Scrolling through photographer Elaine Li’s Instagram feed is like taking a tour around Hong Kong from the perspective of an arthouse film director. You whiz through moody back streets, then soar above dense cityscapes. The beauty of Li’s photography is unlike the canned charm of postcards or the cool technical precision of typical drone shots; it possesses a warmth and intimacy that pulls the viewer in. Perhaps it’s the rich, lush colours, an approach to lighting that grants shots a unique vintage feel, or the glimpses of individuals living their lives amidst Li’s tableaus.
“The older I get, the more I find that my photos reflect some sort of emotion,” says Li. “Rather than just taking photos of amazing landscapes and cityscapes, I’d like my photos to convey some sort of feeling.”
Born and bred in Hong Kong, Li has always been involved in the creative and the artistic. With a college background in graphic design, Li is an art director at an advertising agency and a freelance commercial photographer. But her initial interest in photography stemmed from a source that was more personal: her family. “My dad was an amateur photographer and we always had cameras and his work around the house,” she confides. “I started taking photos at the age of 12 when my dad gifted me with a digital camera. I’d bring it to school, taking snapshots of friends, random building facades, knick-knacks I had.” What might have appeared to be mere childhood fun kicked off a hobby that Li would spend over a decade pursuing and honing.
It was personal ties that brought her to Instagram, too – a friend introduced to the platform in 2012. Having started out posting iPhone snapshots, she now has over 230,000 followers and has collaborated with brands such as cosmetics company La Mer. But when it comes to inspiration, Li prefers to turn to fine art. She also cites being a big fan of masters such as Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus.
Her own shots are the products of research, explorations, and a perfectionistic editing process. Much of her work features Hong Kong. “I see Hong Kong as having lots of layers,” she says. “The top layer is the fancy, bling-bling skyscrapers, a deeper layer is street signs and stalls, another level is the people. Then there’s the underlying layer – the rich history and traditional Chinese culture that affects how we behave.” She wasn’t always aware of the treasure trove right at her doorstep, though, spending most of her time on Hong Kong Island growing up.
Now Kowloon is one of her favourite places to go to shoot. “There’s more culture and history there,” she says. “I love talking to local people and learning about their stories.” She recalls a particular photo she took two years ago. While shooting the architecture of the Montane Mansion housing estate in Quarry Bay — which has since become something of an Instagram gem — she stumbled upon a group of residents playing card games together. “Apparently, every day they bring their chairs from home to come down to the courtyard and play card games together,” she recounts. “They simply didn’t care about the tourists and photography enthusiasts around them.” It’s the inclusion of little happenings in Hong Kong life that grants Li’s photography its character.
Having moved to Australia earlier this year to pursue her advertising career, Li might have traded the frenetic cityscape of Hong Kong for a more laid-back atmosphere, but her hometown continues to inform her creative process. “Hong Kong is a city full of inspiration — around every corner you turn, there’s something interesting going on,” she says.
Visit @lielaine on Instagram for more of her work