Based in Chengdu, the Chinese photographer shoots the surreal underbelly of existence. Shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First Photobook award
“You’ve probably never heard of Feng Li’s photography,” wrote Leo de Boisgisson in American Suburb X in March; that was true at the time, but it’s changed rapidly since September, when the Chinese artist was nominated for the prestigious Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First Photobook award.
He made the shortlist for his first publication, White Night, which was published by Jiazazhi Press in July and contains 160 images shot from 2005-2015. The title is inspired by the Bible, specifically the Book of Job and a phrase which reads “They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night”.
“In the winter of 2005, I had to shoot in a large lantern festival in the outskirts of the city [Chengdu] due to work commitments,” Feng Li tells BJP. “Fog formed around the shapes of different figures, animals, and a huge Christmas tree like a magic show, then my mind just naturally formed the words White Night.
“Every photo in the project is my expression of the reality in a form of a question,” he adds. “I never thought about what kind of photo I wanted to shoot because I could not imagine what would happen next. Incredible things happen all the time.”
Feng Li has never studied photography, originally graduating in medicine, but he got his first Nikon in 1996 when he was in his mid-20s, after he saved a year’s salary to buy it. He got a job in the Chinese civil service soon after, shooting “urban construction, community and social activities, and different conferences etc” in his local region, all of which must be “portrayed in positive images regardless”.
But in his free time he’s a flâneur, shooting on the street with free reign to react to what he sees and record it as he feels. Heading out every day, and often working at night, he uses a flash to freeze the moment, to “solidify the incredible moment I see”. “In some sense it’s like a stage light,” he says, “as well as the shadowless lamp on the operating table.”
Feng Li was born and brought up in Chengdu in Sichuan, southwestern China, an ancient city that is now, like much of China, rapidly transforming and modernising. He still lives and works there today, and says White Night is partly inspired by the city and its fast pace of change – though “unfortunately my shots are not always able keep up with the change, as it happens too fast”.
But his images are also inspired by a wider sense of the strange, by his feeling that “people are absurd” the world over. “In my opinion this world is surreal and full of nonsense, and it is more and more of a norm,” he tells BJP. “Human beings and the absurd co-exist. Even in romantic Paris, there will be such a ridiculous appearance. People, or you can say human nature, turn normality to the surreal.”
The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation is Feng Li’s first big accolade in the West but his work has already won acclaim in China – he won the Jinan Photography Festival prize and the Lianzhou Foto Jury Prize in 2012, and exhibited White Night at the Zongmu Photography Biennale and at Nankin’s Nua Museum in 2016. He started working on his book with Jiazazhi Press in 2016, spending nearly a year on the dummy “until it meets my goals, which is to produce the most simple and direct photographic book”.
The result contains images which ‘are able to represent the work of the White Night” and Feng Li is “satisfied with this result”, but he says he’s also continuing to work on the series. “I shoot every day, and as long as life continues, White Night will also be continued,” he tells BJP.
“I don’t know whether they are photographic works, but they do present another sides of our reality,” he states on the Jiazazhi Press website. “I can’t explain them specifically, as I can’t understand the world. The only thing I can tell is my questions. Most of the time I am the person who asks, and answers a question in front of me by asking a new. There is always a question mark following the answers. I can ask at any time with my camera.
“The seemingly calm world is torn by sharp flash, and deep shadows are left in the souls. The night outside my window is white as the day when the passengers walk in a hurry. This is my world, of white night.”
Feng Li is taking over BJP’s instagram from 07-12 November, check it out @bjp1854 https://www.instagram.com/bjp1854/?hl=en
Feng Li’s White Night was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Award http://programme.parisphoto.com/en/photobook-awards.htm http://jiazazhi.com/ www.americansuburbx.com With many thanks to Thomas Sauvin and Carmen Lo for their translations.