Can you tell us about the area of Qi Lihe, which is the name of your series?
Qi Lihe is a district which sits awkwardly on the outskirts of Lanzhou. It is the
most destitute area of this heavily polluted industrial city in
northwestern China. The Shanghai to Ürümqi express train regularly
steams through the district, rattling the makeshift homes along the
track and slicing a divide between the slum dwellings and the modern
sprawl of high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls. These
developments have begun to sprout up as Lanzhou attempts to compete with
the prosperous boom of China’s other provincial capitals.
Who are these communities you focused on with this work?
recent years there has been a steady surge in the number of
migrant families arriving into the city from their remote rural villages
in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture; a homeland for the Hui and
Dongxiang Muslim minorities, situated three hours north of the
capital.The Hui’s ancestors were Silk Road traders, largely of Arab
and Persian descent, who first came to China in the seventh century.
The Dongxiang are closely related to the Mongolians and, as an
independent ethnic group, they arose through contact with Central Asians
who converted them to Sunni Islam in the thirteenth century. For
hundreds of years the Hui and Dongxiang have farmed the
arid and bleak land surrounding their ancestral villages. However, in
recent years, desertification has forced much of the landscape to become
infertile and while pockets of farming communities still exist, life
has become too difficult and remote for many. This has necessitated
thousands of families to seek a better existence and to hope for a new
future in Lanzhou. However, economic and educational marginalization
greatly impact on Qi Lihe’s migrant families. Life in the provincial
capital remains extremely difficult, as the majority continue to live in
abject poverty, struggling to survive from one day to the next.
As in your older Zheng Sheng project – in which you focus on a rehabilitation center for teenagers, located in Hong Kong – you depict here a very tightly knit community, with a great proximity towards the people. How do you work with a community you aim to portray?
It is very important for me to spend a great deal of time within the communities I photograph. For my Qi Lihe project, I spent many months documenting daily life within the Muslim migrant community, as I did previously for my Zheng Sheng project, where I lived within the centre, eating the same food, sleeping in the same dormitories, going through the same daily program as the boys. In both cases, it wasn’t always easy to stay there, but in the end I think these communities accepted me and it became quite normal for them to see me there everyday.
Your photography is very picturesque. As a photographer, what is your relationship to seduction when composing an image?
Patience and understanding is key when working on my projects. The style of images I take stems from the commitment to the stories I pursue. On many occasions, I spend a great deal of time waiting for a number of elements to come together to make a picture, returning to locations time and time again.
Limited edition, numbered and signed.