(CNN)If there’s a universal photo style — besides the selfie — it might be the family photo.
Nearly everyone’s taken one. Arrange people in front of a lens. One, two, three, say cheese!
But does the family make the photo, or does the photo make the family?
That’s the question asked by a new exhibition at the Hong Kong International Photo Festival that explores how family photos — from the ordinary to the absurd — determine how we think about our own relationships.
Take the seemingly plain looking photo of grandparents with their grandchild in a homely living room.
A placid old man reclines in an armchair with a newspaper, his feet propped up wearing wooly socks. At his side, a child sits on an elderly woman’s lap while they read together.
Here’s the twist: The man is China’s former president Deng Xiaoping, more often pictured in bombastic propaganda posters than in candid home shots.
But you don’t need to know that to read the relationships, because family photos speak a language we all understand — whether we’re common people or Communist leaders.
For many artists in this show, the family photo’s simple conventions are what make it a ripe genre for play and subversion.
Japanese photographer Masashi Asada struggled to decide which family events he wanted to take pictures of, so he began to stage his father, mother, and brother in fantastical scenarios.
In one shot, he poses along with his loved ones as rock stars, shredding on stage at an underground show. In another, they pretend to be an intimidating yakuza family, with every detail painstakingly considered.
He says his approach to family photos isn’t about the past, but rather an imagined future. They’re about how we’re going through constant change.
“All four of us could conceivably become yakuza,” he jokes.
Hong Kong’s Lau Chi Chung creates a different kind of family fiction. He juxtaposes carefully selected old photographs of anonymous residents — discovered through treasure hunts around the city — with new photos of his own.
The result is a set of dreamlike relationships between unrelated people in unrelated times and spaces.
“The relationships in my series might be fictitious,” says Lau. “But I think the feeling that’s created is real.”
As the show suggests, family photos aren’t just impartial records of people. We are drawn to these images because they’re stand-ins for our memories and maps of our relationships.
They are a declaration: Here are four edges of a frame; the people within this rectangle are a family.
The show’s curators set out to challenge this notion and it’s why many of the works are a deliberate spin on the genre.
“We wanted to have an open attitude does a family just have to mean a mom, a dad, sons, daughters, and grandparents?” co-curator Bobby Sham tells CNN.
One series, by Frankie Chan, pictures human families from a pet’s point of view.
Photographer-turned-monk Chang Lin turns his lens on leaves, flowers, and trees, suggesting that some of the purest familial relationships can be discovered in nature.
Joe Lau documents the objects within Hong Kong’s single-person households — maybe a lone saucer, an ashtray, and a bottle of beer can be a kind of family, too.
Stages of life
But family photos don’t just describe relationships, they can create relationships too.
In one of the show’s most moving projects, photographer Dick Lau approached bedridden elderly patients — some terminally ill — and asked them where they would go if they could return to the outside world.
One man said his sweetest memories were walking through Hong Kong’s Ocean Park with his wife he wished he could spend one last afternoon there.
Another, a former public minibus driver, said he just wanted to take his family for a final ride.
In response, Lau printed out life-size photo backdrops and staged photoshoots with the patients and their families within the hospital walls — materializing a future that would almost certainly never come true.
The photoshoots helped the patients find peace, said Lau.
“They are in the last stages of life. The only thing that matters to them: How much more time they can have with their family.”
Truth in pictures
While the artists’ works use metaphors to take viewers backward and forward in time, they’re really about the time we have right now — with the people we love most, according to the curators.
“The hidden context is the present,” says Sham. “We just want people to come here and think about their own lives.”
Indeed, it’s impossible not to think about your own family while looking at the images.
It’s reflective of the medium’s suggestive power — a photograph almost never gives you the whole truth, but leaves you space to feel and remember.
And each family photograph seems to say one thing over and over: I was here, and this is how I loved.
“1000 Families,” curated by Blues Wong and Bobby Sham, is on view through September 4, 2016 as part of the Hong Kong International Photo Festival at ArtisTree, 1/F Taikoo Place, Cornwall House, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. For more information, visit HKIPF.