Siqi Li (b. 1998) is a Chinese artist currently based between London and Beijing, who recently graduated from London College of Communication with an MA degree in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. Li utilises photography, text and archival interventions to navigate through larger social contexts such as history and politics, as well as personal and collective memories. Themes of displacement and nostalgia are a recurring element in her intimate approach to storytelling. Her practice explores centric and profound human experiences such as loss and longing; an emotionally charged combination of senses that drive her ongoing project ‘Empty Nest’, which tells a highly personal tale about family, parenthood, ageing and the sorrow of separation.
On this occasion, we sat with Li to talk about this delicate project, her background and her plans for future creative endeavours.
When we met, you told me that you specialized in business during your undergraduate studies. Why did you end up choosing a more creative subject like photography for your Masters degree? How did you experience this transition?
I have always been more interested in the creative side of things. I did a lot of classical drawing growing up but it never occurred to me that I could develop my interest in arts beyond a hobby before moving to London. Through a few friends who were studying photography, I was introduced to the works of many great artists during my second year in business school, so before I had decided to pick up my own camera, I had been looking at and reading about other people’s work and learning about this medium. Eventually I got my first camera – a Mamiya RB67 – and started taking photographs myself. After a while, I was craving for more contextual studies and wanted to be able to continue my focus on photography, so I ended up joining the MA Documentary Photography course at LCC.
[…] Our longing and thoughts for each other grew unbearable during this period.
‘Empty Nest’, is in a way, your debut into the photography world. It is the first big body of work you have made and started as part of your final graduation project. Could you please tell our readers how the series came about? What drove you to make these images?
I started photography with those closest to me; family mostly. I carried this interest in the domestic and familial into my studies, so in some ways, this work is a continuation of my interest in those areas. The series was made during my first visit back home in two years. Due to the pandemic, both my parents had just retired before the epidemic started, and our longing and thoughts for each other grew unbearable during this period. I simply wanted to take time to look at my parents and photograph their everyday life – it is like a ritual that reintroduced me back into their routines after such a long time. During the process, this act of conscious, reversible and mutual way of looking at familial matters, inspired me to look into the construct of our family, its past and history, the less talked about negotiations, longing and intimacy, the larger social context that we situated ourselves in, and how all that had fed back into our narrative now and made us who we are.
To me, the work feels like a visual representation of saying goodbye. Do you believe that photographs can function as a coping mechanism?
The photographic medium is often associated with the past and memories; therefore, it has certain powerful qualities that often provoke emotional responses from its viewers. For me, rather than being a coping mechanism, it is a constant reminder of its subject’s absence, and due to this very quality, it constitutes a realization of loss and makes it real. It also makes it possible for us to apprehend loss.
Despite a profound melancholic presence, I also see something promising and hopeful in the images. Can you tell us more on that?
Photography and loss has been widely written about and the “loss” discussed often refers to “death”. Though the series implies this sense of loss and mourning, it is not exactly the same as loss through mortality, but rather, a loss that is experienced through distance and separation, as well as the loss of identity when structural changes happen in the family. However, we eventually come to terms with our new identity in familial relationships and I used many metaphors such as the reoccurring butterfly and eggs as a symbol for rebirth and offspring, suggesting the strong kinship and bond that we share, and our ability to reconcile with challenging and undesirable situations as families.
On your website, the images are presented alongside diaristic extracts of text and a short project statement. Is it important for you that the audience who reads your work comprehends the references and meanings behind all these symbols?
The text in the project is a combination of free writings – in which case they recollect fragments of memories – which is a piece of descriptive writing that recreates an image through the use of words. Here, I have used archival family photographs of my parents when they were children. The use of text takes away the objectification an image normally brings, and gives the personal and private images something more fluid and alive that can be related to the viewer’s own experiences and be open for interpretation. Therefore, they are completely subjective and depending on our own experience – something that can provoke emotion in one person might not be relatable to another at all. Similarly, I do not intend to overly explain my use of metaphors and their intension, because it is hard for anyone else to comprehend their meanings fully.
The portraits of your parents are highly personal and emotive. You can feel you have a close relationship with them. How did they react when you explained your project ideas to them?
The initial reaction I got was rather dismissive, although that was not their intention! I was not taken seriously as I tiptoed around the house with a big camera and constantly bothered them to pose for me. For the common public – that includes my parents – photography is often a tool used to look out, rather than look in, so that was a learning curve for them when I tried to explain why I am interested in photographing them. But they are very supportive parents and eventually realized that this is something important to me, so we began communicating ideas and they were doing whatever they could to support me, but still would occasionally complain that their back was hurting from sitting straight up for a photograph.
You subtly raise political questions about China’s one-child-policy. What was it like growing up as an only child for you? Do you think this made your relationship with your parents even stronger?
The image of the family is double exposed; it reflects the larger social context but at the same time, it is influenced by it. It felt necessary to raise these questions about the one-child-policy and its effect on our family and many other Chinese families, because in many ways, it seriously enhanced this Empty Nest phenomena and made it a common issue. When I was growing up it never really bothered me, it is what a typical family would be like. I did share a strong bond with my parents and because of the traditional Chinese family value of ‘filial piety’, I feel obligated to provide them with elder care later on. But being the single child means I have no one to share this obligation with, and with this level of individualism and how it contributes to success in today’s world, it is a very conflicting and unfortunately sad situation for many of us.
You shot most of the portraits on a large format 5×4 camera. Due to the slow image making process that typifies these kinds of cameras, your images had to be predominantly staged. Your parents, who also acted as sitters in front of your lens, thus had to pose. Could you tell us more about your work approach? Was there much directing involved from your side or did the scenes you captured unfold more organically?
Because of the slower and more manual nature of the camera, most of the images from this series are choreographed. I found keeping a diary helpful in this situation by simply documenting their day-to-day activities and writing down specific scenes in my head. I can always reference them to recreate the images later when I am more prepared. Coincidentally, having this slower process was actually in my favor, as most of us, when conscious of being photographed, will almost immediately change our posture or expression. Having this longer span of time, people eventually become a bit restless and go back to being their normal self.
Depending on the type of images, sometimes I would also direct them to think of certain things or experiences while I was photographing. For the image of my mother sitting on the bed wrapped in a blanket: she had sat there for a good 5 minutes and I had asked her to think about her first love. She had then become so drifted within her own thoughts that it seemed like she had forgotten about my presence.
This project is still ongoing. How do you plan on developing it in the future?
I want to add more layers into the series and my practice in general by experimenting with enhancing the physicality of the works, perhaps playing with different materials for darkroom printing and different techniques, as well as alternative ways I can present the works to an audience.
Lastly, would you be willing to share anything about what you are currently working on? Are there any other styles and aesthetics you would still like to explore and experiment with?
I have always been working with very intimate subject matters that revolve around my family, and currently I am feeling motivated to expand on that. I have always been interested in the politics and the larger social context of China, and I have subtly hinted at those in my previous works. I am now researching the history of religion in China and religious Chinese communities overseas.
In terms of styles and aesthetics, I sometimes struggle between contemporary arts and documentary photography. Beauty and aesthetics is important in my work and can be the sharpest tool when used effectively, that can adequately and powerfully communicate complicated and more difficult narratives. In my future works, I wish to keep exploring this relationship between visual aesthetic and its ability to communicate certain sensitive matters.