Prior to the current wave of protests, Hong Kong had rebelled against the central Chinese government in 2014. The rebellion, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution,” came rather unexpected but the Italian Lele Saveri immediately turned into an obsession. Published last September, his book Hong Kong Barricades looks a lot like a short travelogue documenting a struggle against authoritarian rule.
Lele Saveri, a photographer and the co-founder of the collective 8-Ball Community, admits he had not expected the uprising in October of 2014, when he set out to China to teach. The “Umbrella Revolution,” originally led by students, foreshadowed the crisis presently unfolding in Hong Kong. From a protest against a piece of legislation that would reinforce Beijing’s control over this autonomous region—namely, in 2014, the abolishment of universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive—the movement transformed into a widespread, general protest against Mainland China’s centralized power. Presciently sketching the contours of the current struggle, Hong Kong Barricades resonates thanks to its insight into the upheaval brought about by this social movement and its ability to palpably portray unconditional engagement.
Behind the barricades, the struggle goes on
While Hong Kong Barricades paints a fleeting, yet poignant picture of the “Umbrella Revolution,” its subtlety resides in its use of reverse-angle shots. Lele Saveri does not photograph the protests; nor does he linger over pro-democracy manifestations or clashes with the police. With the fervor of his “obsession,” as he calls it, he takes portrait after portrait of protesters and of the barricades, which he humanizes. This multiple portrait bordering on typology conveys the essence of the revolt and militant engagement using a systematic point of view to bring the object ever closer to the viewer.
Looking at one image after another of heaps of junk, we come to discern the features of the insurgents and their fragile armor composed of makeshift material. The images of barricades and protesters mirror one another, mapping the identity of the “Umbrella Revolutionaries.” This systematized portrait of two major actors in the insurrection is enough to lend meaning to the energized, absolute character of the constantly reenacted revolt against Beijing’s dominion.
Fervor and pathos
In its format and its content alike, Hong Kong Barricades underscores the disproportion between the opposing forces, painting a touching portrait of this precarious struggle. Reminiscent of underground publications, this sparingly designed pamphlet brings to mind manifestoes smuggled in coat pockets. Hong Kong Barricades supports the cause it set out to depict and foregrounds the paucity of its defenses: body armor made of textbooks and construction hard hats; barricades fashioned with plastic ties; and umbrellas turned into stockades and shields. Confronted with the tentacular state apparatus, the fervor of the combat stems from the unshaken belief, inscribed on placards that introduce and close the book, in the struggle for human dignity and democracy.
Saveri’s series is disturbingly topical also because it adopts timeless photography conventions that help to emphasize the spirit of the struggle over the form it may adopt at any given moment. Alternating between monochrome and color, the images reveal the historic lag of a city caught between Western colonial legacy and Eastern heritage—a city tied to its ideals and determined to defend itself, even despite the vulnerability of its barricades.
By Anne Laurens
Hong Kong Barricades by Lele Saveri
Humboldt Books, September 2019
80 pp, €20