I first saw Annabel’s photos on display at a coffee shop I frequented at University in a seaside Scottish town. Her documentation of the city was immediately striking. Different street corners, ordinary objects, faces, and figures. Upon reading the handwritten sign, the context was made clearer; these were film portraits of Hong Kong.
It was a section of a residential block of buildings. The image, I assumed, was taken from the street but zoomed into the block of flats. It was both symmetrical, yet elements were breaking the symmetry. I could see multiple box structures; windows, air conditioning units, and balconies. Each flat was built almost entirely symmetrically, yet pops of colour broke the symmetry. Some of the flats had clothes hanging along the railings; some had curtains in the windows, and some had open windows. The image, the way I saw it told the story of the city, and the people of the city. Yet it was ambiguous, holding only traces of their lives through a distant glimpse of their homes. If presented without context, I could have mistaken this scene for anywhere in India. Perhaps, we only see what we want to see in an image. I knew that this was the one I wanted.
When the idea for this series of conversations emerges a few weeks later, I immediately think about reaching out to Annabel. When we have a conversation, however, it is through our screens. I am home in India, and it is around noon. Annabel is in Australia, a couple of hours ahead of me. It is strange to think that we were in the same space just a few weeks ago, having an in-person conversation. The sense of passing time slipping by suddenly becomes more palpable to me. I have the print I got from her with me; it has travelled from Scotland to India.
I took this in 2019, and it is a photo of residential buildings in Hong Kong. You see hundreds of these there; they are usually thirty storeys. This was taken from a forest land / jungle, which is an interesting juxtaposition. With the colours, when you zoom in, you get an idea of the living space. It is a representation of the Hong Kong residential situation. It can be quite sad sometimes to see the residential situation in Hong Kong and the rentals. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The building and the way it is painted match the squares. It represents on a lot of levels, the squares and windows, different people in those. That is what I want to do with my photos, tell a story with my photos.
We talk about her first recollection of taking photos and her journey with photography.
I began taking photos when I was ten years old. I started when there was a photography competition at my primary school, so I entered. I took out my mum’s, she had a very old canon powershot camera, that had smoke coming out of the flash when you pressed the button. I took that out with my mum’s supervision, and we went out and took photos of Hong Kong, buildings, and marketplaces, and one of my photos won first prize. The photos were also exhibited at my school, and I have taken photos since then. I got my first camera when I was twelve for Christmas. I also used to read a lot of fashion magazines and see really interesting photos in them. Taking photos and telling stories through photos and words, because I also write, has always been my dream job.
At high school, I studied visual art, and I had a big project when I was sixteen, so I did it in Hong Kong, and I took thousands of photos of Hong Kong for that. That is when I was really finding my style, and I put it all together and exhibited it as my final project, and I really loved that. I never really thought of myself as an artist, but as I have become more aware of the photographic medium as an art and the possibility of my work being seen as an art, makes me want to work towards being an artist. The final year course also included some components of Art History; it wasn’t very extensive, but it was enough to spark a fascination with the world of art, prompting me to pursue Art History at university and it’s a decision I haven’t questioned once!
I ask her specifically about the photographic medium and what draws her towards it specifically. She talks about how while the competition she mentioned was a catalyst, she always has been an extremely visual person.
I have naturally been drawn to capturing moments as images since a young age, so I have naturally gravitated towards picking up a camera and seeing what I could do with it. There’s something about noticing things in my surroundings, from the most mundane to the most strange or quirky or eye-catching, even just a certain light and wanting to savour it as a unique moment or memory and share it with other people. Also, over the years, as I began taking photos more consistently, specifically when I was about sixteen, I developed not only my personal style but also an entirely new way of looking at the world around me. I began to notice more things in my surroundings that I wouldn't normally pay attention to, and I would see them as a picture, even when I didn’t have my camera with me. Recognising things or scenes that could be photographed. It’s a beautiful thing, the world is rich and visual, and it’s overwhelming!
As she expresses this, I particularly identify with her idea of being able to look at the world around her in a new way as a result of her photographic practice. We talk about how as artists, we tend to look at things in uniquely specific ways. I share my own experiences of standing in the street and thinking about a typically insignificant detail in the form of a framed photograph, and Annabel agrees. She says that often, she felt this way during the first lockdown when she was in Scotland and started going on more walks. Having her phone around was convenient in those moments. When speaking about the accessibility of photography as a medium due to the increase in smartphone cameras, her perspective is interesting.
