Image: via imgur/Davko
Image: via imgur/Davko
The passage of time is something that usually sneaks up on us unawares. In our heads we are always young and fancy-free; that is, until that one day when we look in the mirror and wonder who that old person is staring back at us.
It’s the same with our children, too; in what seems like no time at all, they’ve gone from being babes in arms to starting families of their own.
And when Tian Jun welcomed his son Tian Li into the world, it seems as if he was likewise all too aware of how quickly time could pass. Perhaps as a result of this, he made the decision to document life with his son in an incredible and touching way.
Starting in 1986, the year of his son’s birth, Jun set out to take a photograph of the two of them every 12 months. The amazing results show how Li has grown from a baby into a healthy and confident young man.
Indeed, almost three decades later and the family tradition is still going strong, and in 2015, moreover, a new face appeared.
Li’s son Timothy was born in 2014 and joined the more senior pair for the first time in the photo set the following year.
The majority of the images were captured outside the family’s apartment in Guizhou Province, China, where they dwelt for two decades. And that sense of continuity is maintained in the snaps themselves, as father and son are seen in similar poses throughout the years.
Initially, Jun poses with Li clasped in his arms – something that doesn’t change until 1998. In that year’s photo, the pair have noticeably changed positions, and Li appears stood next to his father from then on.
For their 2013 photo, however, the pair tried a switch of roles. Instead of Jun carrying Li, the son playfully posed bearing his father on his back.
2014 was the sole year in which no photo was taken. Because he was busy with his own young family in the United States, Li was unable to visit his father that time.
However, Li more than made up for it in 2015 with an extra special family photo. This was the first appearance of Li’s son Timothy, who was born the previous year.
The photos first came to global attention in July 2015, when Li showed them off on Chinese social networking app WeChat. The post received over 10,000 hits within just the first day of it being online, shooting the pair to internet stardom as a result.
Li has been surprised by the popularity of the images around the world, but he recognizes that their pull comes through their depiction of the passing of time.
“This is the power of time,” he told People’s Daily Online. “Time itself is a form of art. Perhaps this set of pictures represent a universal emotion and it’s straightforward, so people would resonate. That is all.”
He was also philosophical about the events that led to the missed photo in 2014. With son Timothy having just been born, Li wasn’t able to make the journey back to China in a hurry, and his father was also too busy to visit him.
“It was a shame that we missed the photo for that year,” Li mused in the interview. “But this is time. Once you miss it, you really miss it.”
Rarely do we get to see such a clear depiction of the progression of time, which could be why these images have captured the hearts of people around the world.
Meanwhile, both Jun and Li have spent their own time leading full and interesting lives. Indeed, plenty has gone on in between the annual photographs.
Jun, for example, was a businessman with a diverse range of interests. During his career, he has tried his hand at ventures in everything from real estate to farming.
Finally, though, he returned to teaching at art school. Li, on the other hand, grew up to become a film director.
Through these photos, we can see Li and his father pass milestones that are familiar to us all. In the year 2000, for example, it seems as if a new puppy was brought into the family.
Three years later, though, we see that Li has surpassed his father in height. And in 2004 Li fulfilled another, greater achievement: he was accepted into the Beijing Film Academy. This, however, isn’t reflected in that year’s corresponding photo – although maybe Jun took it with an added sense of pride.
After entering the Academy, Li was living away from home, although he always returned to take the photo every year. It had become another one of those family rituals that we all develop growing up.
As Li told CNN, “It [became] a habit a long time ago that we took the same picture every year when I visited my parents, as naturally as going home for the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner every year.”
The first few photos, at least, were taken in summer – an often-sweltering time of year in the family’s area of China. That’s the reason why the two were initially shirtless, and those notions of continuity and ritual meant that it would always be the same in the years to follow.
And by having included his son Timothy in the 2015 photo, Li hopes to keep the family tradition going strong. “This year my son also joined,” he said to People’s Daily Online. “This is the key in this picture.”
He went on to explain, “It brings the birth of one generation to another, and it can be the completion of one stage of life. Only when one reaches here does it mean his life is complete and meaningful.”
And while the simple portrait shots may look almost inconsequential when considered individually, their power is obvious when they are all seen together or in sequence. Practically everyone can relate to the family relationship captured on film and how the years passing have impacted upon the pair.
What’s more, with Li’s son now in the picture, we can likely look forward to many more moments of the trio’s lives still to come. Here’s hoping that Timothy keeps up the ritual when he’s older, too.