The 2017 Lishui Photography Festival 丽水摄影节 in Zhejiang Province was held in November with the kind of razzmatazz one has come to expect from a large-scale Chinese event bearing the official seal. Festivities began with the obligatory opening ceremony comprising predictable song-and-dance routines punctuated by vaguely jingoistic speeches from local honchos. The pomp set the tone for a festival gigantic in scale: More than 1,500 exhibitions infiltrated all quarters of Lishui 丽水, from North American exhibitions curated by New Yorker Jim Ramer to community photography projects peppering the alleyways of the old town. Legions of volunteers equipped with high-school English were on hand to point lost festival attendees in the right direction, while public buses were free, ensuring visitors could get from photo seminar to workshop to bar with as little bother as a third-tier Chinese city might otherwise cause.
This mammoth effort was part of Lishui’s aim to cast off its image as the ragtag industrial town documented in dispatches by Peter Hessler almost a decade ago. This historic, prefecture-level city — whose name literally means “Beautiful Water,” earned during the Tang dynasty — eschews heavy industry in favor of developing culture and tourism these days, according to those I spoke with in the organizing committee. Lishui even landed a “Chinese Town of Photography” designation from the China Photographers Association 中国摄影家协会 in 1999.