I take many photos on my phone; it is convenient and easy. A lot of the photos on my Instagram have been taken on my phone, and it does a great job. But in terms of quality, I think film is the best, followed by digital. The phone does a good job, but it is just a companion.
As someone who only ever shot a couple of rolls of film, I am curious about her reason for being attracted to the medium.
Deciding to take a film camera with me is quite big. It comes with me knowing that I have to be a lot more conscious of what I’m taking photos of because film is so expensive. I should take it around more with me, honestly. The process is also so beautiful, when the results come through from printing, the quality is superior. It is definitely fun, capturing a moment, and you don’t know exactly how it will turn out until you get it back. I recently got a black and white roll from when I was travelling on the West Coast of Scotland, and they turned out good.
While sharing the joy of the process of taking film photos, we talk about a particular one she took in 2019 on the streets of Hong Kong. It features an old lady crossing the street with an umbrella in her hand. The version I am looking at is black and white, but the image was originally shot in colour.
This is probably one of my top five photos from anything I have shot. It is taken on Graham street, which is one of my favourite streets in Hong Kong. It is like a market, and there are many things to see there. I saw this old lady walking down the street very, very slowly with her umbrella, and I followed her down the street a little bit. The moment lined up perfectly because I got her lined up right in the middle of the street with the buildings. I got the moment just as I visualised it, and there is a fun story behind the photos. The black and white and coloured versions of the photo give an entirely distinct effect; they look like different photos.
Both of us agree that the black and white gives the photo a specific symmetry and character, but she points out factors that stand out in the colour original of the photo. She says that colour is a factor she finds herself drawn to while looking at what to photograph.
I love identifying colour themes and the pops of colour in a scene, especially when they match up! Colour themes and pops of colour in scenes. Just when you see random moments when there are matching colours. Red is a favourite and I think this carried on from my visual arts major work I spoke about earlier; it was predominantly black and white, but one of my concepts was to have photos with red colour schemes spread throughout the exhibit, as red is symbolic of luck and happiness in Chinese culture.
When she talks about red and moments of colour it reminds me of a photo I had seen on her webpage; a red swimsuit laying on a rock on the beach.
This one was taken on my Iphone. I went for a swim with my flatmate in 2021, at Castle Sands and she laid her swimsuit out on Castle Sands on the rocks. It speaks Scotland to me because the rock is distinctive. The sand looks like Castle Sands, but only we who have experienced St Andrews would know that.
Because she is still working on finding her personal style, she experiments with multiple different themes and concepts while taking photos.
I am really interested in capturing a sense of place in photos. I feel inspired by places I am in, whether it is Hong Kong or St Andrews. The people, or the landscapes, or certain scenes. I want them to be reminiscent of the uniqueness and essence of the place. I also think I can display my own connection to the place in a way.
Hong Kong, the city she grew up in, has most definitely been a crucial influence in her photographic journey and the portraits she took when she was in high school continue to be important to her.
Hong Kong is a fascinating place and you see new sights every day. You have got that rich cultural side and the very modern side, the urban and the rural. Multiple contrasts in a city's facade. There are endless things to photograph even if you go to the same spot. There is such a fast pace of change. You look back at photos of Hong Kong from the 20th century, and they are mesmerising because, living there now, you can see the subtle things that have stayed the same and the ones that have completely changed. I see them as historical documents. When I was younger, I did have that approach that I wanted to record this place, it is so special and unique at different moments in time.
Whilst she hasn’t been back to the city in almost three years due to restrictions placed by the pandemic, she hopes to return in September. We contemplate the questions of ethics, specifically whilst taking photos of strangers in the street. I ask her how she navigated through the process of both gaining the confidence to go out and photograph people and also understanding the power dynamics that govern a photographic exchange.
I was extremely inspired by travel photographers. In particular, Fan Ho, a famous street photographer who captured Hong Kong in the 1960s. I aspired to follow that style of capturing the city. Most of my photos of Hong Kong were taken when I was younger and just by taking so many photos, I found that my confidence increased. I’ve taken these portraits because I think a person is beautiful or what they’re doing or wearing is interesting. I think the people make up so much of Hong Kong’s facade as a city, and you can’t really capture its essence by excluding people from photographs. On the streets, I usually would gauge the responses of people when approaching them with the camera, and they’re usually quite forthright about whether or not they’re happy for me to take their photograph. Having said that, I think I’ve certainly lost confidence in that regard, as well as reflecting on the ethics of it all quite deeply. I’ve read a lot about the ethics of street photography at University, and that has changed my approach.
