Henion Han – Projects

Han’s Johannesburg

Henion Han’s Johannesburg provides us with a series of images taken by a photographer exploring his milieu, in the early part of his career, before becoming a filmmaker. The Han family returned to South Africa in late 1970 after three years in Taiwan where their father Han Chi-Ho worked at the Taiwanese Consulate. An already displaced emigrant family, these years away reinforced that South Africa was the only familial home they knew. Henion completed a Bachelor of Arts Degree through correspondence at the University of South Africa in 1973. A love of photography ensued, and he purchased his first stills camera and showed his work at the South African National Gallery, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Market Theatre Gallery and the Pentax Gallery. Henion’s early photography provides a glimpse into a seldom seen aspect of life in apartheid Johannesburg. His investigation into the Chinese South African community around him was an extension of the everyday life he was leading at the time. Thus, its unselfconscious sense of belonging.  

Social Landscapes

Having explored photography through various publications for the travel industry, and in music, design and architecture, Henion Han embarked on his first solo exhibition at the Market Theatre Gallery, in 1979. The visual tone of “Social Landscapes”, as it was titled, was as a result of Henion’s close working relationship with master photographer David Goldblatt; and it took its cue from Goldblatt’s concern with structures and sites as indicators of a nation’s social development, and discord. Han was an active member of the Market Photo Workshop, establishing strong ties with other local photographers. Han’s follow up exhibition in 1981 was titled “Black and White Days”, also at the Market Photo Gallery.

My Mother’s Journey

There could be nothing objective about the dense series of photographs by Henion Han, of his mother Pon Sen-Wah (1917 – 1983). Born in Hainan, she fled to Singapore when Japan invaded China, eventually joining her husband Han Chi-Ho in South Africa in their family home in Troyeville. She had six children in quick succession and, upon her death in 1983, her body was taken to Taiwan for burial. The ambitiousness of this photographic project, a life-series of one’s own mother, was driven by the fact that Pon Sen-Wah was a depressive who had been deeply affected by the alienation she felt from her homeland. From Henion’s point of view, the series would be intimately personal – not just an act of looking but a photographic act of being. He was her primary caregiver, walking his mother through her final years. The photographs provide visual clues to the textures Henion brought into his award-winning documentary about his mother’s final journey, “Letter to my Cousin in China”.

80s Friends

Surrounded by a new generation of artists and aspirants, in Johannesburg city, Henion Han began composing formal portraits of his close friends and acquaintances in c.1983. He shot the project on medium format, 120 roll film size, and the rules of engagement were that individuals styled themselves into environments in which they lived, or where they had spent meaningful times. Although there was an element of chance, the portraits provide a suspended moment in the lives of people, surrounded by their objects; and it shows objects as sculptural indicators of a specific personality, period and place.   

Han Family Album

The Han Family Album is an insider’s view of the everyday life of a Chinese South African family. Henion Han portrayed his own surroundings at a time when the Chinese community had an uneasy relationship with the structures and strictures of apartheid. Perhaps he expected political change in his lifetime, and wanted to chronicle things as they were. Or perhaps he understood how seldom outsiders had witnessed the everyday lives of these ordinary citizens where they lived. Either way, the series is antithetical to the exotification that the Chinese community might have encountered elsewhere. His nuclear family consisted of six children, and immigrant parents from Taiwan. His father, Han Chi-Ho, worked at the Taiwanese Consulate while practicing Chinese medicine for private patients at home.

Troyeville Revisited 2014

By returning to South Africa, from Australia, in 2014 Henion Han also returned to his old neighborhood of Troyeville. He was born there. As an adult he had lived and socialised there, intermittently, from the late 1970s until the late 1990s when it became a hive of hedonistic artistic activity in the now-transformed city. Troyeville had always housed black and white Portuguese-speaking communities, as well as Indians (famously, Ghandi had lived there) and the Chinese. But by 2014 it had added recently arrived Africans, from many other countries, to the mix. Henion would go before dawn and shoot the world he knew so well.

Han’s Travels (Travel Series)

Henion Han travelled easily, a backpack and his camera were all he needed. His travels spanned over three and a half decades.


Henion Han traveled with his then partner through South America, North America and parts of Europe for a year in the late 70s. They backpacked, slept on railway benches, his broadening world view was captured through the camera lens.

EUROPE (Travel Series)

Coming from the restrictive apartheid climate, of the South Africa of the 1980s, to the liberal European environment would offer Henion Han ample impetus as a photographer, witnessing that which he would not have seen at home. Unsurprisingly, he would find the divided Berlin a subject of interest, as he would the open roads and avenues of Europe, so unlike the severity of South Africa then.

TAIWAN (Travel Series)

In his documentary “Letter to my Cousin in China” (1999), Henion Han says: “I look at myself and ask – what is home? Where is home? I am Chinese, and yet I am not. I do not speak Chinese fluently, let alone read and write it, but my past, my roots are not something I can simply ignore.” His journey to Taiwan in 1984 to bury his mother was an attempt to answer these questions, and to find some sense of place in a society from which he had come and gone. Characteristically, his eye fell on the mundane, but made exquisite compositions out of ordinary human interactions. As if to assert that the act of taking photographs would not be one of interruption, but inclusion.   

CHICAGO (Travel Series)

In 1984 Henion Han was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a Master of Fine Arts Degree at the Art Institute of Chicago. Professor Peter Kubelka, the filmmaker and editor, invited Henion to spend a year training under his supervision, at the German State Art Academy in Frankfurt where he was the Dean. Henion then returned to Chicago to complete his thesis film, “Utter”, which was awarded the prestigious, Raymond Nelson Fellowship. “Utter” then showed at the New York Film Festival, The Boston Film Festival and the Chicago Ethnographic Film Festival. It later went to film festivals in London, Paris and Berlin before showing in South Africa. A print was purchased for the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

INDIA 2012 (Travel Series)

Henion Han returned to photography after not taking photographs for almost two decades. He discovered digital cameras and was fascinated with their range of possibilities. He treated himself to a digital stills camera for his trip to India on the occasion of his 60th birthday, and started photographing again. His easy interaction and connection with people and places, this time in colour, is continued in his sensitive play of subject and light and dark, reminiscent of his black and white earlier work.

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