My fingers lingered over the fabric cover as I pulled the book out of a pile. On the cover, the eyes of a family in an old black-and-white family photo peered out, superimposed on top of a modern color image of the same photo studio. Flipping through the pages I realized that this is much more than a book of random family scrapbook images. This is a deliberate re-construction of one immigrant’s personal history — and a meditation on the interplay of photography, time, distance, and memory.

The text begins: “One winter’s day in 2001, I was helping my mother clean her house. I busied myself with the dusting and vacuuming, working my way through the house. By the time I got to her bedroom, I found my mother going through her belongings: family snapshots, letters, an assortment of pocket-sized calendars, old diaries, scraps of paper with dates and notes written on them. It occurred to me that although she and my father lived in a reasonably sized house, she had very few material things. Apart from half a wardrobe of clothes and shoes, it seemed that most of her treasures could fit in a biscuit tin. With so few belongings, I wondered if perhaps the things most important to her were stored inside her head?”

And so began the artist’s journey: Dinu Li and his mother, side by side, piecing together recollections and places of the past with their present day realities. Like paging through their family album, we are drawn into his mother’s life story as they retrace her steps from China to Hong Kong to England.

The story opens like a film. A flight over the snowy mountaintops of China. Fade into a woman gazing out a window. Gauzy curtains fall over his mother like a thin veil of dust in the rooms of her past. With time, would we even recognize the places of our past? Would we choose to keep the memory, distorted over time, of these places, or would we risk going back to question everything we think we know? Where is the truth? In the photo or in the memory? Has the photograph become our memory and the stories of our lives become built around the pages of our family photo albums? 

A mix of present and past, Dinu Li combines family photos, his mother’s recollections, and images of the places they revisit as they actually are now. Weathered old family photos, reproduced in their original sizes, juxtaposed against the super-saturated colors of the rooms of her past, decayed with time, keep the reader in a limbo somewhere between then and now. The recent photos tell a story of China’s changing landscape over time. Just as our memory shifts so does the land around us. We have the images and the anecdotal details to imagine what her life must have been like. And we also see the life that continued in those places after she had left.

Li succeeds in recapturing the intimate story of his mother’s life as she migrated from China to England, which is at the same time part of his own story. He is a first-generation Chinese-English man rediscovering, perhaps even creating, his past, through the snapshots and oral history of his mother. He tells a universal story of a daughter, a wife, and a mother, as seen through the eyes of her son. A rare story of Chinese heritage that will leave you with more questions than answers — and perhaps encourage you to blow the dust off the pages of your own family album.

— Colleen Leonard

The Mother of All Journeys
by Dinu Li
Hardback, clothbound with insert
96 pages, 62 color photographs
280mm x 225mm
Dewi Lewis Publishing 2007
ISBN: 978-1-904587-41-5