Exploring Memories and Seeking Identities

In a delicate series, Chinese photographer Yangkun Shi captures an elusive reality, as every step towards modernisation means to move forward and face the loss of traditional culture for his country.

© Yangkun Shi, from the series Solastalgia

Solastalgia is a neologism that describes a form of psychic distress caused by environmental change. In a series of the same name, Chinese photographer Yangkun Shi explores his own feeling of solastalgia when confronted with the recent transformation of his homeland, Shangshui, in the central province of Henan, China.

What in his childhood was a rural hub comprised of three streets has turned, over the past decade, into a city of one million inhabitants, resulting in a series of obvious and subtle mutations. “These might be invisible changes, like people’s conversation now revolving around money, or the fact that we can’t exercise outdoor anymore due to high air pollution”, Shi explains. “It’s mainly a feeling.”

© Yangkun Shi, from the series Solastalgia

A sense of loss and uncertainty accompanies the slow and durable metamorphosis that Shi expresses in metaphors. A photograph from the project depicts chickens trapped in a small cage seemingly abandoned in a bucolic landscape. “When I came across these chickens, I found the scene meaningful. When I was a kid, they were running all around my house courtyard, while they are now caged, stuck, facing their death”, Shi recalls. Before adding, “At every step we move forward and have to face the loss of traditional culture. There is something of the despair of a new born. It’s a feeling close to depression.”

Not surprisingly, most characters inhabiting Shi’s photographs are children, as if to depict a situation where people have to start from scratch in front of transformations; virgin. One child particularly, a four-year-old boy or so, is standing naked in the middle of a parking lot, his deep fragile gaze irradiating Shi’s frame. “As a kid I was that naked boy as well, playing in the water and eating watermelon. But this kid was just standing there, at the crossline of the shadow and the sunshine. The photograph as it is talks about the vanishing instant, and the fact that a lot of things can happen and disappear in a blink of eye”, he says.

© Yangkun Shi, from the series Solastalgia

Given the fragility of the present and the emotional nature of the subject, Shi’s series appears at times like a fairytale; a series of images that could erupt from a dream. This goes for a goat, jumping in the middle of a flowery field, his front paws raised in the air and tall grass as if picking a bouquet of flowers. Or, for a hammock, hanging empty next to a peaceful river. “I was very moved by this scene - I still remember clearly napping in a hammock during summer months when I was a kid.” But here the hammock is empty, both sad and inviting. As Shi sees it, “it’s as if you woke up from a dream and had a vision of it.”

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Yangkun Shi is a Chinese documentary photographer and reporter living and working in Shanghai. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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