“If you carry a camera you are not a photographer; if you can make a plate of noodles you are not a chef,” says Lao Xie Xie, a Shanghai-based image-maker whose subjects exist in punk quarters of Shanghai, sexually liberated realm bordering on reality and dream.
Lao Xie Xie does not care about the technicalities of photography. Or the reality, for that matter. Neither does he care about the ability of photography to capture the reality in the pictorial matter. “My camera is just a tool that can help me realise my ideas,” he says.

Lao Xie Xie started photographing in 2019 with Olympus Zoom 105, a gift from a friend. Just after a year, the image-maker has had an exhibition in Thailand, released a zine (555), and developed his discernible visual codes.

From a model posing in front of stacks of yellow bicycles in Shanghai’s streets to close-ups of faces nestled in the centre of chicken feet halos; the mundane objects in his photographs exude a certain dynamic quality. There is nothing ‘casual’ about Lao Xie Xie’s work, yet the photographs are somehow a believable depiction of China’s urban youth; his subjects, however absurd, exist in time and space.

Although his photographs subvert traditional Chinese connotations and liberate the body from sartorial constraints, Lao Xie Xie does not wish to provoke. “I want to get your attention,” the image-maker says. “Every single of my photographs is a straight punch in your face, you need to stop and look at it more.” Dynamic, anarchic, hectic; his photographs deliver the message blatantly. “People waste millions of words and, in the end, they talk about nothing,” he says. “We live in a time when we are bombarded by images every single minute, so it’s better not to waste people’s time, to speak straight, be true.”
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“I’m not a photographer, and I don’t want to become one,” you have said. Why won’t you embrace the title? And if not a photographer, how would you identify yourself?
Firstly, I am not really into photography. I don’t care about all the technical stuff: lens, light, etc. My camera is just a tool that can help me realise my ideas. I have a few professional photographer friends, and when they talk about photography you can see the light in their eyes, they know everything: photographers, camera models, lighting, etc. And they pay their bills with this passion. So I don’t want people to call me a photographer because I respect all the real photographers around the world.
If you carry a camera you are not a photographer; if you can make a plate of noodles you are not a chef. You can be a good cook but there is a huge difference. If we are talking about the word ‘artist,’ here the topic is more complicated. Who decides that you are an artist and not just a person who can make something people consider as art? If you can get paid and make a living from your own creations, for sure, you are lucky. But to be an artist, it should be something more elevated than just the money factor… I don’t know exactly the point, and I don’t think that the modern art system is right, but I am pretty sure if you can inspire someone else around the world you are doing a good job. In the end, if I really have to define myself I would say I am an image-maker.
You were born in Sichuan province and worked as a baozi maker before arriving in Shanghai. Could you tell us more about your childhood? How do you think your surroundings have influenced your creative practice?
I prefer to keep a distance between my past, present, future, and Lao Xie Xie. For sure, my past has influenced my present, and my present will influence my future in any creative direction.
As I understand, Lao Xie Xie is your pseudonym. Is there a reason you do not wish to disclose your identity? Why ‘Lao Xie Xie’?
Well, yes. It is not my real name. The reason why I want to keep it a secret is that, as you know, I live in China. It is a great country but this kind of images are a bit risky to show around. In our society, nudity is not seen as openly as in some other countries, so better be safe. Maybe one day if I am able to make a living from my ‘art’ I will move to New York or some other place and I will let you know.
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You started shooting in 2019 when a friend gifted you a used Olympus Zoom 105 camera. Had you considered photographing before? Were art and photography something you always wanted to do?
To be honest, no. When I was a kid, I used to shoot some photos with my parents’ camera during the holidays and they made jokes because the photos I took were always missing some parts: legs, part of a head, etc. (laughs). So I consider my photography skills as very low, and I have never been fascinated by a camera as a design object.
I have a visual brain, so for me, it is easier to remember stuff with images than with numbers or words. I always liked visual arts, I also paint, but I think the first time I approached photography as something more different was when I bought Terry Richardson’s book Terryworld – I was amazed by the amount of freedom inside his photos, there was no filter, he doesn’t care about what other people think about him. That opened my mind.
I didn’t grow up in a high-class family. I studied and I started to work. To be an artist, sometimes you need to have the right connections or you have to have a family with money who can support you, and you also need skills. I am not inside that world, so I don’t know how the mechanisms work, but from outside, I can see that not many people can get to the top with talent only.
You often label your photographs as #trashphotography. How would you define ‘trash photography’ and why do you think your work fits into that definition?
