As a civil servant for the Sichuan provincial Department of Communication, Feng Li is regularly tasked with photographically documenting local events in his hometown of Chengdu for the organization’s Propaganda Department. Having access to peculiar places and scenarios, he is regularly exposed to a steady stream of new and interesting subject matter. During these assignments, after shooting his commissioned work, he picks up his own camera to capture candid moments, adding them to the endless queue of images in his acclaimed series White Night.
A playful exhibition of the photographer’s work is featured at this year’s Recontres d’Arles photography festival — about 70 images sequenced in various clusters, sometimes framed, sometimes blown up into larger vinyl pieces, and sometimes pinned directly to the wall. The groupings of images emphasize the quirky nature of the photographer’s eye, guiding visitors through a visual trek characterized by peculiar moments.
In addition to the exhibition, Feng Li also spearheaded the interactive Carte Blanche, taking photos around the city of Arles during the festival, adding prints of the new subjects on a daily basis to a wall at the Croisiére venue. This endlessly-updated sequence was possibly the most organic manifestation of the artist’s work—a streamlined renewal of his daily visualizations.
While in Arles, I sat down with Feng Li and frequent collaborator and curator Thomas Sauvin to speak about the photographer’s recognizably peculiar methods and creative process. As Sauvin translated for us between Mandarin and English, we discussed how Feng Li first became interested in photography, what it’s like continuing his series outside of his hometown, and what compelled him to start making images of the awkward glitches in between regular poses.
LensCulture: Let’s talk about your personal history with photography. When did you first become interested in picking up a camera and why?
Feng Li: If I had to say a specific year, it would be 1995. At the time, I was working a regular office job. I studied Chinese medicine for a few years, and as soon as I graduated I decided to do something that had nothing to do with this intended field, because the universe of the hospital was too depressing for me. Instead, I found a job as a state employee and began doing very boring administrative work. While at this job, I was watching a lot of American movies about photographers traveling the open road, and I felt that photographing was something I might want to do myself. I wanted to get outside the confined space of the office and be outside taking pictures.
LC: And from what I understand, you also started taking photos for this job. In a lot of your texts, this profession is described as a “propaganda image maker.” Can you shed some light on what exactly this means?
FL: While I began taking photographs as an amateur in 1995, I approached my boss at work in 1999 and explained that I wanted to do more things with photography at work. It was perfect timing, because he immediately said, “I actually have just the thing for you.” At my job, there’s a division called the Propaganda Department, and they needed a photographer to cover many of the events in Chengdu. Given that I already had some experience, I was assigned to the task.
LC: In what ways do you think this professional work has informed your personal work, either aesthetically or in terms of subject matter?
FL: While the photos I take for my job look completely different than the photos I take for my personal work, the status of being a propaganda photographer and the nature of the profession allow me to go to a lot of different places and have access to many different events. As soon as I shoot the photos I’m required to take for my assignment, which is rather easy, I will start shooting images for my personal work. So, I guess it’s not fair to say that the job doesn’t affect my personal work at all—but it’s definitely in terms of access rather than in terms of aesthetics.
LC: So what exactly are you looking for when you’re out shooting?
FL: People. There are always people in my photos – it’s incredibly important.
Thomas Sauvin: As an anecdote, the first time he came to Paris was this past October for an exhibition of his work that I curated with my wife. Since it was his first time in France, and because I knew he would have jetlag, I decided that I would pick him up from the airport and go straight to the countryside to a house in the forest—a nice way to start the trip. We stayed there for 48 hours and he almost went insane. He wanted noise, he wanted pollution, he wanted the city – he needed people and there was none of it around him.
FL: Oh, I remember! [Laughs.]
LC: That’s hilarious. So then tell me about this transition from creating the bulk of your photographs in Chengdu to then extending the series to other cities like Paris. Was it a challenge to create visual fluidity between the different geographical areas?
FL: Strangely, no. In fact, when I went to Paris in October, after getting back into the city from the countryside, I immediately started shooting more images for White Night, which ended up fitting seamlessly with everything I had shot in Chengdu. The visual universe and narrative were exactly the same. And even now, shooting in Arles, the photographs flow together nicely. I’m happy to shoot anywhere as long as there are people there.
