Is Liam Wong-Style Night Street Photography Alienating & Reactionary?

I posted my random reaction to a photobook on a membership photography forum elsewhere and am putting it up here in case anyone has any interest in my crazy ramblings.

I just got Liam Wong’s After Dark from my local lending library and it’s gorgeous to look at.

At the same time, the narrative of the book but also the aesthetic — that’s not by any means exclusive to Liam (I’m just picking on him as probably the most famous example) — is one of loneliness and alienation in the megacity.

Inevitably at night, the photographer is going to be looking for the one or two human figures available in the early hours to give scale and human interest. But it is also part of the exoticising aesthetic to emphasis this isolation and loneliness. No doubt many people are lonely in cities. But this Blade Runneresque sexing up of a mood seems quite unrepresentative of my experience of cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong where communities living cheek by jowl are tightly meshed. This style has to actively exclude any sense of humour, agency, social solidarity, friendship, family relations or even basic humanity from its portrayal of the city.

There are no such images in the book and I would suggest that if there were, it would completely break the spell of this constructed (highly graded, unnaturally neon) worldview. There are a few pairs of figures, but again the pictures read as a couple versus the city.

Rain is also favoured, yes because of the reflections, but this also adds to the presumed oppression of the place. The few images of groups of people on the street are crowd scenes with individuals isolated under their umbrellas, shielding from the rain but also from the drone-like humanity that surrounds them.

Even if it can be argued that it is acknowledging the loneliness that many suffer in the city, the portrayal is of an inevitability that suggests nothing can be done. It’s a passive, pessimistic, reactionary worldview, it seems to me. It ignores that cities that no doubt can have negative aspects, can also be havens of community, tolerance and joy from the great breadth of humanity that make their homes in them today. Beauty in art is not enough.

The Contents page, for me, says a lot about this alienating perspective:


Beautiful images, for sure. Does this book have text, or is it just a series of photos? Honestly, to me, the photos presented in the review don’t convey a sense of loneliness and alienation. Maybe it’s just my own experiences coloring my judgment, but a scarcity of people in the big city doesn’t automatically convey those feelings. I’ve spent a lot of my life being up later than most of the city and having a good time while at it, and I’ve always been thankful that the lights are still on!


Yes, there is text. Along the lines of the title headings. The pics in the original link are probably not that representative in a way. I linked to a flip through below. Most images in the book tend to show lonely, weary looking people. Not a single smile. I think it’s a dystopic vision of the city a la Blade Runner that bears little relationship to actual lived experience. The nighttime in Hong Kong, in my experience, is lively with multi-generation families eating out in groups, often on casual tables on the streets and alleys, with kids (at remarkably late hours) running around and elders chatting. It’s notable that Wong is a Scottish former video game designer and stylist. I find such pics atomising and pessimistic, regardless how striking they appear.

An analogy closer to my own experience is “if it bleeds, it leads” typical news reporting. It’s understandable that what’s most striking would be highlighted, but it gives an unbalanced impression of a scary world. All the time, the many ways in which the world slowly improves are ignored. It’s accidentally reactionary.


I have Liam Wong’s TO:KY:OO and it’s a great photobook, although it’s a lot more populated with people than this one seems to be. Gonna read the article, thanks for sharing :slight_smile:

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But that is your observation about hong Kong. Clearly that doesn’t seem to be the author’s point of view.

I wonder if the blade runner-esque aesthetic actually reinforces the notions of isolation and loneliness, or is it an aesthetic that is meant to draw you in, but doesn’t match the sentiment. I haven’t formed that opinion yet, I’ll continue to think about it.


I have the tokyo book, it’s heavily photoshopped, the images are composites


Sure. I understand that it’s my perspective and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this kind of artistic representation. Representations carry meaning. I’m just pointing out what I think those meanings are, IMV, relatively objectively. The viewer can decide whether they think the eye-catching result is normatively good or not.

I suppose what I personally have some difficulty with is that this is a very impoverished view of either Hong Kong or Tokyo, and cities in general. (The representation of unending solitude is even more absurd for anyone who has lived in a Tokyo neighbourhood - it’s basically almost impossible to not be involved with the community in some fashion, even as foreigner. Everyone is communally responsible for keeping the area in good condition. If, say, a “certain gaijin” … cough… put the wrong rubbish out in the designated space on the wrong day, local people will go through his rubbish bag to find his address and leave it outside his front door). :sweat_smile: Tokyo, like lots of cities, is a collection of villages, but more so.

I think the fact that stereotypical dystopian representations collapse if any kind of happiness or community are allowed into them shows how impoverished a view they are. Yes, it’s cinematic and like cinema it is creating a stylised and imaginary world but, unlike cinema of this type, it’s claiming to refer to actual places. The viewer can decide the trade offs that involves.

P.S. I appreciate people indulging my personal ravings by engaging in discussion. Thanks!


Is that a subjective observation, or have you actually seen definite changes made compared to the real scenes? Curious as I read somewhere yesterday a quote from Wong saying that only one of the images in the TO:KY:OO book was “manipulated”, and the rest were only adjusted, in terms of colours, tone, etc.
Very annoyingly I now can’t find the source where I read that…

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I think it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect “artists” to give a complete and statistically accurate view of anything. Ignoring this particular photographer you can’t really suggest that showing loneliness is somehow problematic because most people aren’t lonely.

Now I also think that artists should be aware and careful about what their work communicates. It matters imho if you are saying.

In this particular case I think it’s just about aesthetics. The photographer has developed a successful style that references various films and other cultural products. They are nice images but I think they are only about effect. Carelessly using effect without considering the meaning you’re reproducing is pretty terrible and about the worst thing you can do. In this case though I can’t see it as very problematic even with my most critical lens.


Wong was clear in TO:KY:OO that his goal was not to go for a realistic approach to his photography as he wasn’t even a professional when he started taking those photographs. He came from game development and his style of editing very much reflects that (in his words). I don’t believe you can look at his work as reach the conclusion “This looks like real life.”

At least for TO:KY:OO it seems to be the authors point of view, if partly:

He also thanked Syd Mead(Worked on Blade Runner), William Gibson and Kojima in the next pages.


Yep. I completely agree with you. Artistic/commercial freedom is important.

My point, I guess, is to put into words the meanings that I believe are being conveyed by the images and that I didn’t at first comprehend when I saw them casually and thought “pretty pictures”. Then I’m expressing my idea that there are negative trade offs in those meanings.



I’m a bit too lazy to get it off the shelf but I thought this was all detailed in the book, well, just had a look, I might have got that idea from the foreword “liam’s photos are digital creations etc”, I have also read a few things online about him so may also have read something there


That’s hella lazy! :wink:

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I was sat in my chair, I would have needed to rotate out before I got up and everything


LOL. Totally with you


I’m quite constrained here, I’ve got a big box of discount photobooks from germany to my right then a shelving unit on the left, I have to kind of shuffle the chair round with my feet so that I can get up


It wasn’t the blade runner part of the comment I was referring to, it was the “bears little relationship to actual lived experience.”

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I would say it definitely doesn’t do that because it’s taking its tropes from blade runner and sci-fi and gaming, which to be fair is what he says.

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