Before moving to Hong Kong, Romain's impression about Hong Kong mainly comes from movies directed by John Woo and Wong Kar Wai since he has never visited Hong Kong before.
"As a young teenager I enjoyed action movies a lot. Seeing John Woo's film gave me the impression that Hong Kong was a very dangerous place with gun fights happening every day. The 2 biggest hits in terms of HK movie in France at that time were The Killer and Hard Boiled, both with Chow Yun Fat. So you can imagine how I could be imagining about HK. Later, Wong Kar Wai's movies including the mood for love, Chungking express and 2046 made me see Hong Kong in a deeper perspective. His style is very visual, it gave me the impression of HK being an aesthetic place full of interesting stories."
But the first thing hit Romain's mind is not the beauty of Hong Kong but its crowdedness. He went through a tough adaptation but picked up the Hong Kong lifestyle in a short period of time.
" I remember that during the first months I found the place too much crowded with people and cars (especially in Jordan road). But after a while I got used to it and started appreciated the lifestyle: tasty and cheap restaurants, small street markets, close to the nature with bus to some great hiking trails and generally the street scenes are always very inspiring visually."
During the early time of his stay in Hong Kong, Romain continued to work as a web designer but was impressed by Hong Kong's density and verticality soon after.
"Hong Kong is a very "graphic" city. So when I started exploring it and taking photos here I immediately enjoyed it a lot. I bought my first interchangeable lens camera here and got more and more into photography. I started to work on my first series Vertical Horizon in 2011 and released it as a photo book in 2012."
After seeing the success of the photo book and exhibitions, Romain realized that this hobby can become his career. Even Romain seldom worked as a commissioned photographer, he manages to make a living through selling limited edition large prints to art galleries.
"There are quite a few opportunities to sell prints in Hong Kong, particularly with the development of art fairs in the last few years. So the private sector is surely the most helpful in the photography market. The art market is rather healthy here, it is growing organically with many galleries starting up and ready to work with new artists."
And based on Romain's understanding, most of the buyers for his photo books are people who are living in Hong Kong now or who used to live in Hong Kong. He found it interesting that his customers can even be some without a bond with Hong Kong. What surprised Romain more though is the feedback he received for his work.
" I have 3 main series and each of them received different kind of feedback from locals.
The first one was Vertical Horizon. The reaction of locals could be summarized as that: ’Well I see this everyday, nothing very special for me.’ The second one, Wild Concrete was more appreciated by locals, for them it was like showing the hidden treasures from the oldest districts of Hong Kong. So it triggers a warm reaction. And for ’The Blue Moment’ , the feedback so far is showing a pride from locals toward their own city. People seem happy and thankful that I try to show Hong Kong in its most magic outfit."
Even though Romain felt some locals may not fully realize the beauty of Hong Kong before seeing his photos, he thought this is normal since the grass is greener on the other side.
" Hong Kong locals who grew up here are very used to the urban scenes that looks impressive for foreigner. And because they are living here, some have the tendency of not exploring the city and the nature as much as they could. I think it is like this everywhere. I myself was not very keen on exploring Paris while I was living there."
But even Romain really appreciate the beauty of Hong Kong, he felt the government can do her job better in preserving the heritage and dealing with the income gap.
"I started a project called "The Old Shop" thanks to Kai Kee Mahjong parlor based in Kwun Tung. At that time their buildings were taken back by the Urban Renewal Authority to be demolished. So the Mahjong Parlor invited me to record the neighborhood and all the shops of the area. I wouldn't been able to do this project without them, and it was a very meaningful project. All the shops that I shot have now disappeared. It is tragic when you realize many of the shop owners where working there for several decades and many of them couldn't find any other place to relocate. "
The way the government in the urban planning does not make sense to Romain, as he believed that the government is more keen on destroying the old Hong Kong than preserving it, although its mission should be protecting it. On the other hand, he does not feel the government has done enough to help the poor.
"I have been living in subdivided flats for years. It is alright for young people without kids, we spend most of our time outdoor anyway. But in these tiny flats there are also families living and this is a serious problem if not the most serious problem of this city. It should not be allowed for some people to own several apartments and that some other people can't even afford a decent place for their children to grow up. In a healthy system, the the wealth should be spread more harmoniously. The government here is very wealthy compared to many other countries. They have the means to help the poorest part of the population. So I guess it is only a matter of willpower."
When Romain was asked whether he would like to stay in Hong Kong for long term, he felt he would do so but the property price and rents are the major issues. He also understood the current trend that locals may want to move to another country.
"Surely I can understand that people are willing to try different lifestyle around the world. Foreign countries can look tempting from the outside. But after living there for a few years people might discover that the grass is not necessarily greener. Then it is just up to everyone to decide what is the most important for their lifestyle."
It is always easy for locals to form a perception of a place when they have lived there for some time. Hong Kong may be a concrete jungle from the outer but there is a lot of natural scenes and historical sites unseen to many, part of them are also disappearing. Maybe we should take some time stepping back to appreciate where you live.
If you are interested in the projects by Romina, you may visit his website rjl-art.com, facebook page www.facebook.com/rjlart or even instagram ＠romainjacquetlagreze. Romain will also show his work from "Wild Concrete" in Hong Kong Contemporary Photography Exhibition 2016 from 2nd to 24th in July (L0 Gallery, JCCAC, 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei, Kowloon), everyone is welcome!