The 2016 Xishuangbanna Foto Festival

By Tan Lee Kuen (writer and photographer/Malaysia)

Large-scale photo festival in China’s Yunnan province

Xishuangbanna in China had the fourth edition of its biennial photo festival on December 18th-21st as part of The Culture and Arts Festival of Countries in the Lancang-Mekong River Basin (the first edition was in 2008). To launch the festival was a grand opening ceremony with large-scale choreographed dances from Yunnan province, as well as representatives from the neighbouring countries in the Mekong basin – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.

The abiding theme for the Xishuangbanna Foto Festival is The Great River. But while much of the work is about water, rivers and also the cultural landscape of the host area, Xishuangbanna, the exhibiting works are not confined to the theme, thus presenting a fairly eclectic selection of work. With over 100 photographers exhibiting, both from China and around the world, including a modest representation from South-East Asia, there was a lot to see and discover at the festival.

The main area of the exhibition is at the Daijin Pagoda and the surrounding area, and is located both indoors and outdoors. Among the highlights are Li Zhaohui’s The Changjiang River, Xiao Xuan’an’s Intersection of Two Great Rivers, Yang Da’s The Mekong River, Zhou Wei’s Chinese Article, Li Zhixiong’s Rivers & Lakes and Wang Yu’s Recreating/Being Recreated.

The South-East Asian’s body of work, which included Rony Zakaria’s ‘Men, Mountains and the Sea’, Minzayar Oo’s The Price of Jade, Eiffel Chong’ s Seascape, Ore Huiying’s Mekong River and Robert Zhou’s Christmas Island, were very well received by the Chinese photographers. So much so that Rony Zakaria and Vietnamese photographer, Phan Thanh Quang, went on to win the Grand Prize of the festival.

The exhibitions continued at The Stone House, located in the city’s downtown. Here was Kim Heejung’s excellent curation of a little known Korean master, Han Youngsoo, and his monochromatic photos of the Han River from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The festival continued further afield in Taetea Manor, a well-known tea factory in Menghai. Exhibits were displayed in the reconstructed Yunnan houses on the grounds of the factory, which also included an eco-hotel. The closing ceremony was held at the Manor, with speeches and dance performances by the hotel’s staff, and the awards presentation.

During the festival’s programme days, photographers from China and all over were flown in to participate in the festivities and to engage in photographic exchanges. There was an issue with language which hindered an active exchange of ideas and knowledge, although everyone tried their best to engage with their fellow photographers. For the South-East Asian photographers present, it was an interesting insight into Chinese photography trends and bodies of work.

The next Xishuangbanna Foto Festival will take place in 2018.

Tan Lee Kuen

She is a writer and photographer from Malaysia. She is also the founder of Asia PaperCamera, an online project celebrating photography in Asia with stories and interviews.

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