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Press Kit: What to Pack When You’re Covering the Hong Kong Protests
Documentary photographer Matthew Aslett’s experience working with humanitarian missions around the globe has led to a honed approach to carry. Below he shares what he’s carrying while covering the Hong Kong protests…
Neon soaked streets, dark alleys and a futuristic skyline of man-made monoliths. Hong Kong has been the setting and inspiration for countless fictional tales that have helped define popular culture and shape our vision of the future. A tiny outcrop of rugged hills and islands, it also has one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world.
As a documentary photographer my work has taken me to some of the world’s remotest regions, the deserts of the Sahara, the Himalayan range and the dense jungles of central Borneo. However, I always find myself drawn to cites; perhaps it’s the people. The interaction between people and spaces, inventive innovations in urban architecture and infrastructure or simply a love of the future and of the possibilities it can offer us.
Living in Singapore, I’ve visited Hong Kong a number of times over the years. I knew from the first time walking the streets that it was a special place and that any kind of attempt to change the spirit and culture of the people was sure to be met with stern resistance. The British handed back Hong Kong in 1997 after the expiry of its historic 99-year lease, a century-old legacy from the Opium Wars of the 1800s. The former British colony had one of the world’s most developed economies and was now facing assimilation into one of the world’s greatest surviving autocracies.
In order to protect the Hong Kong economy and people, China and the UK signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration which permitted democratic autonomy for 50 years, until 2047 by which time it was thought that China would have developed enough to allow for an easier integration.
At the beginning of the summer a new legal bill was introduced which would allow for extradition of those people considered guilty of crimes including sedition against Beijing to be sent to China for punishment. It has been seen by Hongkongers as another worrying indication that the Communist Chinese Government, the PRC are accelerating the inculcation of Hong Kong into mainland China. Protests have been taking place on the streets now for the last three months. Police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protests in an attempt to subdue the resistance movement who are calling for the withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill and an enquiry into police conduct amongst their five key demands.
My curiosity started to get the better of me as for weeks I saw reports of police and protesters fighting pitched battles amongst the high-rises and streets I have come to know and love. I asked my wife if I could leave her and our almost two-year-old son again for a while, having just returned from working in Thailand. She knows these kinds of situations are my professional specialism; she told me in no uncertain terms ‘go to Hong Kong’. Great, thank you my love, now which pack do I choose?
When working in urban areas with high populations there are a number of risks to consider. Having worked previously in Palestine I’m used to tear gas and rubber bullets. I have been gassed plenty and was shot in the leg with a rubber-coated steel bullet. They made a film during my time in Palestine, it’s called Five Broken Cameras, it won an Emmy. The best preparation for working in hostile environments is professional training, a key element of which is Risk Management. It is vital that you think not only about the physical risks to which you’re going to be exposed but also the psychological risks you might encounter, or indeed those created by your very presence.
The PDW SHADO is a great pack and works incredibly well in a number of environments and does a great number of things. However, the tactical look of the pack and the straps and gear retention loops are not really conducive to keeping a low profile or moving swiftly in an urban environment, especially amongst 1.7 million peaceful protesters and commuters all wielding open umbrellas. Also it’s important to keep in mind if you turn up at a peaceful demonstration dressed in preparation for conflict, helmet and gas mask at the ready, you’re going to scare people, and when people get scared terrible things can happen.
Documentary work requires me to be a passive observer, not to directly or indirectly provoke or influence a situation. To remain as objective as possible and record what takes place. To this end I decided that all my personal protection equipment or PPE had to be contained within the pack, with nothing visibly showing. Either a stripped down TAD FAST Pack Scout or the Mystery Ranch Urban Assault 18L would both be excellent in this regard.
My typical working day in Hong Kong takes the form of attending a demonstration or march that will inevitably move off its pre-authorised route, proceeding in any random direction for hours, likely in the pouring rain and then possibly end in a considerable amount of violence. Threats can include gas and projectiles as well as physical assault, exhaustion, muscle strains and dehydration. My choice of pack and EDC kit is vital in mitigating these risks. I ended up with the TAD FAST Pack Scout to keep things light and agile, and the PDW SHADO for longer days and marches so I could pack for more mileage.
Due to the illegality of military PPE in Asia, which includes ballistic body armour, it was necessary to source a legal equivalent once in the country. 3M have a number of commonly available respirators designed for industrial use that can be equipped with filters for organic gases, which includes tear gas. The lack of ballistic protection was a concern, but having experienced being shot with a rubber bullet before I knew carrying heavy level IV ballistic plates wasn’t necessary. Considering the 90% humidity in Hong Kong the thought also came as a welcome relief. I am a climber and when not travelling for work I travel to climb. Outdoor climbing in Southeast Asia is a hot and sweaty affair, so I’ve learned a few things about protective equipment and high humidity. I have a Black Diamond Vector climbing helmet as protection for my head from airborne projectiles. It is extremely lightweight and very comfortable over long periods of time.
