Spies Among Us

By Brendan Seibel

In Richard Mark Dobson’s shadowy photo series, The Red Corporation, Hong Kong is a city filled with spies. They pass secrets across tabletops in exclusive restaurants and sit beside assets at the bar. Ominous figures lurk in the doorways of dark side streets and in half-lit parking garages. A passenger wearing headphones sits alone on the last train of the night, secretly listening to every word spoken in the car.

The Red Corporation is imagination incarnate—a walking hallucination of a real-world nightmare. Although he shot the series before the unrest currently dragging the streets of Hong Kong into the news, the fear and paranoia of Dobson’s vision find easy purchase in today’s headlines: a city under surveillance, political factions and activist groups infiltrated, information collected, disinformation disseminated.

Sometimes truth is revealed through fantasy.

“I call it quasi-fiction,” says Dobson. “It’s based on real-world ideas and themes, and the images are taken from the street, but the actual narrative is just a figment of my imagination.”

“Even though it’s all imagination, the nuances of movement, pose, and people suggests this netherworld,” says Dobson.

Asia has held a fascination for England-born Dobson since his first visit nearly 30 years ago, when a seat-of-the-pants trip to break away from commercial photography turned into an eight-year adventure.

“I got sucked into the whole run-up to the Hong Kong handover, then China and Vietnam—these communist countries that were just starting to open up to the world,” he says. “It was an interesting time to be traveling in those countries. Cambodia was still at war, the Khmer Rouge was still active, the Angkor Wat temples were deserted.”

When he returned in 2008, however, Dobson found the region—and his reaction to it—much changed. Simply photographing the city and people around him no longer felt enough.

“In this day and age, with so many photographers and so many people taking pictures, you really need to start creating a voice and honing a certain style. Those early years in Hong Kong, I wasn’t doing any of that. I was just choosing a different kind of film,” he says. “When I got back out to Asia, I started to think differently. I started to see a change in the way that I was shooting.”

A departure from the world of commercial photography (which still pays the bills), Dobson’s latest personal work takes a narrative approach to the bustling streets of Hong Kong. Hotel lobbies, deserted waterfronts, and subway platforms all become potential backdrops for the cinematic story in his mind.

“I’m using the street as my own tapestry, my own theater where reality mimics art and art mimics reality.”

“I’m using the street as my own tapestry, my own theater where reality mimics art and art mimics reality,” Dobson says.

In Search of Spies

For Dobson, the concept behind The Red Corporation started with news reports.

“I’ve been following stories about the Ministry of State Security in China, and the proliferation of cyber-espionage and espionage in general. Hong Kong is regarded as a city of spies. It’s where the West snoops on China, and the Chinese conduct counter-surveillance,” says Dobson. “Once I’d got the idea of The Red Corporation, I started walking the streets of Hong Kong, and the espionage—clandestine, mysterious figures down dark alleyways—just started coming to me. All I had to do was frame it and shoot.”

Dobson began prowling locations he imagined spies would be frequent: corporate lobbies, VIP lounges, dark rooms and dark streets where whispered secrets could hide in the shadows. As he worked, his imagination drew him deeper into a world of espionage he suddenly saw layered over scenes that seemed innocuous to the other people inhabiting them. “I was looking at Hong Kong through the perspective a location scout would for a film. I had ideas of what I might want to find and I walked around until I found them.”

Often, the perfect locations weren’t out in the open, but hidden behind velvet ropes and the tight-fitting suits of security staff. The first shot and inspiration of the series was taken in the side room of a hotel restaurant Dobson had bluffed his way into. There, two people sat alone in an otherwise empty room, deep in conversation and, for a moment, oblivious to his intrusion. “I had only one click or two before I knew the guy was going to be on to me,” recalls Dobson. “I was pretty close to them. It was just stop—click click—move on.”

This is the image that inspired The Red Corporation.

Something in the exchange unfolding before him triggered a vision. The severity of an older man’s countenance and gestures suggested a superior dictating instructions to a younger subordinate. Dobson’s mind filled with ideas of spies rendezvousing, safely anonymous, out in the open, but carrying with them stolen intelligence and off-the-record instructions.

Getting the Shot

There’s no central character or linear story to the photo series. Instead, Dobson links the images thematically through color and framing. The images are dark, with subjects often caught at the edges of the frame or in near-shadow.

Dobson credits his years of practice in the field, shooting editorial assignments at the beginning of his career and surreptitiously photographing passersby in his later years, for his ability to capture the moment without drawing attention to himself. “I think that’s what skilled street photographers are good at, being able to get images without people being aware,” he says. “I have a certain way of approaching it. If I see the scene, I can shoot pretty much before they’re aware of me. I don’t linger around.”

As a street photographer, Dobson learned to navigate the city unnoticed. “I have an instinct for timing and place. I can duck and dive around corners.”

In a way, Dobson becomes a character in his own fantasy—taking the viewer with him. He drifts through the city like a spook, spying on spies. A camera emerges for a moment, a shutter clicks, and the crowd swallows him before anyone senses that flicker of surveillance.

“The weird thing is, when I’m walking around these places, I actually start to feel like I’m trespassing in a highly secretive place, even though I’m walking into a hotel,” he says. “It’s ridiculous, but I’m so immersed in this narrative in my head that I do actually feel like I’m in a place that could get me into trouble.”

Through Dobson’s lens, everyday scenes take on ominous meaning, the opening scene of a sinister plot.

Setting the Tone

To stay quick on his feet, Dobson sticks with one camera—a Nikon D810—and a single, fast 55mm lens. After all, there’s no time for tripods or switching lenses when undercover.

Because he shoots by hand and keeps his ISO at 640 or less, he tends to underexpose his shot by one or two stops to keep the shutter speed where he needs it to be. Later, he pulls out the detail in Adobe Photoshop.

“This new generation of Photoshop and Camera Raw allows you to pull out an amazing amount of detail in images. The latitude we have far exceeds what we could do with film. With film it was either right or wrong. If it was grossly overexposed it was in the bin, and if it was grossly underexposed, it was in the bin, too. There’s a lot we can pull out in the digital domain.”

As for color correction and other edits, Dobson says he like to keep it relatively simple. He tries to capture the mood he wants in the camera, reserving his post-production work for bringing out details and subtly altering tones and neutralizing warmth. For these tasks, he relies heavily on presets he’s created in Camera Raw and on Photoshop’s adjustment layers.

“I like to keep it simple,” says Dobson of his editing style. “The grading is just enhancing it a little bit, bringing something into it that was possibly not there in the beginning, but nothing too much. Just enough until I feel satisfied.”

“You might just want to bring up the exposure, bring up a bit of shadow, but you don’t really want to get too much contrast,” says Dobson. “I use adjustment layers, then I brush back through them. I might neutralize the color area on one layer and then use the multiply adjustment layer to darken the image down. One image might have four or five adjustment layers on it. Then I brush through to the original layer. That’s what I love about Photoshop, the fact that I can create six different color-temperature layers, and then, almost like a mosaic, brush up and down through those layers until I get what I’m happy with.”

The Red Corporation is being exhibited through October at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. Formhis next project, the photographer already has a new stage picked out: Macau. “It’s a Chinese gambling enclave,” Dobson explains. “It has billions of dollars of revenue. It’s seedy, it’s crass, it’s gaudy, it’s ridiculous—it’s a great place.”