Chinese photographer highlights minority's plight

HONG KONG, Polly Hui- China's Yi people are one of the country's poorest and most isolated communities, but despite the absence of glamour, photographer Li Fan has dedicated his career to capturing their lives.
Far from the gleaming cities of China's east coast, Li has spent the last 10 years chronicling the Yi people as they eke out a living in a mountainous area of China's southwest Sichuan province.
It is one of the harshest environments in China, home to around a million of the 8 million ethnic Yi living in China.

Chinese photographer highlights minority's plight
"They are living in extreme poverty. Few foreigners know they exist because it is so difficult to get there," Li told AFP on a recent trip to Hong Kong to launch an exhibition of his work at the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
"There is almost nothing in their huts, not even a bed. They simply squat next to a fire for the whole night to sleep," said the 48-year-old.
Almost every Yi in Greater Liangshan practises farming, earning about 400 yuan (58.5 US) a year. There is no industrial development in the area, he said.
For each trip, Li had to fly from his home in China's northwest Shaanxi province and change flights twice before arriving at the Greater Liangshan mountain area.
Sometimes the photographer had to climb steep and slippery slopes for most of the day to get into the remotest of the Yi villages.
His work captures moments of a life in poverty, including images of a woman being given an intravenous drip outside a public clinic built of mud and diners entering a dilapidated eatery under the sign "Elegant Restaurant".
Yi, the fourth largest minority in China, are scattered over other southwestern provinces today, including Yunnan and Guizhou.
It was one of the last groups in the world to practise slavery -- records suggest that their slave system was only abolished after the Communist Party took power in 1949.
In addition to the group's history, Li said their distinctive costume -- a large, round black cape which turned them into conical shapes as they squatted on the roadside to rest -- makes them compelling subjects.
"You can tell they are the Yi when you see the capes," he said.
Li's dedication -- he has made 17 trips there in the last decade -- is starting to be recognised with more exhibitions.
In April, while he was at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, France, to pick up a prize for sports pictures at the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards, he was asked to exhibit his Yi photographs in France.
While Li has struggled to learn the unusual Yi dialect and cannot bring himself to sample the classic "tuotuo ruo" dish -- prepared by frying large chunks of pork in a wok with no oil or seasoning -- he hopes his work will draw attention to the little-known minority group and help lift them out of poverty.
"The only hope is to allow the children to receive proper education outside Greater Liangshan," said Li, who has for six years been sponsoring the schooling for two Yi children.
"I hope that people who see my photos will appreciate how different life can be if they are born in a different corner of the world and may even come up with ways to help the Yi."

Tuesday, May 5th 2009
Polly Hui

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