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Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, Elevated Section Trail Running
CREDIT: Heather Coulson

How I navigated the world of construction photography

When Heather Coulson ARPS moved to Hong Kong in 1970 she had no idea a career in construction photography awaited

'Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, elevated section trial running', 1979


When Heather Coulson ARPS travelled to Hong Kong from the UK five decades ago she had no formal photography training or experience. Now, with an impressive portfolio, qualifications and an exhibition behind her, she reflects on her journey.

Admiralty Station, Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, Under Construction
CREDIT: Heather Coulson
Boiler Erection, Castle Peak Power Station, Hong Kong
CREDIT: Heather Coulson
HK Mass Transit Railway, Crossover Tunnel
CREDIT: Heather Coulson
New Rolling Stock At The Depot, HK Mass Transit Railway
CREDIT: Heather Coulson
Nightie Bridge Construction, Cornwall Street, Hong Kong
CREDIT: Heather Coulson
Turbine Hall, Castle Peak Power Station, Hong Kong
CREDIT: Heather Coulson

“My husband and I arrived in Hong Kong in 1970. Colin had been appointed to head up the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway design team and I thought 'What am I going to do?', because what I’d done in England wasn’t much use. I did a photography course at the University of Hong Kong, which was excellent. [Then] I had a commission from a company – a young engineer working on his own, designing toy box covers for the European market, and he really needed help.

“Inevitably I got involved in toy box design and through that you meet other people who say thing like, ‘Oh I think we need some pictures of the tunnel we’re building under the harbour [the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in Hong Kong, opened on 2 August 1972]. Maybe you could help us with that?’

“Construction photography was more interesting than toy boxes or sitting doing portraits indoors all day – I wasn’t really interested in that. I was much more interested in working with the outdoors and with the Chinese labourers, where I got to pick up my Cantonese. It was a wonderful area of photography to be in because you never know what was to come next.

“You need a lot of patience. You also need patience when working with people who speak Chinese and you need to brush up on certain commands to shout across the site so people will understand what you want them to do. And you need to understand what viewpoint [the client] would like.

“It’s quite a learning curve to try and do your work, take your photograph, follow procedure and make sure all the safety controls are in place. [Everyone] not only needs to be technically correct, they need to be physically correct too. If these photographs are going to be used, they’ve got to look absolutely 100% from a safety point of view.

“When you go to take your photos it’s no good walking about the site. You have to get up high, above the worksite, to see what they’re doing and add a bit more story to your photos.

“I always worked with Hasselblads. You don’t need a tripod, it’s very much hand-held and it takes wonderful pictures. They were my main tools when I was on the ground. If I was doing an interior like the power station interiors, which were huge, then I would use a 4x5 Linhof.

“I’ve met the loveliest people on site and for me they were some really enjoyable years. The most exciting project I had was the construction of the Mass Transit Railway because I followed it all the way through. For me it included station construction, tunnels, electrical and mechanical installations, and rolling stock. It was such an exciting journey.”

'Admiralty Station, Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, under construction', 1977

'Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, crossover tunnel', 1979

'Nightie bridge construction, Cornwall Street, Hong Kong', 1974

'Boiler erection, Castle Peak Power Station, Hong Kong', 1984

'New rolling stock at the depot, Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway', 1978

'Turbine Hall, Castle Peak Power Station, Hong Kong', 1986


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