy. “I cut and reconfigured the photographs, experimenting with scratch techniques and red paint to recontextualise the series. The images now document a distorted reality.”
While editing the project during lockdown, Hong Kong’s political climate heated up with Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law.
“The transmuted photographs offer a study of change. Red, the national colour representing fire and good fortune, now saturates every scene, reframing the lives and landscapes of the subjects,” the photographer wrote in a statement accompanying the series.
“Fragmented distortions echo the reshaping of Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties, while thin scratches in the surface symbolise an accumulation of stress, cracks in an increasingly pressured situation reaching its breaking point.”
As resistance became increasingly futile, Tolstoy says he sought to reflect this new reality by changing the context of a series of images shot at a literal and figurative crossroads in Hong Kong’s history.
“As the subjects go about their lives, echoes of the political movement are inescapable,” he said.
“There is a tension simmering underneath these everyday scenes which has been brought to the surface.”
Although based in London, Tolstoy shoots mainly in high-density environments around the world. Asia has become his main focus due to its mega cities such as Hong Kong,Tokyo, Shenzhen and those in Vietnam.
The series has been conceptualised and created in collaboration with Rob Watts from Hong Kong.
Find more of Tolstoy’s work on Instagram.