Photograph Courtesy: Fan Ho
With regard to ethical considerations, we were able to address the ambiguity that surrounds photography and ethics. I shared my thoughts on the dilemma that comes with going up to a stranger and asking for consent to photograph or capture the moment and then taking consent afterwards. We also acknowledge that context changes these questions as well. In busier cities, often there are so many things going on at the same time, and things change within moments. We did agree that engaging in this form of photography naturally helps in increasing cultural and social awareness and understanding people better.
With my style changing over time, I have become a lot more interested in taking photos of people in scenes that are about them but without their identity in them. Figures or people doing things are part of a broader scene because you can only imagine their identities. Maybe their hands or silhouettes.
When I ask whether she has been able to trace the reason for the change in style, we talk about her move to Scotland for university.
I guess the change of scene provoked the idea of letting the viewer make a story up themselves. Making it more ambiguous in terms of the storylines. For a long time, I felt quite uninspired to take photos in Scotland; I thought it was beautiful, but obviously very different from Hong Kong and I wasn’t sure where to start taking photos. I took a few landscapes because it was beautiful, but then lockdown came, and I was more attentive to my surroundings during walks, especially the more grandiose and minute elements of the environment. I was fascinated by the light, textures in nature, and reflections. I saw unique natural structures. The sea is a huge inspiration for me, I don’t think I can move away from the sea.
Additionally, just being at University made me realise that I want to experiment with more event photography. A lot of my friends were quite involved in the music scene, so I started doing work with event photos. By the end of my time there, I became passionate about that. Taking photos to reflect the energy of the event can be looked at through an artistic lens. When it comes to events, there are a lot of people making art and taking photos at St Andrews; it is very collaborative.
Since St Andrews had a huge impact on my creative practice, I was curious to know more about her experience here. The collaborative nature of art-making in the town was an immediate parallel that struck me. We spoke about taking portraits of friends. Annabel began taking portraits of her friends in town and tried to capture the essence of the person and also the place the photos were taken in.
That is my flatmate Eleanor. It is at the Dunes on the end of West Sands because they are unique. I just told her to bend back and was able to capture nature and also her personality. It is fun to work with another person. I think it is such a collaborative process and that was my intention with these portraits. They have just as much input in the photos as I do what they are wearing, expressions, and poses. My sister is a model and when she was starting out, I took portraits of her. I loved doing those and only just really picked it back up again. I visualise a style or setting that would suit those individual people.
Annabel finds her creative process, whether it is making photographs or writing as extremely meditative.
Whether on the streets, in my home or on a walk, it’s always a very relaxing way to use my energy. Having said that, sometimes I won’t be in the mood to take photos, but when I am, I’ll take a lot of photos of things that catch my eye. With editing, I tend to keep it to a minimum, but I often stare at my photos a lot before deciding whether I like it or not.
When I ask her what is next for her and her creative practice after we share a laugh about this not being one of those serious questions about the future, she talks about developing her work to push the boundaries of her creativity.
I have so many dreams and goals when it comes to photography. Of course, I aim to continue taking photographs, sharing them and hopefully working towards more commissions or creating and exhibiting my work. It would be incredible to make a career out of photography, and that’s the ultimate aim. It’s both scary and exciting the idea of putting myself and my work out there.
I want to continue with events, specifically music or dance related. And would love to take more portraits. I’m very into the idea of working with another person or people on the other side of the camera, creating photographs which reflect their style or persona with their creative input as well. I’m also returning home to Hong Kong after almost three years, and I’m buzzing to get out there with rolls of film and my cameras and take hundreds of photos. It will also be interesting to see how it’s changed in subtle and bigger ways since I’ve been away and capture those changes, and I’m sure I’ll see the changes in my style.
Annabel Preston is a 22-year-old photographer from Hong Kong. Having lived in such a fascinating city since she was born, she gravitated towards photography at a young age. Picking up a camera for the first time at ten years old, she hasn’t stopped taking photos! In June this year, she graduated with a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of St Andrews. In future, she hopes to pursue a career in the art field or as a practising artist/photographer.
Follow Annabel on Instagram to see more of her work and stay updated with her artistic practice.