May 3, 2014

Spacious Photos of People Living in Shoeboxes

These photos have been around for a while but I just came across them and had some thoughts….

When it comes to a different angle or a unique perspective on the haves versus have nots, rarely will you find a more literal example. Same for visualizing how the lower incomes are marginalized, squeezed, boxed in.  Spurred by top and bottom incomes rocketing in opposite directions, the Society for Community Organization (SoCo) commissioned these eye-catching and, certainly, morally disorienting bird’s eye views of people in Hong Kong’s high rises forced to exist in closet-sized spaces.

Of course, the human dioramas by photographer Benny Lam are fascinating. Ironic and disquieting, too, is the fact that the amount of space given to us, the viewer, voyeurs in the rafters, is two or three times the amount of space these citizens have to work with. You may not have this sensation but my brain was wishfully trying to read the space as that long instead of that tall. The vantage, too, is not just a visceral demonstration of the lack of privacy but the cruel necessity of situating everything into still more compartments. Clearly, with more resources comes the privilege of leaving stuff anywhere.

Another thing that’s notable, if counterintuitive, is the sense of the space as actually more oppressive with fewer people in it. Witnessing these people alone in these cells, especially in the absence of natural light, makes me think of a tomb. (That’s in comparison also to those micro hotels popping up in airports — especially in luxury cities — that are not only swank by design, but rationalize the confinement as simply a cool option at a practical price point.)

I imagine the photographer had to also consider the tradeoff between how severe, as opposed to how curious to cast the scene. In this edit, for example, you not only notice people occupied by a task but, in many of the cases, it involves either preparing food or eating. It doesn’t feel like an accident. If part of the strategy is to engage our interest and literally draw us in, showing people engaged in personal industry, and especially, self sustenance, is a effective means of counteracting our emotional response to life in a shoebox. Otherwise, harder for us to sit with, too, is the mind numbing reality of having to stare so near-sightedly at those four walls.

(photos: Benny Lam/SoCo. DailyMail captions 1: Utility room: A man washes his clothes while sitting on his bed next to his ‘kitchen’. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in caged homes like this in Hong Kong. caption 2: window: Dinner is served… in the bedroom: Three people have been forced to share this closet-like space because rent is so high and public housing waiting lists so long. caption 3: Pile it high: A woman sits in the only available space in her room. Campaign groups say many Hong Kong residents are being neglected by the city’s decision-makers)

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Michael Shaw
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