JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Mörel Books (here). Softcover, 98 pages, with 92 color photographs. Design by Sylvan Lanz. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: In 2019, Hong Kong was rocked by another round of pro-democracy protests, sparked this time by a controversial government bill that would open the door to criminal extradition to mainland China. Early demonstrations brought nearly a quarter of the city’s population to the streets, and these gatherings became increasingly charged and violent as police cracked down and protesters remained defiant, with the broad movement quickly catching international attention.
Sensing the development of a story, the French photographer Thaddé Comar traveled to Hong Kong to document the unfolding events. In his practice, Comar focuses on current events and social movements, having recently spent several years photographing the Black Bloc movement in Paris. Comar won a grant from Pro Helvetia to continue his protest photography, allowing him to travel to Hong Kong. His images from the Hong Kong protests were just published in a photobook titled How was your dream?, the title referring to the code phrase protesters used to share information during the marches to avoid being discovered.
How was your dream? is a softcover book of medium size. The cover photograph shows an abstract image of a sphere in blue and green, and the image on the back is a close up of a glitched screen cracked by bullets. The title and artist’s name appear on the spine in black against a bright green background. All of the photographs in the photobook are printed in full bleed color on glossy paper. There are no page numbers, captions, or other texts, immersing us in a continuous visual flow.
The recent pro-democracy resistance movement in Hong Kong has stood out from other revolts around the world as a new 21st century type of protest activity. Protesters had to deal with ultra-sophisticated control and military technology employed by the police, from facial recognition, geolocation, and biometric data to non-lethal rifles and acoustic devices. In response, the protesters systematically analyzed these tactics and developed innovative response techniques to protect themselves and to stay invisible. They also adopted a famous Bruce Lee quote “be formless, shapeless, like water” to inspire their efforts to evade the police crackdowns. The public forum of the cybersphere became a new vehicle for forging relationships among protesters and strangers, and Comar was particularly interested how in new forms of control and resistance have been quickly evolving in tandem.
The images included in How was your dream? were shot between August and October of 2019, and the book opens with a sequence showing a dot in the sky as it turns into a helicopter and moving laser lights. Comar’s photographs capture both the fiercest conflicts as well as occasional quiet moments as Hong Kongers fought for the city’s rapidly deteriorating democratic freedoms. The flow of pictures includes masked protesters, equipped law-enforcement officers, clusters of umbrellas, lasers, police firing blue-dyed high pressure water, barricades, and of course shots of the iconic Hong Kong skyline.
In one image, a group of protesters pushes a trolley with bricks to the front line; they wear dark clothes, gloves, masks, googles, and helmets and also use umbrellas to obscure their identities, matching the chaos of the moment with well organized and coordinated action. Another shot brings attention to a police officer at night on a balcony with a strong flashlight or a night vision device, and a few pages later, an image of a surveillance camera takes up the entire frame. As Comar witnesses the unfolding events, he turns his camera to the activity on both sides.
Comar often sequences cinematic images taken moments apart to immerse the viewer into the scene. A series of three images showing a water cannon getting ready and spraying blue-dye liquid is followed by a photograph of a group of people creating a shield with their umbrellas. Shots of people walking in the rain on the streets of Hong Kong are then followed by three spreads of rain drops falling on the surface of harbor (also a nod to “be water” tactic). And right after, another set of slightly blurry and tightly framed images shows protesters in action, as they flood the streets. Mixed in with these pictures is one of a highly equipped officer preparing to fire a sponge grenade, continuing the back and forth observation.
Comar also includes several close up portraits of protesters – to conceal their identities and protect themselves from teargas and pepper spray, they appear wearing masks, swim and construction goggles, yellow helmets, and hats, often with one eye covered (in honor of a woman who was left blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet fired by police). These citizens are part of the decentralized leaderless movement, using their creativity and intelligence to counteract the authorities.
In one of the last photographs in the book, riot police officers arrest young girls pushed on top of each other, one of them wearing a surgical mask; a girl in goggles is pushed on top of this girl while a third girl, in the center of the image and under a beam of light, is looking straight into the camera, completely terrified. The very last image shows an empty road, probably shot at dawn, with the barricades still in place and bricks dotting the pavement; people are seen walking on the bridge over the road. Adapting to the situation, protesters often created barricades and blocked the streets before suddenly dispersing.
2019 was a year marked by protests that took place across six continents and absorbed both liberal democracies and ruthless autocracies, and the clever tactics and methods utilized by the young Hong Kongers inspired protesters in other parts of the world. How was your dream? documents a complex moment of profound social change, focusing on the human experience of the resulting chaos, tension, and violence. But it also captures the first glimpses of a new type of protest confrontation, where technological control is upended by that very same technology, the battle for advantage constantly evolving and changing.
Collector’s POV: Thaddé Comar does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).