Guannan Li captures Korean shamans, disappearing coastlines and artist’s utopias in her nomadic photography
Through Guannan's generous photography and documentary work, she attempts to salvage what is still there before it's swept up by modernity.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 26 November 2019
Photographer and documentarian Guannan Li has lived a nomadic life. Born in the northeast of China, her parents were amongst the first group of students to leave the country after the end of the Cultural Revolution, with a scholarship scurrying them to Germany in 1988. “One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting in a car and tracing raindrops rolling down the window with my finger when I suddenly saw an armed man staring right at me,” Guannan tells It’s Nice That. She and her family was crossing Checkpoint Charlie, the major crossing point by the Berlin wall, as flights from China were only allowed to land at East Berlin at the time.
Since then, Guannan’s academic background grew into journalism and media studies, with a particular interest in “stories about identity, obsessions and ultimately all kinds of cultural expressions,” she says. After being based in Shanghai for eight years, Guannan took off and lived wherever her work took her, be it London, Berlin or Frankfurt. “Six to five years ago, I was still living in Shanghai then, the city’s transformation began to really show, losing much of its identity and rawness,” the photographer says. “The gritty streets and alleys, buzzing with life, were making way for real estate developers,” she says, referencing a familiar story for urban spaces everywhere today. The advent of gentrification in Shanghai made her disconnected with her surroundings, leading her to pick up her camera, “not to document what was being lost but to salvage what was still there.”
Guannan’s diverse range of photography and documentary projects often deals with this engagement by finding stories of people and communities that have a strong relation to their surroundings. This is particularly prominent in the behind-the-scenes photographs she shows us, taken from an ongoing documentary film, Modern Shaman, that she’s working on with her friend, cinematographer Jia Li.
“Our film follows the young shaman Kim Juh-Young as he works towards becoming a master shaman in Seoul, South Korea,” she describes. The series chronicles Juh-Young’s personal life, juxtaposing this traditional folk practice with the of Seoul’s urban identity. Shamanism, which is seeing a sort of revival in South Korea, seems to run counter to the sheer modernity that has overtaken the country.
“This project has been surprising in many ways, but one of our first efforts was to wrap our brains around an ancient belief system within another culture,” she says. Through academic papers, history books and interviews with Yang Jong-sung, curator of Shamanism Museum in Seoul, and Laurel Kendall, a leading researcher in the field, they created a blueprint of context for their project.
Although they anticipated a resistance in terms of access, the reverse turned out to be true. “We were met with a lot of interest, shamans love to be the centre of attention,” she jokes. Despite their spiritual practice, much of their work is still a transactional provision of service. “Juh-Young, for example, would sometimes receive requests like: when is a good time to break up with my boyfriend or girlfriend? What is an auspicious time to get plastic surgery?” she adds. In a casual joke, Guannan asked Juh-Young to do a reading of her future. Usually strict about doing readings for people he knew, Juh-Young tells her his reading after a moment of silence. It was, of course, what she already knew – that she will lead a nomadic life where no place is home. A plea for a more positive reading was met with a mere smile, the reading was already over.
Across Guannan’s other projects are moments all filled with niche situations. “A project I felt really fortunate to shoot is the portrait of artist Song Pei Lun and the Ye Lang Valley,” she says. “Decades ago, he began building the surreal stone sculptures that would eventually grow into Ye Lang Valley, which translates roughly to ‘Night Wolf Creek’,” she says. “He too, was obsessed with tales of an ancient civilisation that disappeared without a trace and has dedicated his life to create his own artist utopia.” Another project documents the coastal erosion in the northern Portuguese town of Cortegaça. “Here, I’m focusing on the fishermen community, forced to resettle and live in ramshackle structures called ‘fishermen hoods’.”
Referring back to Modern Shaman, Guannan concludes by telling us about a meeting with Juh-Young in Neustadt, taking place during his tour of Europe’s folklore festivals, ending with a joint German-Korean BBQ. “After dinner, everyone made it down to the beach for some impromptu performances as the shamans started chanting and drumming and dancing, a crowd of retirees, children, townsfolk and passers-by gathered,” she says. “Within minutes, they had turned this quiet sand strip into a beach party.” Throughout her work, her photography is genuine, telling the unique stories that she finds with her keen eye through a generous voice. Perhaps you have to be quite generous when faced with rather eccentric situations that she finds herself in.