Alexvi Li is a well-known professional fashion photographer and artist who has shot covers for several fashion and art magazines, such as China’s GQ, Esquire and VOGUE among many others. He is also the founder of ASTUDIO and the ambassador of Profoto’s Greater China region. The project “Peking Apartments” is Alexvi’s photographic documentation of the daily lives of foreign nationality models in Beijing. Most of them come from Eastern Europe and Russia and the visa they hold usually limits their stay in China to two to three months. During this short period of time, they appear at commercial events, on runways and pose for photo shoots. A lot of commercial businesses in China rely on beautiful Western models to convey their brand image of being fashionable, international and high-end. The hair and skin tones of foreign models, as well as facial structures cater to the aesthetic standards in China nowadays. These girls come and go on a daily basis, yet over the course of a year several thousand will pass through Beijing. The words and sketches they scrawl on the apartment walls become another trace of their lives here, just like the images of their faces left behind long after leaving Beijing. In June 2016, this project won the Fine Art Photography Awards in London.
When did you first get into photography? And why?
When I was a teenager, I started taking random pictures with an automatic rangefinder camera. Since my dad had attended a few photography courses in college, he got to keep several cameras from work at home. I picked the most simple one and shot everything I saw.
How would you describe your style? And who or what influenced you the most?
Maybe I can quote from the comments I have often received, that my photography shows strength in serenity. My biggest influences are Irving Penn & Richard Avedon. Their works were the ones I saw earliest and have remembered ever since. They inspired me to enter the world of portrait photography.
Could you tell us about the story behind your “Peking Apartment” series? How did you come to start the project?
Sometimes I need to work with foreign models on fashion shoots but I never thought of their real lives in Beijing. That was until one day I saw some photos of their apartment on one of the model’s agent’s phone.
Where are these apartments located in Beijing? And how many girls live in each of the apartments?
Most of them live in apartments located around the East 4th Ring of Beijing. Usually 8-15 girls squeeze in one standard apartment with three bedrooms and one or two bathrooms.
The images of the writing on the walls, various notes and personal objects of the girls give the series a very intimate and melancholy feel, almost as if the girls are longing to escape or return to their families elsewhere. Why did you choose to include these photos?
These writings are part of their inner voices (or screams). They will help transmit to the viewer the same atmosphere and feelings, which I experienced when I walked into the apartments for the first time.
One of the notes reads “Welcome to Hell” while another reads “Welcome to the real world. It sucks”. Do you think these notes reflect the general feeling amongst the girls?
The majority of the girls are between 14-23 years old, they come to China with big dreams of modeling. There is almost no difference to the millions of Chinese young people from all over the country, who come to Beijing to pursue their dreams. This comparison reflects the same nuances, as when you compare the recent “Chinese Dream” slogan with the “American Dream”. Maybe we can think of this phenomenon more like a universal reaction by young people when they realize that the reality is much harder than they had imagined beforehand.
The color palette and use of light in the series is very soft. Often the curtains are drawn in the apartment or the girls are photographed in shadow. How did you go about working with the natural light to create this look and why?
I like the atmosphere created by natural light that evokes the original feeling of the scenes. Any extensive staged light would drag the viewer out of the picture.
Almost all of the images show the girls sitting or lying on the their beds. They look lethargic, almost bored. How much direction did you give your subjects? Were you consciously trying to create an editorial look?
These girls have come a long way from their hometowns, pursuing a career in modeling. When they arrive they only have a bed and small amount of belongings, which they have transported in a suitcase and they are all put in a typical Chinese apartment decorated by landlords. This is the environment in which they spend the longest time each day. I only told them to relax and be themselves in their own place. It is not only the subjects which make the photo talk but also the objects and environment.
Which camera and lens did you use to shoot this series?
I shot with a Leica CL 35/1.4 and a Leica S 70/45.
What are you working on at the moment? And what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I am currently working on a project about rock & roll superstars, who have influenced me a lot during my teenage years. So far I have shot Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica and Liam Gallagher, among others.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their photography?
Practice as much as you can, while you search to find your own style.