Dustin Shum

Life and Times
Location: Hong Kong
Nationality: Hong Kong
Biography: Dustin Shum was born and currently lives in Hong Kong. He graduated from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Degree in Photographic Design.  A photojournalist for more than ten years, he now works... MORE
Public Story
Life and Times
Copyright Dustin Shum 2024
Updated Feb 2017
Location Hong Kong
Topics Abundance, Color, Documentary, Editorial, Fear, Hong Kong, Human Rights, Illness, Isolation, Mental illness, Photojournalism, Portraiture, Sorrow

The police knocked on my door twice

At home one afternoon, I heard a knock on my door. Since I rarely get visitors, I thought at first it must be a telecoms salesman. As I opened the door, thinking of ways to get rid of him, I saw that it was no salesman but a police officer on patrol.

Clearly an old hand, the officer indicated my neighbour’s flat and asked if I could be a “witness” in a case of “trespassing”. I followed him into the flat, and saw that there was only a woman inside.

How strange, I thought to myself.

But the officer knew what he was doing. He walked purposefully once around the flat and told the woman: “Don’t worry, I’ve kicked them out!”

The woman looked terrified and insisted: “No, they’re still here, all three of them!”

There was no one else in the flat of course. In the end, the police officer called for an ambulance, and the medics who came took her to the hospital.

The officer contacted her husband who was at work and handed me the phone. The husband apologised for causing me trouble. I did not say much, only urged him to hurry to the hospital to take care of his wife.

I never asked my neighbour if his wife was mentally ill. There was no need. We’re neighbours – it’s enough that we try and get along.

In the old housing estate where we live, the couple were relatively new tenants. I remembered when they first moved in a few years ago, I could hear her shouting at him almost every night, with not a peep from him. It must be the stress of adjusting to a new environment, I thought then. Later, it seemed to me that without her husband’s support, she would have been far worse off.

More than a year passed. One night, just as I was getting ready for bed, I again heard a knock on my door. This time it was a woman police officer, who asked me a strange question: “Has everyone in your family returned home?” I nodded yes.

The officer showed me a Polaroid photo of a woman and asked if I knew her. It turned out the woman had jumped to her death from a spot along the corridor not far from my flat.

The next day, the suicide was reported in a brief item in one corner of the newspaper. According to the report, she lived in another estate and chose to end her life at my block.

What went through her mind during that long night? It is a question that haunts me.

A few years ago, the Society for Community Organisation and I collaborated on a book and exhibition of photographs of recovering psychiatric patients. Live Alone a Life: People with Mental Illness was fortunate to have received some public attention. It also inspired the launch of a programme that arranges for volunteers to regularly visit patients to offer friendship and mental support. 

But just as I was feeling pleased about the impact of my work, I read report after report in the media of tragedies involving the mentally ill. The negative public perception of these patients was not only very much alive, but appears to be becoming entrenched. We were back where we started. I realised that the work of promoting awareness and understanding is not a one-off effort.

At the same time, as livelihood pressures grow in Hong Kong, more people seem to be succumbing to mental stress, my own friends and relatives among them. People suffering such distress are not on the margins of society, as widely believed; they’re part of us. The police officers’ knocks on my door told me this much. Mental illness exists not only in books and photo exhibitions; it can be found next door. 

It has been seven years since the publication of Live Alone a Life. During this time, I’ve kept in contact with those whom I photographed, and have occasionally joined them in various activities. I was glad to see that life has improved for some of them, and that some have become more positive and cheerful. Sadly, however, some have suffered relapses, and some others have passed away. I’ve also made several new friends, whose stories and experiences helped me to deepen my understanding of the range of difficulties that confront recovering patients.

Hong Kong today faces many social and political challenges that dominate public debate. Amid all that noise, it’s easy to neglect people who need our help. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the issues of mental health care, and to check in on some recovering psychiatric patients to see how they are coping with life.

This photo and essay collection offers no grand vision or startling new perspective on mental health care. Neither is there self-pity or melodrama. All you’ll find are the moments that make up an ordinary life: a fragment of memory here, a scene from the past there. They’re simply displayed, so you may piece them together any way you like.

By publishing this collection, I hope to lay out a rough map that leads us to the inner world of psychiatric patients, rather like we’ve been invited to their home for a cup of tea and some conversation. My wish is quite simply a plea for understanding.

There can be no acceptance without understanding, and without acceptance and empathy, we will fail to reach out to the mentally fragile among us, no matter how sound the rehabilitation policies, how effective the drugs, and how good the support services. And our policies, drugs and support services are falling short in the first place. We can do more. The woman who jumped off my block might perhaps still be alive if she’d received a little bit more care, a little bit more guidance, a little bit more help. Just that little bit more.

I am grateful to the people who bravely appeared before my lenses, and who opened their hearts and shared their stories. I thank them for their friendship, for letting me be a part of their lives these past seven years.

Life is ever changing. To live a fulfilling life is easy for no one, let alone those among us who have been given more than their fair share of life’s challenges. I dedicate this book to them, in the hope that in their time of need, this gesture of support can be their “little bit more”.

(The above essay is the afterword for the photobook Life and Times published by Society for Community Organization. The book is available at online photobook store The Salt Yard.)

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Life and Times by Dustin Shum
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