Li Zhengde lives on the edge of Mount Wutong National Park, in Shenzhen. His one-bedroom flat is on the fourth floor of a forlorn, reform-era tenement building, beside some shabby farmhouses that date back a century or more. The interior is decorated with Li’s own photography and brimming with enough books for a small library. It smells of Hunan chilli peppers.
Outside, tropical storm Ewiniar is menacing the mountainside, rousing a nearby river to burst its banks while shrouding Shenzhen’s highest peak in continually shifting mists.
“Look how clear the water is,” says Li, pointing out of the window at streams snaking down the slopes. “Mountain fresh!”
Removing a beer from the fridge and lighting a Hongtashan cigarette, Li settles into an easy chair to discuss his epic photographic project, “From the Zi River to the Yangtze”, for which he began shooting images in 2009.
“I miss the road,” he says, from behind Lennon-esque glasses, recalling his recent stint spent photographing the villages of southern Anhui province – the ancient land of Huizhou – situated somewhere between his hometown in Hunan and the megacities along China’s largest waterway.
“In Anhui, I was hiking all day, every day, so I drank less beer,” Li says. “The place is incredible, not overly commercialised like other historic parts of China. There’s a sense of reality.”
Despite his penchant for alcohol and tobacco, Li , who’s in his early 40s, doesn’t look his age. Born in 1976, in Hunan’s Anhua county, he was the youngest of three boys and quickly found he had a problem with authority.
“I only managed 18 months of university in Changsha,” says the photographer, who had attempted to study fine art. “I could never tolerate Chinese-style education.”
At 21, Li waved goodbye to the remote river town of his birth – famous only for its signature dark tea.
“Until I was 30, I drifted between Beijing and Guangzhou,” he recalls. “I worked as a hotel wedding curator, a calligraphy teacher, an advertising designer, a commercial photographer and a fine-food journalist. I never lasted longer than a year in any profession.”
At the tail end of 2005, Li followed his girlfriend to Shenzhen, where he found work as a photographer at glossy publication Weekend Pictorial, and where he earned the nickname Alien Li.
“My colleagues heard my opinions and thought I was from another planet,” he says.
Going it alone in 2006, Li rode the economic wave of the Hu Jintao era with lucrative freelance gigs.
“I’d been thinking about how to be an artist for years,” he says, “and when I arrived in Shenzhen, I finally began to work on the ideas I’d stockpiled.”
Li began to gain attention as a photographer with his controversial “The New Chinese” series of images – a biting, satirical commentary on consumer culture that polarised audiences. The photographs, often taken surreptitiously while shooting corporate functions, were exhibited twice at the Lianzhou Foto festival, in Guangdong province, and eventually overseas in galleries in Spain and the Netherlands.
Keen not to be typecast as a Chinese Martin Parr, the British photographer best known for his sardonic take on modern life, Li put the award-winning series to bed in 2016. He had already turned his attention to less garish projects, notably “The Invisible World” (2009-2012), a haunting homage to Shenzhen’s migrant workers who live in the margins beyond the gilded high-rise districts. The set was exhibited at the Dali International Photography Festival 2017, in Yunnan province, to much acclaim.
However, “From the Zi River to the Yangtze”, Li’s largest, and most ambitious, photo series, takes him beyond his adopted home to capture China’s interior.
“Many southerners have a real feeling for water, having grown up on its edge,” Li says, pouring himself another glass of beer. “At just nine years of age, I could already swim across the Zi River, and it was much choppier back then, before they dammed it upstream. When we were young, if we wanted to go to Yiyang [the prefecture-level city], you’d have to take a boat. There was no motorway. Life revolved around the river.
“In imperial times, Anhua produced tea, as well as bamboo and rice,” he says. “It would be sent up the Zi River, via Dongting Lake, to the Yangtze, from where it could travel all the way down to rich cities at the river’s end: places like Yangzhou and Nanjing.”
A 15-year-old Li took a three-week trip on a cousin’s boat that transported freight to Wuhan. “I worked, cleaning dishes and doing odd jobs.
“We passed countless riverside villages and towns, the overnight mystery of Dongting Lake, all the way to the banks of the Yangtze River, which left a profound impression on me. At night, heavy rain pattered on the boat. A group of dark grey, finless dolphins kept jumping out of the water beside us.”
Although the new collection’s black humour and captiousness recalls “The New Chinese”, “From the Zi River to the Yangtze” – which Li hopes to complete by the end of the year, with Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai left to cover – represents a fresh aesthetic approach for the photographer.
“I’m using an old Hasselblad film camera,” he says, of his pale-hued and ghostly prints, which are the antithesis of the colour-soaked digital images of his earlier work. “It just fitted the mood I wanted to convey.”
The subject matter remains recognisably Li, however: his camera once again trained on the dispossessed, the absurd and the juxtaposition of the commercial and the ancient.
“If you tie them together, ‘The New Chinese,’ ‘From the Zi River to the Yangtze’ and ‘Peasant Park’ [another Li series], you’ll see China, in all its horror and beauty,” the photographer says. “As an artist, I can’t help but look down on this chaotic world like an alien who has just arrived and is wondering what the hell is going on. It’s about asking questions.”