When the plane landed on the tracks of Beijing International Airport, I feel myself becoming a whole again, this physical body of me finally catching up to the parts of me that already wandered its way here, through the long nights and the dreams I would have of my family, where my mother’s fingers were the winter branches, reaching through my hair, carrying me to sleep...
1971, the boy in the picture would have been 2 years old at the time. In the photograph he wears dark, elastic waisted shorts with washed-out white vest tucked in, and a pair of Marry Jean style leather sandals. His finger is pointing towards a dark spot in the photo, where his gaze follows, what seems to be a cricket, resting upon the stone steps, about to take a leap and disappear into the bush soon after the photo was taken. It could have been a sunny afternoon, for the soft hues of the light and they boy’s shadow climbing onto the stone wall closely behind him.
I studied the boy in the picture, and at last rediscovered my father. The distinct feature of his face, the naïve gesture of his hand and the way he is posing himself where you could tell the photographer had just said “show me what you’ve found”. Then, I saw something peculiar， that pricks me, bruise and wound me.
By the end of our conversation to make peace, she said to me in an aching voice with tears circling in her eyes, “children, always a wound that hurts the most, always the greatest possibility for parents to live on”, at that point I did not care to understand what she had meant by that, and our day continues on.
Three Young Sisters
The photograph has a deckle edge that had been blunted from being pulled in and out of the enveloped that contains it. Droplets of rust-coloured stains smudged its border. On the back, written vertically in blue ink “幼小三妹姐” – three young sisters. The picture shows three children standing together under the eaves of an old tile-roofed house. My mother was 8 years old in the photograph, her siblings 10 and 6. One of the sisters is standing in the front, with her hand crossed behind her back, she, taller than her, was standing a bit far back, their gazes fixated upon the camera. She had a bright smile on her face, awkwardly, as children often do when posing in front of a camera. The three sisters, gathered, at the order of their parents, who had borrowed the camera from a family friend to take this photo on National day, had stood side by side, united, in front of the house that would carry all their memories and longings for the charmed childhood life with no return.
The walk to the custom felt miles long, their figure gets smaller and smaller through the matted glass gates of the security check, and finally disappear into the crowd. Suddenly I remembered my mother’s word, the deepest wound, the greatest possibility, now I truly understand what she had meant, also the resignedly unspoken words between her line. I had lost more than just seven hours to the earth’s curve.
"Li’s photographs draw you in quietly. Each image is a soft expression of a thought or feeling, while complementing the broader narrative. The sense of absence and longing is palpable. The project is about separation. But also rebirth, and how we come to terms with our new selves while still within a family narrative"
- Izabela Radwanska Zhang for the British Journal of Photography
Empty Nest is a story about family, parenthood, ageing and the sorrow of separation. When a child leaves home, many parents experience a sense of grief and loss of identity, as often in familial relationships we define our identity to the roles we play within the family. In 2019, my mother joined my father on his retirement, while adjusting to their repetitive and domestic new routines, our longings and thoughts for each other’s company grew unbearable. This body of work explores the larger and more complex longing, intimacy and insecurities in family life, and shed-light on the traumas the one-child-policy has imposed on many Chinese families. Embedded with a multi-generational narrative, the work navigates the intricacies that emerge through our past and memories, with recurring themes of loss and nostalgia weaving through the storytelling. And at its core, the work is a reflection and discussion on accepting new identities in familial relationships and the less talked about negotiations in family life.