Storyteller and His Tale:
A Conversation with Kurt Tong

By Chin Wei Chang

Archive-based, one of the popular methods in contemporary artistic practice, has been extensively developed and is still evolving. Artists have been exploring their relationship with archives and creating diverse types of archival uses, such as fictional archive, and counter-archive. These works demonstrate the artist's intention to challenge and reinterpret archives. However, there remain lots of questions to be explored: besides the strategy of archival uses, what does the archive itself mean to the artists? Does revealing the hidden structure inside the archive also mean that the fundamental nature of the archive has also been revealed?

Kurt Tong, well known for his works The Queen, The Chairman and I, Combing for Ice and Jade, and Dear Franklin, is one of the prominent artists in contemporary art theme. His work often deals with archives, applying private history as a starting point to rethink the canon history or the history we are familiar with. However, despite the archival nature of Tong's work, he does not identify as an archivist or historian but rather as a storyteller. In this interview, we will focus on the practice of storytelling and Tong’s creative thoughts on photobooks and exhibitions. Following this path, we will also touch on the ontological question of archives and photography.

John Chin-Wei CHANG: In a recent interview, you revealed the creative truth behind Dear Franklin, which reminded me of The Book of Veles. While there are slight differences between the two, I find that in your work, you’re more concerned with the ontological debates of photography and archives.

Kurt Tong: First of all, thank you for bringing up The Book of Veles. I have been waiting for someone to say, "Oh, it's like his book." And finally, someone has said so.

When his book came out, and of course, he is much more famous than me with Magnum, I thought, Come on, my surprise is ruined (laughter). But exactly, it's different. I do tell people about it in the book as well.

The reason I kept it as non-fiction, but when I first won the grant, I lied to all the media. That was quite hard, because some of them worked me out. However, I wanted people to read through the book, initially thinking it's real, and then realize it's fake for two reasons. First of all, to evoke greater care. Emotional investment heightens when they believe it's real, secondly, to prompts them to question why they accept something based on a claim and the appearance of the photographs.

The secondary layer of the book involves magazine pages, showcasing how Japanese, Chinese, and American news articles depict the same event differently. I aimed for people to recognize that, whether personal or in mass media, there's no absolute truth. Everyone presents their version. The realization at the end, "Oh my god, it's fake; but so is the news," is the intended impact.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.

What are your thoughts on the paradoxical nature of photography, which seems clear but often has elusive meanings?

What I cherish about photography, quoting Alec Soth, is that you never get the beginning or ending when you read photographs; you only drop into scenes. With every photograph, we interpret the rest through our own experiences, which is why I find photography compelling. When people suggest, "Why not try film moving or larger productions?" I always assert the difference. With movies, is different because you have to tell the whole story instead of giving them snippets. So with Dear Franklin, I aimed to construct a narrative from a series of singular moments, a series of photographs and try to convince people to use their own experience to fill in the blanks.

Why did you choose an archive-based approach in creating your work, and how did the dynamic between your photographs and archives change over time?

Although I engage in other projects and mediums, I tend to return because this is my true passion. The dynamic between my photographs and archives has evolved. I've been incorporating archives into my work even before The Queen, The Chairman and I, although sporadically. The first instance was in a project called “People's Park,” which started about 15 years ago. I noticed all my mom's pictures were taken in parks, which inspired me to photograph parks. Moreover, I integrated archives to connect with the story, which would mark the beginning of my approach to archives.

With The Queen, The Chairman, and I, the archives took on a central role since I spent considerable time collecting them. They became almost the main characters. At that time, as a photographer, I felt the need to shoot pictures, so I used photographs to complement the story when archives didn't suffice. Ultimately, in that project, my photographs served as the background of a movie set. I always describe it so that my family and granddad were the "actors," and my pictures set the scene.

Moving forward to Combing for Ice and Jade, created seven years later, I cared less about having to take pictures and more about opting for what best suited the story. The archives take up more space than my photographs in that photobook. Transitioning to Dear Franklin, I was completely open during the creation process. While making the work, there was no predetermined need for specific pictures; it was during editing that the abundance of magazines became apparent. Originally, I intended to travel to Shanghai, Chongqing, and Yunnan, but COVID confined me to Hong Kong. Consequently, I sourced items like dresses and Taoist artefacts locally, collaborating with a dress collector and Taoist Priests, making the project more studio-based than initially planned. In fact, “Daer Franklin” was my COVID project.

In essence, Dear Franklin was about what best suited the work, coupled with the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The project unfolded organically, allowing me to prioritize the narrative and thematic elements rather than adhering to a predetermined plan.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
People's Park (2007-2008). Courtesy of Kurt Tong

Your recent works are focused on private or micro-histories, which have often been seen as having the potential to resist canon history. What draws you to focus on these "private histories" as the foundation for your work?

It's undoubtedly a personal choice. If I had to pinpoint where this began, it would be from my early days as a photojournalist. I initially worked with NGOs and newspapers, traveling to places like India, China, and America. At the time, I thought, "Yeah, I'm telling history; I'm telling stories.” However, just before pursuing my MA, I realized what I was doing felt superficial—like being merely a tourist, just visiting and reacting to something hollow.

After the MA program, I started getting more into personal projects. I realized that I don't want to be a photojournalist, but I still like to tell stories. And the best stories to tell are ones I’ve already known well, which led me to family history or people I know already. This approach requires much more effort; it's not enough to snap an evocative image of an elderly woman with her plants wearing traditional attire and claim it tells her story. I have to work a lot harder to represent their story.

As for why I often choose individual narratives over grand historical accounts, it's partly influenced by cinema. Films typically revolve around individual characters rather than vast events because audiences connect better with relatable figures than with impersonal spectacles. I think that's kind of where the origin came from.

I was once a journalist as well, and I have also grappled with the "superficiality" you mentioned. Doubt about journalists might not just arise from the job's nature and its relationship with the world; I think it might come from the dilemmas between morality and duty that journalists will constantly face. This dilemma is perhaps an eternal proposition that practitioners must persistently contemplate and negotiate.

I agree. I can share two stories about this. The first one is quite embarrassing. I was stationed in India from 2004 to 2006. The tsunami occurred in 2004, around Christmas, and I had promised my parents that I would visit home. So, I was in the UK when the disaster struck. Instead of being shocked by the devastation, I found myself thinking, "Why am I here? I should be taking pictures. This is where I could win my World Press Award." It was a moment when I realized I was being self-centered.

The second event that had a profound impact on me happened a few months before I returned to England to pursue my MA. I was working with a Swedish charity that focused on combating female infanticide in southern India. I was sent to take pictures without any specific direction. While I was with my translator and fixer, he excitedly told me about a man who had killed seven daughters. I was initially eager to capture the whole story, but as I spoke to the man, I realized that my focus was on how to illustrate the story rather than the gravity of the situation.

It was that night when I returned to the hotel that I couldn't help but lie down and start pondering: "Oh my God, I just heard the most horrifying discussion about serial murder. And all I could think about was how I could capture that in an image." That was a point I thought, "Perhaps I'm not cut out for this, or I'm not trained enough for this." My thoughts were not deep enough to do this job, and that's when I decided to pursue my master's degree in photojournalism. After completing my degree, I realized that I no longer wanted to be a photojournalist.

After those experiences, you might also doubt the way people often idolize photojournalists as witnesses to history.

There are aspects of that, especially with photojournalists who have to react in the moment to events. Journalists typically conduct more research and write articles, while photojournalists have to capture the moment as it happens. While they may become part of historical events, they are also driven by the competitive nature of the industry, striving to win awards and get their photos published. When they are in the midst of capturing images, perhaps they are not typically analyzing events in that way.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
Farewell in Labrador (2006). Courtesy of Kurt Tong

Picking up the thread of the previous discussion on private histories, when the private history is entirely fictional, do you believe it undergoes any changes in significance?

The inspiration for Dear Franklin came about as I was completing Combing for Ice and Jade. People began questioning the authenticity of the book, asking how much of it was made up, which is interesting because I always say if anything is made up, she (my nanny) made it up. I was truthful about her story. This is how she reflected and saw her life. This is what she wants to say to me or represent; A life that she saw as ordinary and mundane. So it's completely truthful—as truthful as her version. This led me to consider that if I was being accused of lying despite being truthful to the character's story, I might as well create a completely fictional narrative.

In terms of your question, I believe that every story and experience the character undergoes in my work is drawn from the firsthand accounts I've come across. Before constructing the narration in Dear Franklin, I had immersed myself in personal testimonies, literature, and podcasts about the Sino-Japanese War. The book is a personal narrative of the war, and I essentially gathered information for it. Except for the ghost marriage, everything else is familiar to me. Even for the ghost marriage, I visited a village in Guangxi where such ceremonies are still being practiced. I was surprised by how prevalent it is, particularly between deceased individuals.

For instance, women who had miscarriages when they were young and fell ill decades later when they were middle-aged or older. At this point, a medium will approach them and claim that their son in the afterlife is lonely and needs a wife, thus exploiting them for money. I don't believe in it at all, so I can see through the deception. However, many older women, who have toiled their entire lives and suffer from physical ailments, believe that their deceased child is the cause and agree to the marriage. It's a widespread practice. Therefore, I think the story in the letters can be real, except it didn't happen to one person. I don't think it takes away from the meaning of history. It's just… I always say it's like darker-toned Forrest Gump; all the things he experienced happened, but they didn't happen to one person.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
Dear Franklin (2022).

I believe the position of an artist differs from that of a researcher or scholar because their goals are distinct. While scholars and researchers aim to investigate and uncover aspects of history, artists are more focused on showcasing the connection between themselves and history, and also expressing their perspective on the concept of history. However, I found that many people consider the artist a historian, which I take with a grain of salt. As I’m more of a researcher than an artist, I am curious to hear your thoughts on history.

Since I did Combing for Ice and Jade, many people have contacted me, but they actually wanted to get to my nanny. They contact me and say, "Oh, I love your work; can we interview her?" However, she passed away soon after I completed the work, and even when she was alive, she turned them away because she felt embarrassed to be put on a pedestal.

My point is that you're absolutely right. Now that she has passed away, people often ask, "Can you tell us about self-combed  women?" And I would always say, "Look, I only knew one." I'm not a researcher or a historian but a storyteller; I haven't researched self-confirmed women to the same extent. I only know what my nanny told me, which means I only knew one of them. Thus, I think you're perfectly correct in saying it is weird when artists who are not researchers are put on stage and talk about events that they really know rather little about. I tell a singular story that may or may not represent the broader history. That's it. That's all I do, and I stopped there.

It means that you're not an archivist; rather, you engage in storytelling. Would it be accurate to say that, as an artist, being a storyteller is a fundamental position you want to stand in?

Yes, I'd agree with that. I'm certainly not an archivist. I'm not interested in hoarding boxes of old photographs; I only keep what's necessary for my work. To address what you mentioned earlier, I approach old photos with the same consideration as my photography—they're all just “photographs” to me. My role involves editing rather than archiving—I curate from various sources.

If someone asks me this and it's not important, I would just say, I’m a visual artist. But if someone has pushed me for one, I'd probably just say I work with images to tell stories.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
Combining for Ice and Jade (2011-2018). Courtesy of Kurt Tong

I'm quite taken with the concept you've shared in various interviews, where you highlight your role as a “storyteller” and how all of your work essentially narrates a story. What brings you to this charming concept?

I connect more with these humanistic stories about my grandfather. I think that's where it all began. When I returned to Hong Kong to work on The Queen and Chairman and I, I had no idea what the outcome would be. I just wanted to research my granddads and connect with my roots. I did research on them and collected a lot of information. And then, somewhere along the creative process, I realized that I had answered my own questions. However, after I returned to England later, I was faced with a dilemma. I had collected numerous photographs and archives but didn't know what to do with them.

But it was the best thing to do. Someone asked me,

"Why did you do the project?"
"To connect with my roots," I said.
"What could this work be?"
"For my children to connect with their roots," I said.
"Oh, then tell them the story."

It was in that moment when it clicked—oh yeah, that's when it became a very personal experience. I'm sharing stories with them so they can learn about the broader history, which worked well. That is how “storytelling” started, and I believe it's a great way for people to get involved.

Certainly, I believe a story serves as a vehicle for conveying you’re expression. When tackling a project or subject, you seek its spirit and aim to communicate that essence through storytelling. In my view, this approach positions the story more as an intermediary. It may not be entirely accurate, but it's akin to being a conduit of sorts. To put it another way, storytelling isn't the result of creation; rather, it's your unique method of artistic practice.

I think so. Also, if you look back at the early script of The Queen and Chairman and I, it was really word-heavy; I wrote extensively while narrating the tale until I realized it was becoming too focused on my grandfathers alone. I think with these stories, and because we talk about photography, it is just a snapshot of a point, and people can fill in the blanks, so I had to keep cutting their words down to the point where other people can relate to the same experience.

I think it's a telling moment; the photobook was the centerpiece of the first exhibition, so people came and looked at the book. There was a Portuguese guy who came to me and said, "Oh, I love your book because it's my parents' story." I was like, "What? What are you talking about?" It turns out his parents were born in Angola and Mozambique, both former Portuguese colonies, and they both had to return to Portugal. They were white Portuguese who had never been to Portugal. For him, the photobook seems like that because they were forced out due to colonialism. That's what I realized: If I just give people enough, they can hook on what they want, the book is essential about the end of colonialism, about forced migrations.

For you, what’s the connection between storytelling and photography?

I think, for me, photography doesn't tell stories at all. They're just reminders or checkpoints in our memories. If they're my pictures, or in terms of what I'm trying to do is share memories. So, I think they don't tell a story at all, because if you just see a picture of John F. Kennedy getting shot, for example—I don't know why that popped up in my head—but without explaining, no one knows what it is. It's still within words and memories, and people are sharing stories to fill in the rest of it. Photography may be the worst storytelling tool, but it is the best prompt for storytelling.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
The Queen, The Chairman and I (2009-2012). Courtesy of Kurt Tong

The true storyteller is behind the camera—the photographer—or perhaps an editor or curator when considering books or exhibitions, not the photograph itself.

Indeed. In the exhibition with Dear Franklin, a picture of the flower, Lycoris, is meaningless. It's just a pretty picture, but once it's in the context or legend of the flower, the story and meaning come out. By contrast, without the context of the picture, it’s just meaningless. But I also know some photographers do take very informative photographs, which I certainly don't. If you look back and you've got my focus, they're always just pretty empty. It's more about the atmosphere and the mood.

As you mentioned the exhibitions, another thing I'm really curious about is the relationship between the photobook and the exhibition.You create a photobook before holding a solo exhibition, and this pattern also happened in The Queen, The Chairman and I. Have you envisioned photobook as the final form of your creations?

If I can provide examples, I would say I do not create work with a final form in mind, except for Dear Franklin. The moment this work was conceived, it was destined to become a book. I'll get to that in a minute.

With The Queen, The Chairman and I, as I mentioned earlier, I simply conducted research, took photographs, and had no idea how to proceed. Once I realized it should be a book, that's when the idea for the book originated, and then I had the chance to showcase the work. So, initially, I wanted to showcase the book.

Following the original idea, I made tea houses, welcoming everyone to enjoy a cup of tea while reading the book. However, I realized that people don't actually read it; they just skim through the photobook and talk about things like, "Oh, my granddad came from this village!" I realized that their conversation could also be seen as the body of the work, so that was the exhibition. And then I had a different experience because I was fortunate enough to showcase my work in a unique way. I started experimenting with installations, which led to a couple of exhibitions where I had the opportunity to set up threads around the room. This allowed me to engage with people and encourage them to reconnect with my work.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
Installation view of The Queen, The Chairman and I. Courtesy of Kurt Tong

Another example, Combing for Ice and Jade, was initially an exhibition. I had the opportunity, along with the space and a small budget, to create this work. However, I found myself wanting to spend time with my nanny. I thought I was going to tell a story. So we created four simple pieces of artwork featuring overlapping pictures within small frames. At the end of the exhibition, I realized that there were so many aspects of the stories that I hadn't explored. So, I worked on it for another year. That's when I thought, "Okay, this is done now. Her  whole life is covered." Now, what should I do with the work? And I realized I wanted to make a book because it has a very linear structure.

But then, I didn't know how to do it; it was so complex. To give myself some clues, I attended a workshop at Reminders Photography Stronghold—conducted by Yumi Goto and Jan Rossell. It took a while but they finally got through to me, "Forget the exhibition, Kurt. Forget it!" Because I was desperate to  keep the overlapping, I often find myself asking, "What if I place this on top?" And they're like, "No, it's a different thing." "Take it all apart, put it back into single images, and start from there."

For me, the exhibition and the book are two completely different things. After that, with Dear Franklin, it was always about this epistolary novel. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to present it at the Hong Kong Art Book Fair. Unsure of how to display my work, I set up the work as if the trunk had burst open, its contents strewn across the wall.

Back at UpGallery, we discussed hosting the show a few years ago, when I was still midway through the work. I'm grateful to Agnes—the artistic director of UpGallary—for allowing me to put on the show that made the essence of the work come through. The gallery's location also ensures visitors who make the trip will linger and engage with the pieces; they won't just browse and leave. That inspired us to handwrite letters, encouraging people to read them fully—a more immersive experience where they can experience the book physically. If they're interested, they'll go back to the book. Ultimately, I guess with Dear Franklin, the book is still the main character.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
Installation view of Dear Franklin. Courtesy of Kurt Tong

Reminders Photography Stronghold is certainly a workshop worth attending. Could you share more about the process and what you think when composing a photobook?

I don't have a standard formula or process, so to speak.

Let's get back to Yumi Goto to answer this question. I think the reason everything clicked into place with Yumi is that she strikes a chord with us, or at least she encourages us. She doesn't teach, but provides minimal guidance and expects you to work independently, the vision had to come from ourselves. I think that's what I like about her. She doesn't come and go. Rather than dictating methods, Yumi outlines what might work and leaves out further details, forcing you to experiment and learn from mistakes. But I think she has the perfect balance of narrative and form. When it comes to constructing a storybook, I believe it's important to start by identifying the theme first. It all clicked into place when I realized that this was about my exploration of finding her through the archives. But then, with the book Dear Franklin, it was small pieces.

So, I wrote the letters first, and that's where it all came together. I knew that the letters would drive the book, which meant I couldn't edit the book like a regular photo book where the images relate to each other. They would never get along. So, I literally had the story. It was a storyboard. I had the letters laid out on the wall, and I started inserting photographs into them. Once that was constructed, I started adding magazine pages. The more I added, the more I realized that it needed to be on every other page.

After that, I had the concept of “two books.” Essentially, these two books were combined. I also experimented with different bindings. Some of them require you to open them really wide, while others need to be folded in. One day, a magician friend told me about “blow books,” which can combine two books by just flicking the book in different directions. I thought that was the cleanest way to have two books in one without having any ‘flaps’. This book came out in stages. It wasn't like there was one formula that I was going to use to create a “blow book.” It was like, "I'm going to create a storybook or a historical novel with a lot of photographs." Each decision came at different stages.

So, to finally answer your question, I think constructing a photobook is a very slow process, through many trials and errors but I still have people I trust whom I can refer back to and then start shaping it up. So yeah, I treat every book differently.

As the creator of Dear Franklin and the curator of the exhibition, are you basing the exhibition (UpGallery) on the book, or are you trying to avoid being confined to the format? As an audience member, I find that you’re not just transforming the format but trying to convey the essence and spirit of this work in an alternative way.

I’m not sure if it works. At first, Anges and I thought it would be easy to curate because there are lots of elements. However, when we started discussing, we had no clue. We can't simply slap everything on the wall.

After a long discussion and revision, I think that, with the show now, we have reached a sort of compromise. The wall with the magazine is covered in everything, giving you an overwhelming sense of history. Initially, it may seem like a lot is going on, but if you take a closer look, you'll see that I edited the articles to begin with everyday topics. This is because that's how life is. There's no war going on; people are talking about knees and hairstyles. And then, during the war, everything feels so burdensome. But then you still come across things such as the 1941 beauty pageant, which was held during wartime. But as soon as the war is over, it's back to hairstyles and food. That's just how mass media works. Thus, with the exhibition, I just want to get a sense of that. That's the only way to put everything together and assist people in exploring the variety and absurdity of something.

Agnes and I left ample space between the photographs because she was right; it allows viewers to truly appreciate them. More photos would have been my instinct, but even a simple still life requires breathing room. The letter's potential significance becomes clear upon reading it, which is why one side of the display is bustling while the other is tranquil and sparse. With old photos, frames are crucial—they help maintain continuity and establish the time frame of the photographs. Without their original frames, it would not evoke the same feeling. We hope visitors will be immersed in the display and take time to delve into each photo's narrative.

Do you believe there is a difference between photobook and exhibition?

I believe there are distinct differences, yet numerous options exist depending on the type of photobook you seek. I currently mentor several individuals who still perceive a photobook as merely a catalog. However, in my work, I feel that the photobook is more comprehensive; it's like the pacing of everything being slowly revealed, allowing me to guide readers through the story, whether it's non-linear or follows a narrative structure.

Take Combing for Ice and Jade as an example. During a workshop with Yumi Goto, my goal was to trace my nanny’s presence by using archives since she had only eight rolls of film for photography. It plays into the notion that if something isn't photographed nowadays, it's as though it never happened. This concept is explored in the photobook; early images show my nanny at the margins, symbolizing her gradual move towards centrality—a journey not conveyed by an exhibition. Exhibitions present fragmented memories across different chapters focusing on her life and family time back home.

At exhibitions, visitors tend to browse quickly, which makes capturing their attention crucial. While an exhibition can be immediately engaging, I find books have greater longevity and impact. Yet I'm aware most people won't fully read this book; it's a big request for people to dedicate an hour to reading the letters and then making connections between the letters and the story in the magazine pages.

Exhibitions offer tangible elements like walls filled with information and still images that foster emotional connections—at least that's what I hope for.

The Book of Veles and Dear Franklin.
Installation view of Combing for Ice and Jade. Courtesy of Kurt Tong

If you need to pick a word to describe the essential spirit of Dear Franklin, which word will you choose?

I always say it's a tragic love story, but if it needs to be one word, it’s probably love.

What are your future projects?

The thing I'm working on mostly this year is the collage. I'm cutting and staging models. but there are two projects I'm setting on the research burner. First, I want to retrace the steps of Tang Sanzang in Journey to the West. However, it is not about the character but the original Buddhist, the monk in the Tang Dynasty. I want to follow his rough steps and tell that story. But as I tell the story, I start mixing in my own story. So again, it's kind of a travel journey with a road trip, with fictional and real stories mixed in.

There is another story that I can't talk about yet, but basically, it's about family members again. But it's a negative story, I would say, involving an immediate family. So, I need to find a way to tell it on the right level, but how much can I tell? Can I do it anonymously or detective-wise, or do I go in and expose it? I haven't quite worked it out yet, but I think it would be something I will be working on for a while.

Chin Wei Chang is a film and photography critic who is currently based in Taiwan.