Student Spotlight: Eric J. W. Li

A Modern Renaissance Man

words Chantel Tanaka Tsvetu

“Let’s take a building tour.” Those were the first words out of Eric Li’s mouth when I met him in the foyer of the SW9 (School of energy) building on the Burnaby campus. SW9 is Li’s current refuge as he searches for freedom in his hobbies and schoolwork.

He explains, “I had to do some self-exploration on what other possibilities I could look into in this world outside of the prescribed programs that my parents had given me.” He feels the machinery focused program is made just for him and his “high energy pace.” 

Initially, he took up travelling as a way to find a sense of self freedom. When he returned home from his travels in Iceland, Antarctica, and Asia, his quest for freedom seamlessly continued at BCIT in the Technology Teacher Education program. He took up the program with no prior experience in dealing with metal or automotive parts. Now, he feels at home as he creates and learns the intricacies of automotive and metal objects. Before we start our building tour, Li points out one of his current projects: a forest green 2001 Ford Econoline. 

As we walk together through the halls, Li reflects upon his time at BCIT. He’s about to graduate, and he says his favourite part of it all was coming to class and knowing he knew nothing about what he was about to learn. Understanding the concepts became a challenge he gladly took up.

This program has been really fun. I’ve been able to create [things] I never thought would be possible. I spent about two weeks blacksmithing a sword simply because I thought it would be really cool to have a sword, like in Game of Thrones.”

That sword has been added to a set of bagpipes and other relics he has collected over the years from trying out new activities.

Li is always scoping out new activities, foods, and places. Anything new excites him. While dividing his time between travel photography, school, and volunteering with a local high school robotics team, his interests hardly seem to correlate. He says the only thing that connects them is his passion for new things. 

“I’m all for trying stuff out like at least once. Sometimes that opportunity goes bad, and it doesn’t work out. But I say, keep an open mind about it all and try it again.”

He has dabbled in modelling, and he was a swimming instructor before he aligned his eagerness to learn with his passion for teaching in the Technology Teacher Education program. 

“The really good teachers are the ones that not only teach you content but inspire you to be driven in a good direction for your life. I had a really good elementary school teacher who inspired me to have a really good work ethic and to be detail-orientated.”

After working in the paper industry alongside his parents, and then deciding to go travel for a while, he became reflective about the way he wanted to live his life. He says travelling to these remote and icy areas reshaped his worldview because it gave him a sense of limitlessness. The world didn’t feel closed in anymore. 

“For me, travelling is self-freedom. When I’m out in a specific location, let’s say on top of a mountain, I can scream on the mountain range and listen to the echoes. There’s no one to judge you. In a city, there’s millions of us. We feel sheltered—living in a bubble, and sometimes you get complacent.”

His travels and modelling experience sparked his love for photography. He started in portrait photography as a way of trying to reclaim control over how his photoshoots were done. 

“What sparked me to learn about portrait photography was the bokeh effect—the camera melts the foreground and background to isolate the subject. I looked at that and thought ‘ooh, melted cheese.’ I wanted bokeh.”

From there, he moved onto landscape photography that seemed as big and overwhelming as his subjects. The natural beauty of the earth drew him to landscape photography, and he uses techniques from portrait photography in his landscape photography. 

“I’m not a huge fan of city buildings because you can get that anywhere, but you can’t really create a mountain range like the Himalayas anywhere else. Camping on icebergs in Antarctica and Iceland was very emotional for me. I felt very small and insignificant and that the world was really big.”

Sustaining a knee injury from a seasonal game of ultimate frisbee and then losing half of the muscle mass of his left leg put him under house arrest for a little while. He says the injury was traumatic, but it gives him a whole new level of appreciation for what life has to offer. 

“You must come first because you are going through a journey in your life, and you get to live it once. So, you want to live it out in the most fulfilling way for yourself.”

He likes to think of his camera as a diary. Li says memories fade, but the moments captured in a photo, timestamped, remain ingrained as the hands of time move. 

During his travels, he takes in the grandeur of the landscapes he has visited. Later, he edits and publishes one photo a day. Is the exercise taxing? Oh, yes, it is! Li designates one to two hours every day to edit and post a photo. 

“It’s a personal goal of mine to go through that five years of backlog. I’m so far behind in the game [photography] there’s no point in trying to catch up. I know I’m doing a good job for myself through these photos and doing a good edit on them so that my friends or whoever wants to see them can appreciate them.”

Li admits that photography is an expensive hobby. He says some people pour out a “bajillion” dollars in the hopes of honing in on the craft, but he argues that it doesn’t have to be that way. In his experience, used lenses work just as well as new lenses.

“There’s a misconception in the photography community that if you buy good gear, like if you spend thousands of dollars on cameras and lenses, it’ll make your photography better. But it’s like anything else. If you buy a giant machine and you don’t know how to use it, it’s wasted, right?”

He coupled his gear with some live online workshops from CreativeLive and Youtube, and he found himself carving out a niche in travel photography. He shared a pro-tip he learned while transitioning from portrait photography to travel photography:

“If you’re entering photography, you kind of want to have everyone look at everything in the photo. But in fact, what you want to do is simplify it.”

When I asked Li about what he’d like to do after graduating, his response was simple:

“I haven’t been to the big Burning Man in Nevada, but I definitely plan on going this year. 

Although many uncertainties lie with graduating from BCIT, Eric Li is looking forward to the outcome. He’ll soon start pouring his efforts to teaching high school students, and he believes that they hold untapped potential. As for his varying and ever-evolving hobbies in sports, photography, and travelling, he sees them as remaining a core part of his identity.