Feng Li : "Each of my photos is an independent story"

Doors interviewed the winner of the Discovery Award of 2017 Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival, who will have a solo show at France’s Rencontres d’Arles in summer 2018. Born 1971 in Chengdu (Sichuan), Feng Li, a graduate of Chinese medicine, practices photography both as a civil servant for the provincial Department of Communication and as an independent. He constantly gravitates between official imagery and his personal work, which is at complete odds with the propaganda he's crafting for a living. The photos of Feng Li are the result of fortuitous encounters with an unlikely cast of reality, in the streets of Chengdu and around the world. Since 2005, Feng Li constantly nourishes his single and unique series White Night.

His past exhibitions and awards include: White Night, Solo Exhibition at Nanjing Art Institute (2016), Snack at Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, Our Future at Beijing Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing Photo Biennial (2015), Chongqing Changjiang International Photography and Video Biennale (2015), Ten Years of Contemporary Photography in China (2015), Jinan International Photography Biennale Best Photographer Award, the 8th Lianzhou International Photography Festival jury award (2012).

The show at Rencontres d'Arles next summer will be Feng Li’s first international solo exhibition.

 

Has winning the Jimei x Arles Discovery Award changed your life in any way?

It hasn’t changed my life that much, as I still set my own creative direction. The main difference is that now I get to show my work on a larger platform. This means going to this year’s Rencontres d’Arles, where many more people will have the chance to see my work. This is really cool, and I’m really looking forward to my Arles exhibition.

As a professional state-employed photographer for the Department of Propaganda of Sichuan province, do you see any conflict between your creative practice and your day job?

The photos I take for work and the ones I take for myself are completely different. There is no interference of one on the other or any influence either way. The two don’t get mixed up because I am always working on my own projects. I can take my own photos while I’m working. I just use different methods. For work I need to take certain composition or use of light into consideration, but for my own photos, I have far more freedom. I often take my own photos during work time and don’t find it hard to switch back into work mode. 

Why do you always shoot in vertical composition and use a lot of flash in your series "White Night"?

It’s true that I’ve taken fewer and fewer photos of horizontal composition over time. Maybe it’s because I tend to photograph standing people, so this way I can shoot their whole body. I can also get closer to my subjects this way, so it’s a very natural choice. As for flash, at first it was for technical reasons, as street lights offer complex light. I found I could direct the light better with flash to get the effect I wanted without interference. I didn’t expect the result to be quite so dramatic, a bit like stage lighting. Some people have said it’s got something to do with my medical background, as the effect is a bit like surgical shadowless lighting. But I haven’t thought about why or that I must shoot one way or another, it’s just become a habit to express myself this way.

Why have you shifted from black and white to colour?

In the early days, I was a black and white photographer, because I thought black and white was the essense of photography. Weegee and other major photographers all shot black and white. Later I found that a lot of information was lost this way, or looked too much like photography. I want to draw more information into my photos, and realise a more artistic, modern form of expression, so I’ve taken to colour photography. Moreover, colour photography has an empathic immersive quality, while black and white photography feels far less real. This is the feel I’m looking for: something unbelievable that actually happens in front of one’s eyes.

Have you thought about doing a new series?

For me, making a series of photographs is not important. My photos are comparatively independent, and each one is its own story. I always use an independent eye to look at my photos. For me, each is a separate work, and I don’t pay much attention to turning them into series. 

This is the feel I’m looking for: something unbelievable that actually happens in front of one’s eyes.

You just come from doing a fashion shoot in the UK, what was it like?

I really enjoyed doing this. There were about 40 looks, 20 models, and over 20 international brands. Over two days, I shot a lot of good material. At the start, it seemed like an insurmountable task, but I was able to finish it. And I was completely free to shoot as I wanted. I didn’t have to cater to any particular brand or company’s ideas, but could go my own way. Their style guide didn’t get in the way of my own style, and I was really happy with the results. The fashion media thought my photos were on point. When I look back at my own work over the past two years, my photos aren’t nearly as dark or ugly as others have described them, and are more or less fashionable and modern. This was really a good test and a breakthrough for me.

Have you ever thought of becoming a full time photographer?

I’ve thought about it. Luckily, my current work environment is quite relaxed and unpressured. Having the chance to explore and attend events, making contacts, being in touch with what’s going on in today’s society is what I like to do most. If my job ever got in the way of my creative practice, I would have to quit my job. Because my creative work is by far the most important.

Your family is a rich collection of four cats, one pig, a parrot and two people: is your relationship with animals different to your relationship with other people?

I hold animals in considerable awe, and see them as humankind’s best friends. People on the other hand have much more inexplicable relations. Watching news brings up examples of the terrible things people can do to each other. The injuries people do to each other and to animals make me very sad. The animals at home are not pets to me, but make pets of me, giving me a lot of care. I really enjoy the time I spend with them.

See Feng Li's Instagram

Feng Li, "White Night" (184 p.), published by Jiazazhi

Read Feng Li's Proust Questionnaire

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