Established photographer May James has changed focus: taking a brief hiatus from her mainstay street photography to cover many of the Hong Kong extradition protests. While she has captured many notable moments at them, what is perhaps most significant —and what has left the biggest impression on her— is the fellow feeling and camaraderie shared by the demonstrators.
She first attended the Labour Day march on May 1 as a way to “test the waters” and to get a general understanding of how the marches worked. But when she attended the June 9 protest, she was struck by the size of the crowd, as an estimated 1.03 million people attended, according to the Civil Human Rights Front, the protest’s organisers. The police estimate puts the figure at around 300,000.
“A friend told me that a lot of people would be there so I decided it would be another opportunity. I had a job during the afternoon so I left early on in the day and came back at 6pm. I was really taken aback by how many people were there, and also how polite, co-operative and peaceful they all were,” says May. “I was saying ‘excuse me’ to people, trying to get through the crowd to set up my next shot, and people were very quick to move aside for me.”
May, who moved to Tung Chung in 2013 is a well-known professional photographer and has been featured in the online version of TimeOut magazine. She usually focuses on capturing daily life on the streets of the city and in the towns and villages of Lantau.
Yet, as a mother of two children, she felt it was important to create a visual record of a significant moment in Hong Kong’s history that could have far-reaching consequences for the future of the city, and the future of her children.
Prior to Labour Day, May confesses that she had actually never been to a protest before, but she “wanted to be there to photograph the real immediate action.” She admits herself that she is not the most politically-aware person, but after the June 9 march, she “read more of the recent news and was compelled by the story surrounding the extradition bill.”
The demonstrations have been in response to the controversial proposed bill that would amend Hong Kong’s extradition laws. It was originally introduced to LegCo in April this year. The bill would allow the Hong Kong Chief Executive to extradite people in Hong Kong to countries where there are no prior extradition arrangements. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has stated that the intention of the amendments are to “plug existing loopholes” in the current extradition arrangement. The demonstrations have been an effort to convince the government to permanently shelve the proposed changes due to concerns about the precedent it could establish with mainland China.
May also went to photograph the June 12 sit-ins in Admiralty. “I arrived at 9am, and it was already jam-packed. The police were blocking a footbridge and the protestors asked them why. Soon after the police left with their hands up –it was quite bizarre. At one point someone asked for water and the message was passed down. Soon people were handing forward bottles from further back”
By the afternoon the situation had changed. Crowds near the entrance of the LegCo building threw umbrellas, water bottles and bricks at police officers stationed there in an attempt to push through to the main courtyard. The police response was firing 150 rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbag rounds from shotguns throughout the afternoon and evening. The police not only cleared the courtyard, but also the avenues surrounding LegCo of the rest of the largely peaceful demonstrators.
“I tried to get a good photo of the policemen firing the tear gas but I was too scared. Every time they would fire, the noise would make me jump and shake the camera, so the shots didn’t come out as I wanted. I usually like to be front and centre of the action but I didn’t want to get too close. I had the goggles and surgical masks that were being handed out but they turned out to be totally useless. My eyes were burning and stinging, my nose was running. It was heartbreaking to see the police act in such a way; shouting at reporters, hitting protestors.”
“It was quite difficult to leave because of the barricades and because people were rushing out like a pack. But even still people stopped to help each other over the barricades, usually the women first. They helped me with all of the equipment I had. My whole leg below the knee was stinging and my trousers were soaked. People had been pouring water to help with the gas and pepper spray. My cameras were wet too, but that was not a big concern at the time. I had another job in the evening and that was how I showed up.”
Undeterred by June 12, May attended the massive Sunday June 16 march, thought to be the largest since the 1997 handover. Organisers say 2 million people attended, while the police estimate 338,000. The mood was markedly different from June 12. “People were united” says May. “One group of guys was getting quite rowdy and the whole crowd shouted ‘peace’ at them. Within a minute they stopped agitating the crowd. I spoke to one of the protesters: they said that they didn’t want to see blood, they didn’t want a fight; they just wanted Carrie Lam to step down and for the [amendment] to be permanently withdrawn.”
On that day, people were wearing black and holding flowers and candles in mourning for the protestor who had died trying to hang a banner on June 15. “They would also bow every hour. It was very orderly,” notes May. “At one point I didn’t notice an ambulance coming behind me and I was very gently asked to move out of the way. I spent some time at Pacific Place: when I first got there I saw some kids scraping candle wax off the pavement. After walking around and taking photos for about half an hour I came back to the same spot and the kids were still there. After midnight the protestors were technically supposed to disperse, but because this restriction doesn’t apply to religious gatherings everyone began singing ‘Hallelujah to the Lord.’ It was really funny!’”
As a result of her experiences, May said “I now see the marches and protests in a totally different way. It makes me super proud to be a Hongkonger to know to know how peaceful and respectful most of our protesters are. It also makes me worry about the future of my home that my children will grow up in.”
In response to the demonstrations, Carrie Lam announced on June 15 that the bill would be suspended indefinitely; implying that it would not be pushed through the legislature before the end of the current term, which ends July 21, as originally had been intended. It remains to be seen if the government will permanently withdraw the bill, as was done with the contentious 2003 National Security Bill, or leave it to be possibly reintroduced in future legislative sessions.
As such, the protests continue. May also attended the sit-in at Police Headquarters on Friday, June 21, and hopes to make it to the annual march on July 1 as well. “A famous photographer once said ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ I’ve bought a proper mask and everything so that I’ll be ready for next time!”
To see more of May’s photos from, the protest, head to her Facebook page.