HONG KONG -- In mid-November last year, protesters and students holed themselves up in Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The campus loomed over the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which is used by most road traffic to travel between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Due to its strategic importance, protesters stationed themselves at the university to successfully block the tunnel.
The police decided to adopt a controversial tactic: It declared that all those who remained on campus could be charged with rioting -- which carries up to a 10-year sentence -- and those who tried to leave would be arrested. It had effectively laid siege to the university, with no one able to enter or to leave.
I had already spent five days inside the besieged university when I ventured into a section I had never been to before. It was a building that had become no man's land, beyond the heaviest barricades made by the protesters but also an area that the police did not claim, either.
I found backpacks and typical protest supplies, such as helmets and gas masks, strewn everywhere. Though I'll never know for sure, it seemed as though they had all been abandoned by protesters who had made the daring decision to make a break for freedom.
At that point, I knew that dozens, if not hundreds, had successfully been able to escape: by crawling through sewage tunnels, climbing down ropes suspended from bridges to hop onto the back of motorbikes waiting to whisk them away or simply sneaking out where police surveillance was less vigilant.
Before their bold attempts, they rid themselves of gear that would be both cumbersome for the escape and incriminating if caught. That's why I believe this building on the edge of the protesters' occupied territory was littered with abandoned bags, many of which were found in stairwells leading down to emergency exits that opened directly to the outside world.
I rifled through one bag, curious about its contents. At first, there was nothing unexpected: black clothing like that worn by protesters, goggles, tools. Then Apple AirPods, in a cute Batman case with little Batman ears. And then, with a shock of recognition, I found a traditional Chinese good luck charm, one that my own mother might give me to ward off bad fortune.
Suddenly, an anonymous protester became very real. I wondered who might have given the protester the charm. I wondered if that person was worried, since the protester might have been inside the university for several days. I wondered if they made it out or if they got arrested. I guess I'll never find out.
I photographed the bag and its contents, and then did the same for a dozen other bags. Some bore few clues of who the owner may have been, but others had makeup, or little bags of candy. But they were all a little window into the normally masked protesters, and who they are.
Editor's note: Here, the Nikkei Asian Review publishes these abandoned-bag photos for the first time, pairing them with images taken by Laurel at turbulent moments of the siege. The pairings are not direct -- there is no suggestion a protester in one photo owned the bag in the next -- but are meant to evoke visual, thematic and emotional connections and contrasts between them. They highlight calm and frenzy, absence and violence, the political and the ethical -- and always the human.