SAI: For those of us not familiar with the Umbrella Revolution, could you explain what the title of the exhibition means?
Iain Gomez: The title is connected to the Umbrella Revolution, which came about because Hong Kong is this small city that’s run from two different political views. While I was there I was fortunate enough to document this whole movement which was started by the young people in Hong Kong. It went from universities to eventually spread into an Occupy movement. On the first day, they used umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, smoke, and rubber bullets. That’s where the name ended up coming from.
SAI: Why were you in Hong Kong?
Gomez: I was studying abroad through SCAD. I was there for about 3 months.
SAI: Did you come in at the very beginning of the revolution?
Gomez: Halfway through my time there, I started to hear about this whole issue that was going on. It hadn’t quite blown up just yet, but I ended up waking up one morning and I always check the news out of habit and I saw that there was an Occupy movement going on. I wasn’t in New York when that happened here so I decided to take the opportunity and go see what was going on and document it.
I ended up staying around all day and all night. When I was leaving, people came up to me just because I had a camera and said, “Thank you for being here, can you please share this story?”, or, “Please just show this to somebody.” Things like that. So that’s why I kept documenting for as long as I did and I’m still looking for grants to go back because I don’t personally think this project is done.
Next year is a big time for them politically. China has an election coming up but it’s kind of corrupt in the way that they’re doing it. These people just want electoral reform and democracy. That’s what they were fighting for.
SAI: How long were you shooting for?
Gomez: I shot for about a month and a half. This was around the Fall of 2014. Right after I left, about a month after, they ended up clearing the main road that had been occupied for so long.
SAI: What was the experience of being in the middle of these protests like? What was the level of violence and what was your experience of talking to people?
Gomez: At first, I honestly didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I just woke up that morning and was like “Well, this seems like it could be something interesting to document.” It started off really peaceful, with people just coming together.
Eventually they started to march to the central government building and they ended up blocking off the main highway in front of the building. At first, I didn’t notice how close to the front I was because I was shooting and my back was to the barricades. When I turned around I noticed there were policemen on one side of the barricade and protesters on the other side. I knew I wasn’t in a good spot.
I ended up getting yelled at and my camera got pushed out of my face and a cop ended up threatening me with pepper spray so I started to back up through the crowd. People started throwing water bottles and started passing umbrellas to people that were further forward. Then the cops started throwing tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd. It went from there.
I climbed up on a fence and turned around and looked and both directions of this four lane highway were packed with people just shoulder to shoulder, everybody was there–really old people to really young to people that looked like they left work to come… It was chaotic.
I ended up staying all through the night. Once it got dark is when it got dark. The police armed up, they got shields, they got guns with rubber bullets and they started to fire at the crowd to try to disperse people. That worked, but only for that one night.
I ended up going back the very next day and people had organized so fast. Everybody was wearing black t-shirts. It was technically peaceful from there on.
SAI: So you were really in it then.
Gomez: Yeah. Talking to people was the main thing. Talking to people and seeing their side of it was the most interesting part because all they wanted was to be heard, just like any other movement. They really just wanted to be heard. And it was surprising how long they ended up holding all of these positions around the city. It really amazed me because it was for over a month that they held it down.
SAI: I’ve heard a little bit about your plan for this show and that there’s a narrative to your curation. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Gomez: The bulk of the show is day one, because I feel like that was huge. It turned into something big on day one. One of the first things you see is a triptych of people under these umbrellas. The next images are of people holding umbrellas trying to protect themselves, then it goes from there to the separation between the state and its people. It shows police and then crowds with their hands up with policemen walking through.
There’s this one [photo] of a guy with his hands up, directed at the camera–directly at me. It was just this moment where they were happy, they weren’t yet afraid of what was gonna happen.
One of the last photos is an image at night and you can see this huge highway and it’s just a wide shot of all these people with their cell phone lights on. It’s kind of like this light at the end of the tunnel, a metaphor for a light in the darkness.
SAI: What do you hope people will come away from this show with?
Gomez: The protesters were young, old, construction workers, bakers… It was just this idea that if you want to be heard there’s a chance to be heard and there’s power in numbers. If you actually want something to happen, why not just put it in motion? That’s honestly what I want people to get from this. Like–why wait for tomorrow when you can do something right now?
Under the Umbrella opens at Non-Fiction Gallery on Friday, May 13 with a reception from 6 – 9pm.