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07 October 2020

A Photographic Document on Past and Present Inheritance

07 October 2020 - Written by Lucia De Stefani

In his work Inheritance, Singaporean photographer Wangjie Li reflects on which meanings family history can assume in our lives, intertwined with his personal meditation on the intimate history of queerness.

© Wanjie Li, from the series Inheritance

Inheritance is the sum of the singular effects we carry, whether bequeathed as gifts or handed down as duties to uphold, with an inherent value not to be disputed. When a person’s past is projected into the future, how is the here and now changed?

Wanjie Li, a young photographer from Singapore, inherited the history of his family from 1980's China, a narrative he now retells through the work of altering archival family photos. He modifies them, adding a twist of significance, a new representation to the story. His inheritance speaks to his life. And yet, there is another story, equally personal, that intertwines with his family's.

For Li, Inheritance is not just his family history but the queer histories "[that] were handed down…and which I could not choose to take on or opt out of."

© Wanjie Li, from the series Inheritance

The project becomes a reconciliation, he explains, and a reckoning with these historical forces: on the one hand, getting acquainted with the family history that made his life possible, and on the other, coming to terms with "what it means and looks like to occupy a queer body." His photographic approach thus becomes the territory where the conversation between these realms takes place, through the creative act of subtraction.

Li enacts a meticulous "process of erosion," using his family albums photos: the faces of the subjects are erased, leaving us to imagine the identities and desires of these men, now silhouettes in bidimensional space—a process that enhances our sense of wonder.

© Wanjie Li, from the series Inheritance

Similarly, the features of the people Li photographed—gender-fluid and queer friends and artists he met through work, online or in his social circle—are concealed voluntarily. This creates a double ambiguity and challenges the conventions of western photography, including its glaring attempt to define and objectify the body. It's here that Li's work breaks free from the narrow expectations of what's been visually codified.

"I wanted to try to present the bodies in a more loving way," says Li, "in a way that can honor the way my friends have come into my life, the things that they have given to me. [What] made sense to me was this tenderness and lovingness."

© Wanjie Li, from the series Inheritance

Li's subjects look straight into the camera, reclaiming control over what's shown, turning the tables on viewers as they consume these image of hyper-sexualized and hyper-masculine bodies. Always complicit in Li’s photography process, his subjects reclaim their power and don't suffer it. Their eyes and features, nonetheless, are often cut out of frame.

"Being given photo access to someone's appearance, it's a form of power, and I kind of wanted to deprive the viewer of that," Li says.

© Wanjie Li, from the series Inheritance

Furthermore, he focuses not only on his blood family but also on his chosen one, and investigates how the queer body is discussed and integrated in terms of family. By disrupting the idle nature of old family albums and their commemorative function, he introduces an element of playfulness. "It's about resisting labels, resisting definitions, resisting one-way of reading," he says, about the importance of being something else that that which was decided for you. "It's the willingness to be something more than it was intended to be."

© Wanjie Li, from the series Inheritance

One of the most significant photos in Li's project portrays him and his then ex-boyfriend, naked in bed, the green of the wall behind them enveloping them in an ephemeral intimacy that remains otherworldly but still somehow real. Their relationship already over, Li couldn't capture the intensity of their bond directly. Ironically, "the moment [the relationship] was over, it became more important to me to prove that it had happened." A clarifying moment. The staged portrait of the no-longer couple becomes then a mixture of truth and make-believe, a souvenir or keepsake, a way of honoring the past and the truth, he says. It is a coming-of-consciousness that claims "I was here, this happened."

© Wanjie Li, from the series Inheritance

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Wanjie Li is a photographer from China. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

Written by

Lucia De Stefani

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