Born in Hong Kong. Raised in the UK. She studied psychology and was a therapist for special needs children before starting her photography journey. In 2014, she had her first photography exhibition in Hong Kong. Her work was also featured in PhotoVogue Italia, National Geographic, Wild Dog in Paris etc. Since then, her work is continuously getting internationally recognised, including exhibitions in Berlin, Budapest, Dublin, Taipei and Toronto. In 2017, she had her very first solo exhibition for her series “A Tale of City Hong Kong”.
At Wu Kai Sha, a pier which appears to be like another other beaches in Hong Kong, comes alive at 6am every morning. The ocean is filled with seniors from around the neighbourhood or even across town. Some go there to swim to keep up with their physical mobility, some go to train for triathlons and ocean marathons, some don’t even know how to swim but bring a float board with them so they can do stretching in water, some go there to connect and chat with new found friends, and some take their grandchildren there and teach them swimming. This pier has a Chinese nickname – 蟹伯樂園 – it means a waterpark/playground for the “crab” seniors. And at 6am, the sea is filled with them which looks like lots of crabs swimming in the ocean.
Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Hi, this is Michelle Chan from Hong Kong. I’m a freelance photographer, but I call myself a visual storyteller as I love telling stories through different forms and combination of imagery. I lived in UK for almost 13 years and now based back in my birthplace Hong Kong. My nickname is Rice because in Chinese “Mi” means Rice, and I do like to eat rice. 🙂
How did you get into photography?
Photography has been a lot of things for me – recording of moments, expressing my feelings, translating my ideas etc. I’m terrible with verbal languages, whatever that’s been rehearsed in my mind comes out all xyz. I’ve always felt that the medium of languages cannot describe truly how I feel or what I’m thinking. Words fly but images stay. So ever since I have a camera, or can get hold of a device that has a camera, I’ve always been using imagery as a mode of expression. And about 3 years ago I took it up more seriously.
In your perspective what makes a good Image?
I believe that if you can make images from within, not a replica of other photographer’s work, that’s a good image. If you are able to speak about what you want to say with visuals, not merely following what the trend is, then that’s a good image. But there’s a really fine line in how to define those. And only the photographer themselves can answer this question and position themselves in where they want to be.
For me, single images don’t interest me. Every medium or format of presentation of the work there’s a limitation to its medium and ways of expressing something. I find stories are much more well-told when they are in a series, when images work together to talk about a certain topic or create a specific mood.
Out of all photography genres why did you choose Documentary Photography?
I didn’t choose Documentary Photography. People look at my work and they want to classify them into different genre. I just make pictures. They could be something I wanna remember by, or it could be something that reflects my imaginations or feelings. I’m only interested in translating them from the mind into tangible visuals.
How do you choose the stories that you want to cover?
For me, it’s a bit like falling in love – you don’t pick the person you fall in love with, it comes to you unexpectedly. So for the crab seniors, I didn’t choose them, they chose me. It was a beautiful coincidence where I wanted to try out underwater shooting and as I was teaching my parent’s friends swimming they told me about this bay. So I went along and I fell in love.
What was the project or single photo or project that shaped you?
I don’t like to think of myself as one type of photographer, or one that is known for a certain image or project. We evolve as human beings, all the work that I’ve done are marks of how my photography develops and evolves. Some people may think a certain image of mine strikes them while others may think a particular project of mine is intriguing. I don’t want to be formulated by these and be confined to a certain box of style. I’d say they are the evidence of time and my existence.
What challenges do you face in Documentary photography?
I won’t say they are challenges, but these definitely takes time as they won’t just happen over hours or days. One of the most important one is the trust you build with the people that you are photographing. Especially in a socially more traditional culture like Hong Kong, or with groups of vulnerable people. There is no tips or guidelines to this, but just to be your genuine self. And honest with what you are doing. And then, wait. And keep communicating. Time will do its magic.
How do you ensure your safety on location if necessary?
The only safety that I have had to encounter was the ocean. I guess there’s no black and white answer to this. It’s more about how much you feel you can cope and how much you feel you can push yourself. Without risk, you won’t get the extras and the novelty, but at the same time, you have to be cautious.
Have you ever gotten emotionally involved during an assignment?
Every piece of work I make is emotionally involved. The emotional energy is what I must put into while I am creating work so they get transformed and imprinted into the photographs. Viewers, believe it or not, they can feel it. If images are not made with emotions to me that image is dead.
Which photographers inspire or have inspired you the most?
There are many, just way too many. My all time favourites are Trent Parke and Sohrab Hura. I also like the work from members of Tempszero, and the work that are published by VOID.
Are you developing any other personal projects at the moment?
Yes – working on a few other projects, one is a collaboration with another photographer and one is about my childhood.
Any tips for aspiring documentary photographers?
Keep pushing. There will be times when you feel like giving up, and you hate all of it. But those times will pass, and those are the times where you’re on your way to your breakthrough. So hang on, light is on the other side of the tunnel. Always.
What is your biggest fear?
Not being able to listen to my inner voice and follow it. With the everyday swamp of different information exposing and crawling into me, there’s always a need for solitude and just to listen to myself so to remain authentic rather than a copy of someone else. One of my favourite quotes from Bruce Lee, “We have more faith in what we imitate than what we originate. The most poignant sense of insecurity comes from standing alone.”
What’s your greatest achievement?
To be able to follow my heart, and dare greatly to things I’ve dreamed of doing but was too afraid to.
Favorite place to shoot?
Near the ocean.
First thing you think when you wake up in the morning?
What creative work I can spend time alone this morning. My daily routine after started the crab senior series (even though when I’m not shooting) is still to wake up at 4am. The quiet and peaceful dawn before the world awakes is the best time to do creative work.
You can find Michelles work here: