Hong Kong photographer Sammy J Freeman tells Carolynne Dear how a third culture childhood inspired her art
The sun is shining and photographer Sammy J Freeman is in ebullient mood as we sit down in Sai Kung’s square for lattes. Her first exhibition, Jade Jungle, Crimson Tide, has gone down a storm and having now completed her tertiary studies in photography at New York’s School of Visual Arts, she’s eagerly looking forward to a move to Sydney in the spring.
It’s fair to say she’s come a long way since her ESF school days in Hong Kong. From England, to Indonesia, to Hong Kong, back to England, on to New York and now (hopefully) Sydney, Freeman admits home for a lot of her life has probably been the back of a ‘plane.
Born in the north of England, Freeman spent her early years in Jakarta, moving from the UK aged four. “I can remember little bits like going to school and the traffic was so bad it used to take the school bus two hours to get in (Freeman attended the British International School).
“And then the Bali bombings happened in 2002 and there were bomb threats in Jakarta and I think the school was threatened, so they stopped the school bus and we had to travel by private car. Every student had to have a ‘go bag’ that was placed at the entrance to the school in case we had to evacuate suddenly. A couple of times I think the school had to shut. Security was pretty tight.”
Despite this, she has fond memories of life in the Indonesian capital and was sad to leave her friends behind when the family moved to Hong Kong four years later.
“I think I’ve moved house around 12 times,” she smiles. “But in Hong Kong we have always been based in Sai Kung or Clearwater Bay.”
Freeman enjoyed a happy time at Clearwater Bay primary school, nurturing an early love for art and drama.
“I really enjoyed my primary school,” she enthuses. “I used to play guitar and do drama club over the road at Shaw studios. I loved things like colouring by numbers – we travelled a lot, as I guess expats do, and my mum used to print all these colouring sheets for me when we flew anywhere. I used to spend hours researching which sheets I was going to fill in on each trip.”
After completing Year 6, she then moved on to secondary life at ESF King George V School in Ho Man Tin. Along with her favourite subjects of drama and art, Freeman was also a keen sports player, but aged 14 had to undergo corrective surgery to treat a scoliosis diagnosis. The surgery was successful but she now has rods in her spine which has meant having to give up her beloved rugby.
“I think it was about this time that I started getting interested in photography,” she says.
Midway through her secondary school education it was still a couple of years too early for iphones to be as prevalent as they are today, and Freeman’s parents bought her a small camera to play with.
“I remember a friend wanted to be a photographer so I sort of her copied her. I knew I wanted to do something art-based but I wasn’t really sure what. There was a lot of negativity around photography as a career. When I was taking my A-level options it was viewed as the ‘doss’ subject, the ‘easy ‘A’’.”
Although she very much enjoyed life at King George V, in Year 11 her parents took the decision to send her to board at British school Millfield in the UK’s rural South West in order that she could study for A-levels.
A double-edged sword, Freeman admits that while she appreciated the opportunity that A-levels offered to be able to focus on the subjects she enjoyed – she took art, photography, media and drama – she didn’t enjoy the way of life that came with it.
“The thing is with Hong Kong, as a teenager you have this wonderful freedom. The public transport is great and it’s so safe I was able to really get out and about and hang around with my friends and go to the movies and whatever. There were no rules. And then suddenly I was in this school where the internet was switched off at 10pm and we were kind of locked in, which was frustrating. And the dark nights and the cold weather – I really didn’t get on with it. And of course all my friends were back in Hong Kong. But then I don’t think I’d have got on very well with IB, either,” she admits.
Having honed her photographic skills and got to grips with the technical side of operating a camera, she was offered a place to continue her studies in New York.
Living the dream, she now travels the world indulging her two passions – photography and surfing.
“As more technology comes on board, the more exciting photography becomes,” she says. In June she bought a drone and started experimenting with aerial photography, which has become a favoured style.
“It was scary at first and then I went to Iceland on a workshop and they were big drone photographers, so they took me under their wing and suddenly I was flying this thing up to seven kilometres away. The remote connects to an app on your phone which is how you control the pictures.”
Which is all very exciting, but what of the more traditional photographic techniques? I wonder.
“I did learn how to use a dark room in the UK and I experimented with black and white. If there’s no colour expectation it really changes the way you take the picture – you’re not thinking about the colours any more, you’re thinking about the shapes and the shadows. I continued with darkroom classes in New York but now I’ve moved more towards colour.”
A keen wakeboarder, surfer and sailor she says she feels happiest when there’s water involved in her work. “It brings me a good feeling,” she says.
“As a kid in Hong Kong, I loved the beaches, the lunches at Yau Ley, the days out to Sharp Island and Sai Wan for BBQs. As a teen I spent a lot of time hanging out at Hoi Ha waterfalls with my friends – they used to be deserted but seem to be a lot busier these days. My parents owned a boat so we spent a lot of time bobbing around.”
Freeman is also very passionate about marine pollution and believes re-education is the key. “People toss stuff in the ocean a lot in Bali for example, but I really don’t think it’s because they don’t care about their environment. I learnt that food was traditionally wrapped in banana leaves which of course are biodegradable, but now everything is wrapped in plastic and behaviour just hasn’t caught up with the new reality.”
Now her Hong Kong exhibition has wound up, Freeman’s off to pastures new in Sydney to continue with her surf photography. “The surfing in Hong Kong is not really good enough and that’s what I want to concentrate on. My other option was England, but it’s so cold and I’m not a big fan of cooler weather. I would love to freelance for a big publication, Surfer Magazine or National Geographic. And I’m also hoping to intern for a gallery in Bondi when I get to Sydney.”
Freeman’s work can be viewed at sammyfreeman.com
A picture is worth a thousand words, we gave Freeman just one hundred…
This is probably my favourite ‘Hong Kong’ picture. It’s a drone photograph of a place called Turtle Island just outside of Sai Kung. I’d been driving past this spot for days and knew I wanted to shoot it. I also wanted to catch it at low tide. I didn’t know how it would turn out but I knew it would be cool. So one morning I woke up at 6am, took the bus down and just shot it. It happened really quickly but I knew I’d done it. And then I rushed off to meet a friend. But I was so happy for the whole day.
This is a picture of a really good friend from Millfield School that I took with a drone over Single Fin beach in Uluwatu. My friend had flown over to Hong Kong to see me and then we flew down to Bali. She’s a blogger and a vlogger and is pretty comfortable in front of the camera, so we got her in the water. We’d been doing a bit of surf photography earlier that day but I had this image in my mind. It was lowtide and the water was so clear, which is something you don’t get in Hong Kong. We were both pretty happy with it.
I was hiking with a photography group in Iceland in the summer in 24-hour daylight. We started at midnight and hiked up this huge mountain. The guides couldn’t find any foxes to photograph, so we carried on to the summit and started setting up our drones to take some aerial shots. And then this little guy just popped up his head and everyone was fumbling around and I just happened to have the right lens and the right setting at the right time, so I shot it. Well you know, shot it with a camera – that sounds bad! It’s my favourite piece of work.