Documentary Photographer: LiDong
After working in petrochemical engineering for 15 years, Li Dong turned to documentary photography. He is interested in the striking social and economic transformations in China’s recent history and the emergence of migrant communities as the “new Guangzhou residents”.
DocumentaryPhotographer Li Dong’s Exploration of African Street in China
By Dr. Zhigang Li, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Sun Yat-sen University
People’s Republic of China is becoming the new destination of international immigrants. In history, “travelling to the West” or working abroad was the dream of modern Chinese. Now, “the flow of immigration to China” is becoming a phenomenal topic of the more and more globalizing world, particularly in Guangzhou, the second hometown of Mr. Li Dong.
Guangzhou, with a long international trade tradition and as the so-called “world factory”, attracts around 200,000-500,000 Africans, living and doing business. There emerged a famous “African Street” named Baohanzhi Street. The street, with crowded people coming and leaving, is located in Yuexiu District, one of the oldest districts of Guangzhou. It is an international place, for not only Guangzhou but also the world. Even the owner of the melon store there says he sells ‘the cheapest melon in the world’. The reason why Li Dong chose Baohanzhi Street to do his photography is its “internationalization” - it is a key habitation of Africans in Guangzhou.
The busiest time at Baohanzhi Street is from four p.m. to three a.m. of the next day. At night, booths surrounded by standing stores make the street look very busy and crowd. The Africans who are travelling between markets are drinking beer and chatting on the street, enjoying their colorful night life, against the shadow of post-reform yet worlding urban China. A few hours later, in the morning, people should go to work and school, the street becomes as quiet as if it is still sleeping.
It was difficult to taking pictures of the Africans, as they pay more attention to protecting their privacy and portraiture right. Li Dong moved into an only five-square-meters rental room in Baohanzhi Street, and got familiar with his neighbor, Molly, an African trader, by chatting. After becoming friends, Molly told Li Dong such problems as the visa issue, as many other Africans who have similar problems choose to stay in Guangzhou as illegal immigrants. With the help of Molly, Li Dong got into the African group, drinking beer and chatting with them in the street. But, he also used to wandering around with his camera. The inhabitants were resistant first but gradually get used to his photographic work. On the commercial area and the street, he could avoid misunderstanding as long as he smiled or tried to explain to the targets. And then he lived and worked in this street for two years.
Between March and April in 2014, a photographic exhibition <The African street in Guangzhou> with the theme of “Integration and Segmentation” was held in Guangzhou, indicating the end of Li Dong’s two years photographic work. It is obvious that life was not easy for African immigrants in the street. Li Dong used to take romantic and artistic photos with themes such as water. But now he turns his attention to documentary photography. Compared to the artistic photography focusing on beauty, the photography concerning cultural ecology and existence is more meaningful. The series of Africans on Guangzhou streets is the practice of this idea. There are many meaningful topics in China, and it is a time photographers can make a history.
Li Dong argues that a good topic should include three aspects: first, it should be a topic of the time; second, it should be concerned with social issues; third, it should be academically valuable. The topic of Africans includes all the three aspects. Compared to academic study, photographic work with its impact presentation on vision is easier to understand and more straight forward. It can attract viewers more easily from different fields, and make it possible for its issue to be discussed by the public.
On the exhibition of Africans in Guangzhou on 27th March, Li Dong organized an interdisciplinary seminar covering journalists, scholars, photographers, and residents from the Street. On the seminar Li Dong said:” I am just a photographer, not a scholar studying sociology or humanity. Therefore I can only judge issues from instincts, and touch, feel and present the truth.” But, comparing to academic studies, documentary photography can bring about more people’s interest, and lead scholars and publics to exchange opinions together, and thus make people pay attention to those social issue that have been neglected or covered. As such, I believe such work as Li Dong’s African Street will not only record an important moment, it will also change the history, and make it better.
Excerpts From Li Dong's diary
May 26th, 2013
May 29th, 2013
Afterword by Wang shaobo