A few months ago, I received an email from Yan Li, curator at High Noon Culture and Art in Beijing, China. I had met her briefly at PhotoLucida in March—and by briefly I mean I ran over to her table at the very end of the very last review session, gave her my collateral, and that was it.
So I was a little surprised when she emailed me several months later, inviting me and 9 other American photographers to show their work in November at the 2013 Lishui International Photography Festival in Lishui, China. I was eating lunch at a cheap teriyaki shop when I received the email, and immediately texted my wife, “Can I go to China in November?” She said yes.
So, here I am, flying from Hong Kong to Wenzhou, China, where I’ll be picked up and driven 2 hours to Lishui, China. Like me, you’ve heard of Portland, Oregon, and its 1 million residents, but you’ve never heard of Lishui, China, and its 2.6 million inhabitants. What immediately struck me in preparing for this trip was how little I actually knew of China and its geography. I couldn’t have told you where anything was on a map, Beijing or Tibet or Shanghai or Chengdu, or Lishui.
I’ve spent several days in Hong Kong with dear friends, and enjoyed my time immensely. They’ve also helped me brush up on a few key phrases in Mandarin (which I vaguely recalled from my time with them in Taiwan 15 years ago).
Aside from my Mandarin, it’s been hard to know how to prepare, or what to expect, in Lishui. We were told to show up on November 4, 2013. We were asked to bring 15 matted prints. And that’s it.
I’ve read blog posts by other American photographers invited in previous years. But that’s about all I have to go on.
So, I’m going to roll with the punches, and I’m expecting it to be an adventure.
* * *
And an adventure it was. My time in Lishui was so full, I had no time to write updates. Now that the dust is settling, here’s a recap and a number of random thoughts on the week:
First, I had a great time with a bunch of great people. Going in to this trip, I was unsure about how the group dynamic between our contingent of 9 American photographers would be. (Heidi Kirkpatrick, Jim Leisy, Susan Kae Grant (and her husband Richard Klein), Clay Lipsky, Barbara Ciurej, Bill Vaccaro, Ryan Zoghlin, Fritz Liedtke, and curator Yan Li.) I needn’t have worried. We had a fantastic time together. Not only did we all like and respect each other as artists, but we had a lot of fun.
Next, the festival. This was the 2013 15th Lishui International Photography Festival. Finding detailed information online about the festival is pretty much impossible, even with Google Translate. As I mentioned before, we really knew nothing more than what to bring and where to land. Beyond that, we just took everything one step at a time. Our hotel wasn’t great, but sufficient. They plied and piled food on us meal after meal, far more than we could eat. The government paid for the whole thing, so we didn’t have to shell out a penny, except for drinking water (!), a tour, and souvenirs.
The festival itself is actually pretty incredible. It consists of the work of hundreds of photographers—some in collections of an individual photographers’ work (such as our exhibits), and some group shows curated by guest curators (such as the large show of photography books curated by Chiara Capodici and Fiorenza Pina of Little Big Press in Italy). According to an article in Lishui Today, “more than 150,000 works by photographers from 98 countries and regions were received, of which over 600 photographs were selected and exhibited.” It spanned perhaps a dozen venues, of which there were 4 major sites. Our particular site was an old oil pump factory. It was both awe-inspiringly beautiful and dumpy at the same time. Beautiful light filtered in to these old factory buildings, which were filled with photography. But the floors and walls were still covered with dirt and oil stains. An odd juxtaposition, something in China that you just get used to. In the 6 or so buildings at our site, one with 4 stories of work, there were hundreds of photographs and books on display.
Our group’s work was hung in a large building with high ceilings and clerestory windows. It turned out to be an excellent location for portraiture, of which I took full advantage. Here are some of my portraits of my fellow artists, and some local curators and photographers, at the factory:
On our last evening together, after a long day of sightseeing, Yan informed us that she had some good news. She told us that out of our group of 10 people, we had been given 4 major awards: Susan Kae Grant won an Award of Excellence, Barbara Ciurej (and her collaborator Lindsay Lochman, who wasn’t able to come) won a Grand Prize, I also won a Grand Prize for the Astra Velum series, and our curator Yan Li won a Curator’s Award. Out of 11 awards given to photographers, our little group walked away with 3 of them. (You have to understand that we didn’t know there were any awards at this festival. Like so much on this trip, we didn’t know anything about it until we were eating dinner at Pizza Hut on the last night, and Yan shared the good news with us.)
Our group had plenty of adventures together outside of the photo festival. From having tea with a celadon pottery master, to foot massages, to bus trips into the terraced rice paddies, we really enjoyed each other’s company. I also really enjoyed getting to know local Chinese people. Each day, our hotel was assigned 5 local university students to act as helpers/translators for the photo festival’s guests. When I travel, I most enjoy getting to know local people, customs, language, and culture. So I made it a point to talk with some of the students each day. They also became our translators, tour bookers, photography store locators, models, and friends. Clay Lipsky and I also met a number of Chinese curators and photographers at the exhibition. Everyone was very friendly; one photographer we’d just met was receiving an award at the Lishui Photography Museum; he asked us to pose in photos with him as he was given his award, and also gave several of us small prints as gifts.
Speaking of Chinese photographers, people in China like to take pictures of foreigners. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say I was photographed more during my week in Lishui than I had been in the previous 10 years combined. Aside from a few photos of us ending up in the local paper, I have no idea what those people will do with the images of us and our work. But it was fun to feel like a rock star for a week, autographs and all.
And while I’m speaking of autographs, let me offer a little advice to anyone reading this that is invited to future Lishui Photo Festivals:
- First of all, if you get invited, go. Go into it with a spirit of adventure.
- Also go with a generous attitude; make friends with your fellow photographers from near and far. Make sure no one feels left out.
- Bring cards to autograph and give away. People will LOVE this. Bring a Sharpie so you can sign your cards in front of people. Hand it to a Chinese person using both hands, which is a sign of respect.
- Buy/drink bottled water. Don’t get dehydrated.
- Bring a few gifts to give to other photographers, your curator, or new friends. A small print, or copies of your book, will suffice, and will make you a lifelong friend.
- Get a VPN (Virtual Private Network) client on your laptop and phone. This will allow you to access Facebook and other sites that the Chinese government blocks, and also keep your data more secure.
- Check your mobile phone plan and understand what your international data/text/phone plan is. Thankfully my carrier, Tmobile, just started offering free international texting and data, and cheap phone calls, so I didn’t feel at all hampered while abroad.
- Get a foot massage at a reputable masseuse. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in the States to give one like the Chinese do.