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Feng Li’s Paris Street Photography is a Rare Bright Spot Amid a Dark Winter for the City of Lights

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Photosensitive is a RADII column that focuses on Chinese photographers who are documenting trends, youth, and society.

While Chengdu-born photographer Feng Li’s photos of model Liu Wen for Burberry’s 2021 Chinese New Year campaign were polarizing opinion on Chinese social media earlier this month, his work was also causing a stir in Europe.

In what is indisputably one of the most beautiful sites in the world, a stone’s throw from the masterpieces housed at the Louvre and rubbing shoulders with the impressionists at Musée d’Orsay, the Chinese street photographer debuted White Night in Paris. Now in its last days at Quai D’orsay, the open-air exhibition is part of PhotoSaintGermain and features his humorous, sometimes uncanny shots of Paris and its residents, which were taken on his multiple visits to the city.

Feng Li Bear Radii

Feng has exhibited in Paris before, invited by artist and collector Thomas Sauvin, the Beijing Silvermine archive creator. He also spent four months in the city as an artist-in-residence. However, White Night in Paris is the first time he has exhibited his photographs of the French capital.

The photographer started shooting the White Night series in his hometown of Chengdu in 2005, in order to document what he saw within the regular course of a day. The photos are invariably humorous, strange, and visceral, as Feng lays bare his unique vision — not just of street life, but of the human condition itself.

As if to validate his photographs with evidence, Feng has an aim-and-shoot approach. He captures his improbable characters and scenes with a harsh, on-camera flash. “I don’t make moments seem weird or surreal, they’re already like that when I see them,” he says. “I just record them on camera. If it weren’t for these photos, no one would believe what I saw. Absurdity and comedy are inexorable to our lives.”

Homeless White Night in Paris

Outside of China, he has already photographed in Arles in the south of France, and in Berlin. His Paris shots range from a homeless person crossing the street with Nike paper bags to a bear wrapped in plastic, looking in a restaurant window; there’s also an ecstatic group of people looking out of a bus window at a tragic, or at the very least, curious incident — ironically, what ends up being curious to us viewers is their appearance: behind the green-tinted window, they look murky and even ghostly. Yet, they look real.

Feng Li Bus Radii

“The street is like a stage where people come and go,” says Feng. However, he sees himself as a street photographer only in the broader sense of the practice: by elevating daily life into works of art, combining and capturing elements to present his perspective, often only with a split second to spare. To him, the dimension of the street is not essential. “The street is only a part of it. If the subject is interesting enough, I can take pictures anywhere,” he adds. 

Similarly, his choice of city to shoot in is relevant but not imperative. Paris joins Arles and Berlin as non-Chinese cities he has roamed, looking for content for the series. While these locations are surely inspiring as backgrounds, to Feng that’s just what they are: backgrounds. His work features something that’s ultimately universal.

“It doesn’t matter to me what country or city I shoot in,” he explains. “What attracts me is always the state of man.”  

White Night in ParisLike most candid photographers, Feng’s creative process is straightforward and requires no preparation. All he requires is his camera on-hand, so as to be prepared for moments of excitement as worthy subjects appear.

Lockdown measures imposed because of Covid-19 in China and abroad have naturally limited Feng’s gregarious work. Still, he says he’s not been short of inspiration even when stuck between four walls. “I’ve had fewer opportunities to travel and to go out, but it didn’t stop me from observing and photographing. We can also find interesting pictures at home.” 

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Ironically, as Paris continues to be placed under lockdowns and curfews, with most museums and galleries closed and a limited offer of cultural activities, Feng’s works are one of the only exhibits accessible in the city, thanks to being shown outside in an open-air display, his street photography shown on the street.

“This exhibition, along with other displays that are part of the festival, is one of the very few opportunities to see art in the city,” says Victoria Jonathan, the curator of White Night in Paris. “It’s like a breath of fresh air, and it reminds us of the city’s beating heart. It’s refreshing to see his characters’ quirky attitude in a time when everybody is wearing surgical masks on the streets. Parisians have been reacting very positively.”

Feng Li Installation Shots

Under her own label, Doors Agency, Jonathan facilitates cultural exchange between China and Europe. For three years, she co-directed the Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival, for which Feng received the Discovery Award in 2017 and was granted a show in Arles the following summer.

“When I learned it would be an open-air exhibition by the Seine, I thought it would be a great opportunity to throw Li’s images right back at the city,” she tells us.

Some of these images are in stark contrast with the location that they’re exhibited. For instance, the display includes photos of the yellow vest protests, while also showing the city’s homeless people, making for some incongruent combinations.

“The show is facing the Louvre and Tuileries Garden, near to the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame. Right at the center of a tourist postcard,” says Jonathan. “But Feng Li shows the diversity of Paris, a city that’s very much alive, not the frozen ‘City of Lights,’ the one that is idealized by tourists.”

This particular quay where White Night in Paris is on display is popular with people exercising and sometimes even dancing in public.

Until January 23, the photography of Feng Li will dance too, with the locals.

Photographs provided by Doors Agency and Feng Li

Tomás Pinheiro
    Tomás Pinheiro lives his life behind the scenes of culture. He's a producer, critic, and art writer. He's been meeting with the people and exploring the spaces nurturing the creative cities of Asia-Pacific.