Chicago photojournalist Hillary Johnson was watching and reading about the violent street protests going on in Hong Kong, but felt out of touch with what was happening more than 7,000 miles away.
So she decided to go see the conflict for herself.
Last month, Johnson left the comfort of her Pilsen home, traveled to Hong Kong and found herself right in the thick of the action for a week and a half.
As soon as she arrived, from her hotel room near Hong Kong Polytechnic University, she could see clashes between protesters and security forces.
“It was really this kind of David-and-Goliath-like battle,” Johnson told WBEZ in an interview this week after she returned from Hong Kong. “You have unarmed young people, college students, mostly with umbrellas and gloves and homemade weapons and so forth. They battled for 24 hours right outside our hotel.”
It was instant immersion for someone who, until then, had been observing from Chicago.
“We see things in the paper, see things on TV, and I was skeptical about what I was seeing,” said Johnson, an independent photojournalist who usually focuses on social justice and environmental issues.
“There’s a Spanish expression — it’s one thing to speak of bulls, it’s another to be in the bullring.”
Once she was in Hong Kong, Johnson got out in the streets, walking alongside protesters and taking photos to help tell the story of what was happening. She saw sidewalks torn up, riot police armed with AR-15 rifles, and protesters picking up tear gas canisters and throwing them back at security forces.
She also took pictures of private moments with protesters. Johnson said she felt humbled and honored when people let her photograph them up close, because many were afraid. The government had invoked emergency powers and banned face masks during protests, so violators faced the risk of arrest.
Johnson used lighting and a different camera to take these black-and-white photos. And it required some planning with her photo subjects.
“They were wearing protest gear and we were out in a public space, so I had to tell them to wait and not put their gear on,” she said. “I would get everything focused and ready. They would hide until the last moment, and then run, take the pictures and then run away.”
Some of the people in Johnson’s photos are holding up five fingers, signifying the protesters’ five demands, including democratic reforms, investigation of police brutality and the release of jailed protesters.
The mass demonstrations began in June, when the government proposed legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried in mainland China. The bill was later withdrawn. Since June, more than 6,100 people have been arrested in connection with the protests.
Hong Kong was returned to China from British colonial rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised the city it can keep its own legal, economic and social system for 50 years. But in recent years, fears have grown that China’s ruling Communist Party is encroaching on those rights.
Protests cause family rift
During her time in Hong Kong, Johnson met people living with the ongoing conflict, and one case stood out — a young man and his mother
“He’s a 21-year-old frontline protester,” Johnson said. “He’s been raised by a single mom, who has a job; she worked for four years with the police. And now she works for the government.”
The protests have been polarizing for them, Johnson said, as they have been for other families. The young man kept his participation secret, but his mother found out, leading to big arguments at home, Johnson learned.
“He was like, well, there’s nothing more for us to talk about,” Johnson said. “It was like a complete break. Then finally his mom came back to him and said, tell me, what do I need to know? What’s going on?”
The young man showed videos of the protests to his mother, and now “she completely supports him going to the front line,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the issues in Hong Kong are complex, but she believes they are relevant to people everywhere.
“We see protests springing up all over the globe,” she said. “Issues about our voting power … What does it mean to vote? What is our freedom of speech actually like? People want agency and feelings like meaning and connection.”
Johnson has published her Hong Kong photos on her website.
Araceli Gómez-Aldana is WBEZ’s morning news producer. Follow her @Araceli1010.
The Associated Press contributed.