This Filipino Photographer Transforms the Streets of Hong Kong Into a Graphic Wonderland of Pattern and Symmetry
It was the acts of courage during the 1986 EDSA Revolution that lead Monty Papa into the world of images. Back then, he was just a 16-year-old taking photos of the many rallies happening on the streets during that tumultuous moment in history. He was also a teenager whose parents forbade him from going to more worrisome spots like Mendiola or the University Belt in Manila.
Nevertheless, the amateur photographer made his way to polling precincts, Camp Aguinaldo, and of course EDSA, where he witnessed massive tanks crawling into a sea of protesters and other unforgettable scenes. “I was amazed as I saw the nuns go up to soldiers, place flowers around the barrel of their ArmaLites, and hang rosaries on their necks,” he says. “I guess I was bitten by the photojournalism bug.”
Though he had an inclination toward images, he wasn't able to pursue it. Papa says his passion “...devolved into taking photos of family, which quickly led to my losing interest in the art of photography.” And so he put down the camera for other things.
Papa, now 50, became a stockbroker, the president, in fact, of his own company, Papa Securities Corporation, a father, a traveler, and also one of those crazy running enthusiasts, who has completed 17 marathons, including the six big ones: Boston, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, London, and Berlin.
Three years ago, his daughter was accepted in the Savannah College of Arts and Design in Hong Kong, so Papa included a new routine in his already full life. Shuttling between Manila and the cosmopolitan city, he found himself searching for the best spots in Hong Kong, the places that don't look like the feed of your favorite micro-influencer or any of the travelogues that tourists pick up.
A stockbroker by trade, Monty Papa returned to his love of photography after 30 years to capture the unseen views of the city.
After a 30-year break from photography, Papa started taking images of a city without color. “I purchased a camera that took pictures only in monochrome, which was unusual since we all see in color and are drawn to it,” he says.
The results are unexpected and brilliant. Hong Kong, the buzzy play place of Filipinos, is presented as something else, a graphic wonderland filled with mood and feeling. “I practiced seeing the world in contrasts, tones, shapes, patterns, and symmetry. I believe when you strip a picture of color, you see it's true essence,” he continues.
Here, the lensman, who will be holding a photography talk at the Leica Store in Greenbelt on Saturday, shares his journey back to images and teaches us how to see the unseen in familiar places. Consider the following as solid advice for taking more interesting photographs.
Half the battle is won when you find a subject you love.
“I love Hong Kong. It's like my second home. I know the city better than some of its own residents,” Papa shares. “I love seeing vestiges of old Hong Kong—old hand-painted signs hung on the sides of buildings, neon street signs, the alleys that weave through the city where you can find the cooks taking their smoke breaks.”
What really makes him, as he describes, "swoon" is when streetscapes transform into scenes in Bladerunner: “when it rains and the lights reflect off the wet pavement and smoke envelopes streets.”
Papa is drawn to the vestiges of old Hong Kong, from the city's secret alleys to its neon signs (below).
Legwork means prowling the Internet and actual streets.
“I do a ton of research. I check out geotags. I follow certain photographers that have a similar style to mine. Photographers can be very secretive when it comes to divulging favorite haunts. They spend countless hours prowling streets, buildings, and vantage points that are not in every other persons IG feed.”
Get the shot but be careful (or don't get caught).
Papa's best images are views of everyday places taken from an uneasy angle, and this may have required getting into places he's not supposed to be. Which, of course, means that the photographer has played that cat-and-mouse game with security guards, some of which have succesfully escorted him out of their premises.
If there is one thing he would not do for a shot, it is this: Don't climb a roof. “The notoriety of hanging from the side of a building in a mask or showing off your Yeezys while dangling from a rooftop does not, in my opinion, make for a great photograph,” he explains.
When light leaves, find a way.
Up until recently, Papa shot exclusively in black and white, but when overcast days offered no light and shadows to play with, monochrome work became tedious. So he started tinkering with color.
“Doing color though requires me to reset my thought process. It's a completely different approach from the way I would process in black and white. I'm thinking color wheel—which colors complement and which detract; patterns and shapes are no longer as integral.”
His color photographs have a cinematic or nostalgic feel. Papa says he is drawn to photos “where you can't tell if it was taken yesterday or 30 years ago.”
A lack of light and shadow led to his recent foray into color, resulting in images with a nostalgic feel.
Trying something new can result to something great.
Papa's foray into color has resulted in his most favorite image. We'll let him describe it: “My most recent shot of pedestrians with umbrellas in Causeway Bay is something I’m quite fond of. It's devoid of color apart from the yellow umbrellas and the zebra crossing lines.”
Shot in Causeway Bay, Papa's favorite image features lines and yellow, merging his monochrome and color works.
Another favorite, this old building in Quarry Bay is 'like an image from the Kowloon Walled City of the ’70s.'
And now, very specific places in Hong Kong where you can possibly take a beautiful shot.
1. “In Mongkok, there's a walkway right outside the MTR station, which is very popular.”
2. “In Central, there's an area before the travel escalator where you can get a nice vantage point looking down.”
3. “In Causeway Bay, there's an abandoned restaurant in a building adjacent to the main crossing, where you can sneak in. I am not sure how long this will remain abandoned though, and if security sees you, they will not be very happy.”
4. “Across Temple Street, there is a low rooftop accessible by a fire exit that wasn't too hard to get into, but it's been locked.”
This scene of Temple Street was taken from a low rooftop (that is no longer accessible).
Papa also reports that the graphic signboards in Central have been taken down.
Plus, a few bits of practical advice for better photographs.
His best piece of advice: Learn from the old masters. How do they compose images? What works? What doesn't? Papa goes even further and suggests devouring their work. That means immersing yourself in images by great photographers, beginning with Henri Cartier Bresson.
“And if you are interested in Hong Kong photography, do yourself a favor and google Fan Ho, who is, in my opinion, of the most brilliant street photographers of all time,” he adds.
Much like any modern photographer, Instagram is one of Papa's main channels for sharing his work, but he cautions against relying only on the platform for ideas. “Take what you learn from Instagrammers (like me) with a grain of salt,” he says. “You can develop a lot of bad habits from just looking at IG photos.”
And of course, there is this: “Keep shooting. You will only get better if you practice.”
For better photographs, Papa advises immersing yourself in the world of images, in particular the works of old masters.
'Chasing Light with Monty Papa' will be held on April 27, Saturday, 2 to 4 p.m. at the Leica Store, Greenbelt 5, Makati. For more of Monty Papa's work, visit @montypapa.ph on Instagram.
This story originally appeared on Esquiremag.ph.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.