“A Camera Is A License”: A Retrospective of Asia with Canadian Photographer Greg Girard
Having spent almost three decades travelling and living in Asia, Canadian photographer Greg Girard has documented some extraordinary moments in history, including the Sri Lankan civil war, the handover of Hong Kong and the student protests in Tiananmen Square. His extensive works have also been featured in some of the most reputable publications in the world, like Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, National Geographic and Time.
Picking up photography in his teen years, Girard first bought a camera at the age of 16. “It was like discovering a book no one had told you about, and you fall in love with it. And you keep looking for what the writer has done and what influenced them,” he explains.
Though he admits he never set out to become a photojournalist, Girard initially found photography to be his way of engaging with people and the environment around him. “A camera is a license, it lets you do things, go places that you might not without one,” he says. “It was kind of an entry point to the world, one you wouldn’t have when you’re just looking or talking to people. In the simplest terms, it was making the world your own.”
After graduating from high school, the budding photographer worked for a year to save money for a trip to Hong Kong. It was a goal he had settled on after seeing an image of the Hong Kong harbour from 1962. “It was this mix of neon signs and buildings on the waterfront. There was a local junk boat in the foreground. It was an everyday harbour scene, not made to look glamorous. Neon on the skyline,” he describes. “The familiar looked strange and the strange looked familiar, with Japanese brands and Western billboards. Everything was mixed together in a non-judgmental way.”
Girard, who would call Hong Kong his home for the next few decades, published two books about his time living in the former British colony. HK:PM Hong Kong Nightlife 1974-1989 captures the city’s iconic neon landscape, while City of Darkness documents the most densely populated place in the world at that time, the infamous and notorious Kowloon Walled City.
“What I realised in the beginning was that it was just a normal place – people working and educating their kids. The fears of vices like prostituting, gambling and drug addiction, it had bypassed that. It was just a working class neighbourhood with a raw reputation,” he says of the now-demolished city. “I had worked with different magazines and had learned which lighting would look good. I would light people the way I would a movie star. [The city itself] was already extraordinary.”
During Girard’s time photographing for print publications, he captured some of the most prolific individuals in Asia, including actress Gong Li, Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka Shing, and acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai. Among the many personalities he’s worked with, one moment with renowned Hong Kong actor Chow Yuen Fat stands out.
Agreeing to meet with Girard for a sunset session on the rooftop of Ocean Terminal, one of Hong Kong’s largest malls, the beloved movie star arrived alone in his sports car. “In those days, there was less preciousness about celebrities in Hong Kong. People were more down to earth,” he says. “I’m by himself, he’s by himself. I had nobody helping me, and he was with me for 30 to 45 minutes. He was perfectly generous, a great guy to spend time with.”
Beyond the experiences of meeting world-class celebrities, photography has allowed Girard to travel throughout Asia, at times during dangerous circumstances. During the Sri Lankan civil war, the photographer went to great lengths to reach Batticaloa, the country’s former capital, on assignment for Time. After catching a number of connecting flights, a taxi ride, encountering a government-ordered road block, and completing the last leg with an arduous bike ride, he was eventually able to capture photo of members of the Tamil Tigers.
“I got on my bike and rode for 60km. When I got to the first village, people tried to stop me, and they told me the road had been mined for months,” he says. “But I knew that landmines could only occur on unpaved roads. So as long as I was riding on paved road and it wasn’t broken up, I would be okay.” Considering it to be one of the most memorable moments in his career, he later had to tape the film to his legs after being detained by the Sri Lankan military in order to smuggle the photos back to Time’s head office in New York.
Today, Girard resides in his hometown of Vancouver, although he was still a regular visitor to Asia prior to coronavirus restrictions to host his solo gallery shows and book projects. When speaking about the changes he sees in Asia today, he says, “Every place still feels the same. It looks different, but it doesn’t feel different. The core part of it is still there. Asia was booming in the early ‘80s – you could already see the trajectory.”
All Images: Courtesy of Greg Girard
Writer | Kristy Or
A fan of indie films and alternative music, Kristy is a writer and producer from Sydney. Tea and coffee are a vital part of her diet.