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Empty Nest is a delicate telling of the changing roles and relations in a family influenced by China’s one-child policy
In 2016, China ended the controversial family planning initiative commonly known as the one-child policy. Launched in 1980 in an attempt to curb the country’s exponential population growth, the policy restricted married couples to having a single child, with very few exceptions. Over the last decade, the rules have slowly relaxed, but the policy’s long-term social, cultural and economic impact is manifesting in an ageing, predominantly male population with declining birth rates. For the single-child families, relations intensified.
“In Chinese culture, it is more about seeking harmony as a collective rather than being individual. So when the child is gone, it has a big impact on the roles we play [in the family].”
Born and raised in Beijing, Siqi Li belongs to the one-child generation. When she was little, it seemed normal – all the families around her were the same. But as she grew up and left to study for a BA in London in 2017, she became more aware of her parents’ attachment to her and the strain of the separation. Up until then, Li had “no one to share my parents’ care with, which made us have a stronger bond and kinship with each other. It gave them a sense of role and duty – it’s such a big part of their identity.” She adds: “In Chinese culture, it is more about seeking harmony as a collective rather than being individual. So when the child is gone, it has a big impact on the roles we play [in the family].”
As Li began studying for her MA in photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication, from which she graduated last year, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. She was stuck in the UK, unable to return home to China for two years. “I progressed a lot in that time, not only in myself but my understanding and knowledge of photography,” she says. “I became interested in how I can use it to look into my family and get to know our narrative better.”
“The aesthetic reveals the tone of the project.”
The result is her project, Empty Nest. Li’s photographs draw you in quietly. Each image is a soft expression of a thought or feeling, while complementing the broader narrative. In one, a flowery dress is laid out on a bed in an empty room. The sense of absence and longing is palpable. Short, poetic texts, written by Li, describe images from the photo archive of her mother and father’s childhood memories. Both parents come from large families with many siblings.
Li recalls how upon reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980) she began to consider his theory of the punctum – a detail of an image that invokes a unique meaning to the viewer. Li explains: “For me it was hard to find that in certain [archival] photographs, because it’s more like a timeline, a sign of how we have progressed.” She adds: “I didn’t want to include [the archive] in a straightforward way because the images are very intimate and close to me… So ‘writing them down’ is a way for me to interpret and make them mine, adding another layer of emotion and fluidity.”
Li also draws on symbolism. Still lifes of eggs, flowers and butterflies allude to fragility and tension. “The aesthetic reveals the tone of the project,” she says. “But these things symbolise something good – like offspring and freedom. The project is about separation. But also rebirth, and how we come to terms with our new selves while still within a family narrative.”
Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.