Over the last six months, the peaceful streets of Hong Kong have turned into a battle zone. Every weekend thousands of citizens have formed leaderless protests against the government in retaliation against what they say is the gradual stripping away of their democratic freedoms. The huge marches and protests started largely peacefully, but over the weeks and months have escalated into violent battles between protesters and riot police.
“I am currently based in Seoul working for the Aljazeera English network,” says Australian cinematographer Joel Lawrence ACS. “Over the past five months I have been sent back and forth to Hong Kong to cover this major, ongoing story.”
It’s a physically demanding assignment. “Not only is it overwhelmingly hot and humid, you are often marching several kilometres together with hundreds of thousands of protesters, carrying your complete camera kit, broadcast unit and safety gear,” he explains. “Sometimes working fifteen-hour days, going live almost every hour and of course dodging bricks, rubber bullets, and plenty of tear gas canisters.”
“Given the amount of unknowns on the street it’s tempting to pack a large kit, although the reality is, once you’re on the ground amongst the chaos, the absolute bare bones kit is often the best option.”
On a steamy Sunday afternoon in late July, Lawrence was deployed to march with a massive crowd from the central business district to the Beijing Liaison office several kilometres away. The number of protesters were said to be in their hundreds of thousands.
“Between myself, the correspondent and fixer, we carried a Sony PMW500 camera, Canon HJ143x4.3B wide-angle lens, Sachtler tripod, six AB batteries, Lapel mics, shotgun mics, a top light, Audio backpack, Aviwest Broadcast unit, tear gas masks, helmets and a medical kit,” says Lawrence. “It was a bare bones kit designed to get us through a long afternoon and night without needing to return to base.”
After marching with the endless crowd for around five hours through the streets, all relatively peacefully, the mood changed suddenly. Night fell, and the ‘hardcore’ element of the crowd seemed fired up; blocking streets, creating barricades and taunting police. “At this stage police put up warning signs which means tear gas is imminent,” explains Lawrence. “Masks and helmets go on, and immediately protesters charge, police fire rounds of rubber bullets and tear gas.”
“Shooting with a full face gas mask is not the easiest thing in the world, especially with a full-sized, news-gathering camera,” he says. “The mask protects your lungs from the gas, but the gas still burns any exposed skin. Breathless, with a narrow field of view, and with so many things happening at once, it can become difficult to remain focused. Police are raising their guns, a protester is lying on the ground, another is struggling to breathe, and tear gas canisters are flying overhead. The crowd charges. Are my team members safe? Can I get a live signal from here? Do you prioritise an epic shot that will sum up the day… or your safety?”
On this particular day, after hours of back and forth, the protesters eventually backed off and dissipated around midnight. “Time to take a breather, find our van and head back to edit,” says Lawrence. “This is just a standard day in the four month long coverage, and just one example of how the media covers it. My hat goes off to all the journalists, camera people and media professionals who do this week in and week out, and do their best to cover this important story fairly and bravely.”
Lawrence explains that news-gathering cameras such as his Sony PMW 500 are not always the ideal kit for situations like this. Smaller cinema style cameras, with cine zooms, have multiple benefits in these environments. “Being light and nimble is a huge advantage; low-light capability and also durability are the most important features for this kind of coverage.”
“It is hard work, but satisfying,” he says “There is a real feeling that the media is making a difference here, in particular video journalists and cinematographers, who frame these shots for the world to sit up and take notice.”
On one occasion Lawrence found himself in a crush between protesters and police who were defending their police station. “I remember protesters trying putting a helmet on me, warning me of tear gas and seemingly having more concern over my well-being than their own,” he recalls. “A lot of the protesters believe if the foreign cameras are there, the police are much less likely to attack them.”
An image that Lawrence will take with from him from the streets of Hong Kong is the hastily written graffiti “If we burn, you burn with us” scrawled onto a burnt Police barricade. “It shows that these young people really feel they have nothing to lose and will potentially give up everything to secure their freedom,” he says. “If that’s true, it probably means this story still has a long way to go and hopefully a peaceful outcome can eventually be reached.”
Joel Lawrence ACS is a senior cameraman based out of Al Jazeera’s bureau in Seoul, South Korea.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.