Tear gas not only affects your respiratory system, it also stings skin and gets worse with sweat. Long sleeves and gloves are beneficial when first exposed, eventually the effects lessen with each repeated exposure. I still find the backs of my hands get irritated so I carry a pair of Outdoor Research Aerator Sensor warm weather gloves. For eye protection I’m using my ESS Advancer V12 goggles which I’ve had for years. They continue to stand up to whatever I throw at them, whether it be sandstorms or days on the bike.
For recording I’m using both Fujifilm X-Pro2 and X-T2 cameras. They both take the same batteries and work pretty much the same. The X-Pro2 is easier to carry due to the rangefinder design, it’s flat without a protruding pentaprism so carries better in the pack. Attached to them are the Fujifilm XF-23 f/2 and XF-35 f/2 lenses. In 135 photographic terms they are 35mm and 50mm lenses. The 35mm gives me a nice environmental portrait and wide establishing image, whilst the 50mm I use mostly for portraits due to its depth of field, or when I don’t want to get too close to the action. Both are weather sealed and have a fast and silent autofocus. For video I’m using an iPhone XR of which the video quality still continues to surprise. I also have a GoPro HERO5 for live video streaming. My wireless headphones are Jaybird X4s, they work when wet and have fantastic sound quality. Backup power is supplied by a 20,000mAh Anker PowerCore II. Everything is recharged via USB, even the camera batteries. I dumped the camera ‘power brick’ a long time ago in favor of a Nitecore FX1 dual charger for Fuji. They make them for almost every camera battery, simply brilliant.
For digital editing I’m using a 10.5″ iPad Pro which is fast and makes the task a joy. Recommended apps include LumaFusion for video editing, and Lightroom with creative cloud for backup syncing and organization. As I also supply the media with images I’m also having to carry an 11″ MacBook Air. The reason being I’m unable to edit the IPTC metadata required for media work on the Lightroom mobile app, sigh. Last but not least is a Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro 3TB hard drive and Nokia 8110 4G which allows me to backup, share files and provide an internet connection on the go. The Nokia 8110 4G is also dual sim, so I can effectively move between three networks when travelling abroad. All my cables, adaptors and chargers are kept in a Peak Design Tech Pouch. For hydration and coffee I carry a couple of Klean Kanteens and a 32 oz. Nalgene. I also have my AeroPress and Porlex grinder. They travel with me everywhere; researching local coffee is my hobby and also very much a necessity.
To be honest Hong Kong’s protest movement is equally well equipped. Over the last few nights I’ve seen quite a few Mystery Ranch packs including the 1DAP, Street Zen and Sweet Pea as well as multiple Urban Assaults. It is an honour and a privilege to be able to witness and document these historic times. I only hope that everyone involved remains safe and remembers to look out for each other no matter which pack they carry.
The TAD FAST Pack Scout is a minimal pack that’s lightweight and comfortable all day long. The pack’s low profile means I can move swiftly on the street through crowds and busy public transport without any issues. Attached to the shoulder strap is a Nitecore NU05 safety signal light. Most of the equipment I’m using day to day is designed to continue to work when wet. This is very important because tropical downpours can saturate everything in minutes.
The PDW SHADO is a favorite airport transit pack. Everything shown here fits perfectly. Two Fuji-X cameras are carried inside a Domke F-5XB. The iPad and MacBook Air 11″ are in neoprene sleeves or a TAD Control Panel 2. Batteries and chargers travel in a Peak Design Tech Pouch. I also carry a Nitecore LA10 CRI flashlight to help me find things from my pack on night flights, and an insulated 20 oz. Klean Kanteen to keep hydrated.
The Western Digital My Passport Pro features 3TB storage, a built-in card reader with automatic backup and the ability to act as a file server and mobile network router when connected to the internet via Wi-Fi.
My personal protection equipment is stored inside an Extra Small North Face Base Camp Duffel. The panel organizer from the PDW SHADO holds my trauma kit, which travels in the hold luggage together with a Leatherman Wave, my medical kit and a Nitecore SRT3 flashlight. The Black Diamond Vector helmet and ESS goggles are carried on wrapped in a TAD Topo Skull Shemagh to ensure they’re not damaged in transit.
To follow Matt’s work, check out his website: https://www.matthewaslett.com/