LC: While there are always people depicted in you work, there’s also this push and pull between classical methods and the present, and finding that moment of tension between tradition and modernization. Can you tell me a bit about why you think the medium of photography works especially well to tackle these themes?
FL: I saw the Robert Frank exhibition here in Arles yesterday, and it reminded me that I’ve always had a very strong relationship with traditional, classical photography, and I always want my own practice to respect that lineage. I use a simple camera, and I focus on that very basic action of taking a photograph. But even though I am documenting things using a very classical method, it’s always within a modern context of a bustling city and contemporary life— it’s always about the now.
I also love the fact that with contemporary photography and social platforms, I can immediately share my work. It’s not like video or other artistic approaches where it can take a week or months to edit and bring everything together into a final product. While these moments can be captured in a fraction of a second, I can share them in a fraction of a second as well.
LC: What’s so interesting about this method is that you’re able to capture these specific, absurd, candid moments, but at the same time your photographs are very well-crafted from a technological standpoint. You’re capturing a glitch in your subject, but there isn’t a glitch in your taking the photograph. When do you think you were first drawn to these strange moments?
FL: I remember very clearly that it began in 2005. I was asked to take photos for the Propaganda Department at a park with strange, large public sculptures, so the setting already felt pretty surreal. There was this cinematic element to it, and I shot a series that really set in motion what is now the soul of my work: this absurdity or odd moment that you mentioned. From that point on, this theatricality started making more and more sense to me, and I started finding similar things in more common places, especially when I entered the city.
LC: And while these scenarios are important, your lighting is also crucial for maintaining continuity throughout your work. It’s the flash that sustains this thread. How did this aesthetic choice first come about?
FL: It was definitely a practical choice at first. The reason I used flash was because I was interested in immediately capturing what my eyes were witnessing, and sometimes I see things that are very hard to believe. I don’t want to waste time trying to find the right combination of proper exposure and other features, so by using the flash I don’t have to worry about whether or not the photo is going to work out or not—I just focus on what’s happening in front of me and make sure I actually capture it.
LC: And I get the sense that this also ties into your title for the series: White Night. It’s interesting to have a continuous, years-long series under a singular title. Do you think the title informs how you approach making and selecting photographs to be included in the series?
FL: The reason the series is called White Night is definitely linked to the fact that I use flash in every photo, which creates an illusion where you’re never quite sure if it’s day or nighttime. I always want my images to be associated with these two words, so they are never captioned—not even with an indication of the place where they were taken. Like many photographers, I want my images to speak for themselves, and I don’t want to provide viewers with distracting information.
LC: So what are you interactions with your subjects like? Are people open with you when you’re taking shots of them or is it often awkward?
FL: When I first started making this work, I was going into the street and actively looking for these types of strange scenarios. But now I believe that I’m not really looking for them anymore—they are actually appearing in front of me, so it’s a more natural process.
LC: I also want to talk about how you approach book-making, especially regarding your book version of White Night that came out at the end of last year. What are the main factors you consider when presenting your work in a bound object, especially since this presentation is so different than an exhibition or Instagram feed?
FL: This book is very important to me precisely because it’s so radically different from an exhibition, for a number of reasons. First of all, the quantity of images I am able to show is so different: I can present way more than we display in exhibitions, and since I am constantly photographing, this quantity really matters. I don’t have to only select four or five great pictures that are meant to capture the essence of many years of work. What I’m doing reflects what is happening on a daily basis in my life, and a book mirrors this frequency much better.
Of course, unlike an exhibition, a book also survives throughout time, and that’s a great way for the work to live on. When it comes to the actual bookmaking, I don’t pay much attention to paper or design. What’s important to me is the sequencing, where I create a flow that sometimes plays on color, form and content. And then sometimes these sequences are broken by something else entirely.
LC: And across all these platforms, what do you most enjoy about viewers engaging with your work? What are you trying to bring to them?
FL: A lot has changed for me in the last year since my work has become more visible on an expansive scale, so now when people see one of my photographs without any information or my name, they are able to recognize it and think, “Oh, that’s a photo by Feng Li.” To me, this is a very big achievement. But what are still the most significant and meaningful interactions for me are best embodied in an Instagram comment that was left on one of my images yesterday. I posted a photo from Arles, and someone wrote, “Proving your unique point of view is cross-cultural.” This is exactly how I want my work to always be seen.
—Feng Li interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj