From an amateur camerawoman, to becoming a budding professional photographer, find out about Camilla Warburton’s experience growing up as a female creative of colour in Hong Kong.
With so many Instagram-worthy spots in Hong Kong, and almost everyone holding onto a phone nowadays, it’s no surprise that photography has become hugely popular in this city. And not only has this phenomenon given birth to amazing art galleries like Bamboo Scenes, but it’s also stimulated the rise of local talents – one of them being Camilla (or Cammie) Warburton. From starting off as an amateur photographer, to journeying through grief, and now contributing to social movements like body acceptance, inclusivity, and female empowerment, find out how Cammie has been expressing herself through her art, and what being a photographer is really like in Hong Kong.
An interview with Camilla Warburton
Hey, Cammie! Thank you for chatting with us. Did you always know you were going to become a professional photographer, and what drove you to become one?
I guess I’ve always known I’d wanted to do photography. It all started when I went on safaris with my dad when I was a kid. My dad had a passion for photography; I’d always pick up his equipment, and play around with his film cameras and DSLRs. During our excursions together, I’d take photos of wild animals, nature, and almost everything I saw. Eventually, I became quite attached to photography. And knowing this, Dad let me keep his cameras. He also encouraged me to keep taking photos, saying, ‘If you want to become a photographer one day, just keep shooting.’
Feeling motivated, I’d always take photos of my friends at school. In fact, I was always that ‘annoying’ friend who’d have a camera everywhere I went. I enjoyed capturing candid moments during our hangouts, whether we were exploring Hong Kong, or cycling in Tai Po. So, it wasn’t really a surprise for anyone when I chose to pursue photography, art, and design for my higher education.
It’s lovely knowing how inspirational your dad was to you. But, we’re sorry to hear that he passed away last year. How has his passing affected you?
My dad was indeed an inspirational figure to me, both in life and in photography. So after his passing, I’ve been finding it really hard to use photography to express myself, because sometimes, that requires me to tap into my more vulnerable side. Although I feel okay at work, I haven’t been able to create personal projects in a long time. I could feel something has changed, and there’s definitely been a creator’s block; maybe it’s because I’ve had to build a sort of wall to protect myself. But, I’m aware of this, and I’m working on it. Because I believe photography can be a therapeutic tool for people to go through emotions and seek solace, I want to use it for myself as well.
Could you tell us about a day in the life of a photographer in Hong Kong?
First of all, I’d say it’s HOT in the summer. And tiring, too! Being a photographer is nowhere near as glamorous as people think it is, especially as a freelancer. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love what I’m doing. But there’d be days, say, I’d have to work for 13 hours straight, then do the same the next day. This actually happened last month: I had to get up at five in the morning, then hike to the location of the shoot (which involved climbing over rocks somewhere in Lantau) while carrying all the equipment. Then, I set things up and took photos for a full day, before finally getting in bed at around ten to prepare myself for the whole thing to repeat when I wake up.
In addition, being a freelance photographer means I don’t have an assistant or a team to work with. This indicates that I have to organise payments with my clients and chase them up if necessary; prepare moveboards, props, and backdrops; schedule and attend all the meetings; do the editing at home; and the list goes on. Again, I love what I’m doing, especially because working freelance gives me the opportunity to be more hands-on, independent, and flexible. But I admit it’s difficult at times, so I’d love to have my own team one day.
You seem to work with a lot of female dancers, activewear brands, and inclusive fashion labels. What are the reasons behind this?
When I first returned to Hong Kong after university, I was working part-time at a studio in Sheung Wan. Not only was I in charge of its graphic design and social media marketing, but I also took photos for the team. From there, I got the opportunity to shoot for small fitness and yoga studios. And before I knew it, I was taking photos for bigger brands, like Lululemon.
Looking back, I think everything developed very organically, because I’ve always only set myself up for things I personally wanted to do. For example, when I resonate with the body positivity movement, I take photos inspired by it and I put them up on Instagram. This means my work is authentic, as it’s often parallel to my personal life. And this authenticity shows through my portfolio as well, which leads to brands that share similar values to reach out to me.
On the topic of personal experience, what were the difficulties growing up in Hong Kong as an ethnic minority? How do you cope with them?
I think I’ve felt relatively comfortable in my brown skin, because my family has been so supportive of me, and I grew up with a very diverse group of friends in an international school.
The truth is, I was adopted. My birth parents are from the Philippines, whereas my dad is English, and my mum is Brazilian. So I’ve had a very different way of considering my self-identity to begin with. When people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from HK, because I grew up here. Yet, I’m not Chinese, so people will follow up with, ‘Then where are you really from?’ Replying to that is always a struggle, since I don’t associate myself with being from the Philippines, or England or Brazil.
That said, I didn’t really notice these challenges so much in the past, thanks to my loving family. I never grew up thinking my skin colour was that different from everyone else’s, until I went to the UK for university. Since then, I’ve become more conscious about it. After coming back to Hong Kong, there have been numerous times when people would mistake me for a domestic helper, and some taxi drivers would be a little weird with me as well. While I’m okay in general, I do feel the instant judgement… So, I try not to take things too personally, and I just think to myself, ‘This is how Hong Kong is…!’
How would you describe the arts and culture scene in Hong Kong at the moment, and how do you think it will develop, especially after the pandemic?
I feel the local arts and culture scene is definitely lacking at the moment. The sad thing is, I had felt that it was growing, that it was bubbling and a creative boom was waiting to happen – but then COVID-19 happened. On the positive side, I believe that if you look out for the arts in Hong Kong, it’s there. For instance, if you venture to the Kowloon side, you’d get to meet more locals and realise there are many events going on. You just have to look for them. And although our arts and culture scene may not be comparable to that of London and New York, Hong Kong has so much rawness and so much to offer, beyond parties and whatnot. Plus, the best thing about art is that we don’t need to speak the same language, be it Cantonese or English. So, I’d urge everyone to get out there and explore!
Finally, what are some tips you would give to aspiring photographers and creatives in Hong Kong?
I’d give the same advice as my dad had given me: just keep doing what you’re doing! Also, be sure to look into the other arts and our environment as well for inspiration. If you’re a beginner photographer, I would recommend getting into street photography, because Hong Kong just has so much material, whether it’s the chaotic urban areas or the beautiful countryside. To start off with, you can pick a theme, such as reflections, shadows, or the colour red. Honing in on one visual stimulus can help you learn to see the world in a different lens – literally!