H ong Kong democracy protesters first used umbrellas to defend themselves against police teargas in street demonstrations in 2014. Since then, brollies have become the defining symbol of the movement, an improvised defence against surveillance cameras and pepper spray, a low-cost gesture of defiance against the militarised might of the Hong Kong authorities. Chinese web platforms such as Taobao and AliExpress stopped offering umbrellas for sale to Hong Kong customers in 2019. One politician tried to ban them on the basis that they had a history of use as offensive weapons in kung-fu movies. But protesters continue to use them as makeshift shields and as a kind of talismanic protection against the gathering storm clouds of repression.
The French photographer Thaddé Comar took this photo of activists hunkered down under the nylon skin of their first line of defence, like Roman legionnaires in a testudo . The picture is part of Comar’s project How Was Your Dream? , which documents the particular Hong Kong protests of the summer of 2019.
In trying to capture the frontlines of that struggle, Comar focused on the visual implications of the surveillance systems – facial recognition and geolocation – that have been trialled by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong on a mass scale to target and identify protesters. Demonstrators responded, he observed, with a “repertoire of techniques based on the principles of invisibility”. Umbrellas were the most fundamental of those tactics, which included encrypted communication, face masks, and drone cameras. Faced with walls associated with police in black visors, the student leaders are concealed not only by their brollies but by swimming goggles and hard hats, gas masks and scarves. The result is a new aesthetic of dissent, Comar suggests, one that “pushes for the gradual erasure” of individual difference. In the future, he wonders, “will sophisticated systems of control force us to make our human singularities disappear? ”