Basically, I am not an expert on Instagram, so I just copy and paste some hashtags I consider cool, in this case, #trashphotography. I like it because it reflects my style – it is imperfect, patinated, reflects my personality, it's raw. I don’t care about the details but focus more on the essence of the picture. That’s why I think my photos have a soul, they are the perfect reflection of me.
From a model posing in front of stacks of yellow bicycles in Shanghai’s streets to close-ups of faces nestled in the centre of chicken feet halos; your photographs would not be labelled ‘casual.’ Yet, somehow, they look like snapshots of a moment in time that exude a certain quality of validity; as if your subjects live in this punk, a sexually liberated world that tiptoes on reality and dream. What is your process like? How much of your photographs are pre-planned?
Let’s say forty to sixty percent. Sometimes I walk around Shanghai and I see some visual element and I start developing an idea. Like a chef walking to the fresh market and seeing the ingredients. He already knows which recipe he will prepare and what other ingredients will match… It is more or less the same.
For example, I took a picture of the guy with the lantern. My first idea was to put him inside the lantern with legs and arms sticking out. After many attempts, I realised it was not possible (it would require some stylist to make a tailor-made lantern), so in the end, I brought the lantern to the location and I shot it freestyle. If you can get close to your original idea, it is already good enough. Some photographs I take because I am in the right moment, and some I plan, but the result is never exactly the same as the original idea.
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Tell us about your fanzine, 555. Why was it important to showcase your work through print medium?
In Thai internet slang, 5 means ‘ah,’ so when people laugh they write ‘555’ as in ‘ahaha.’ On the other hand, in Chinese, it means crying. 555 is my first publication. I decided to create a short story of my experience in Thailand during my first exhibition, and I discovered how your own photos have different values when you print them out, touch them, smell them, the colours… everything adds value to an image.
In this digital era, people need to re-discover the charm or the analogue. It is not a dead media, and maybe we will give more value to what we decide to print – the same as the photos I shoot with a film camera. When I shoot I don’t want to waste a single photo. Quality against quantity.
Despite the provocative nature of your photographs you have mentioned that you do not wish to provoke with your work. What do you wish then? What is it that you want to convey through your images?
I want to get your attention, every single of my photographs is a straight punch in your face, you need to stop and look at it more. This was what I felt when I opened that book (Terryworld). I hope to arouse the same emotions. So if I sometimes use the explicit language it is just because it’s part of me. I prefer when people speak straight, maybe even use bad words to get more attention. People waste millions of words, and in the end, they talk about nothing. We live in a time when we are bombarded by images every single minute, so it’s better not to waste people’s time, to speak straight, be true.
Finding one’s signature style is said to be crucial for image-makers and is a long process involving experience, failure and experimentation. You have managed to find your visual codes and recurring repertoire of subject matter just after a few months of shooting. How would you describe Lao Xie Xie’s style?
I remember a Japanese story somebody told me – I hope I am telling it right… There was this old Japanese guy who wanted to draw the perfect sakura tree, but it was never good enough, so he asked his master how he could make it perfect. the master told him to sit in front of the tree for one month without drawing, and after that, to draw it with eyes closed. It was difficult but after a month, he stood up, took a paper and a brush, closed his eyes and he drew the best tree he had ever drawn. So sometimes, failure is the mother of success, but if you don’t train your eye to see the right thing first, your hand will not do the job. In some way, I think my style is a sum of millions of pictures I imagine.
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What inspires you the most as an image-maker? Are there any photographers’ work that urged you to get your hand on the camera in the first place?
My past inspires me, the movies I watch, the books I read, the exhibitions I’ve been to, and also other photographers and artists. You know, sometimes I think I have a great idea, then I realise I have seen it somewhere in other people’s photos and I get sad (laughs). Copying in China has a different sense compared to Western culture. When people copy something in China, it means they know who made the original and they want to pay homage. Anyway, I don’t want to ever copy somebody. If I do, it’s probably because I don’t realise. Please let me know. In terms of photographers, Feng Li is the best. When I open one of his books, all the photos inside are bombs. But there are some other ‘artists’ who push the same photographs for more than ten years. I don't know how they don’t get bored with that.
Apart from red lanterns and dragons, your work is also imbued with non-stereotypical Chinese elements that might not be discernible globally. Do you wish to subvert or forefront these cultural elements?
Yes, every element I play with I consider culturally linked, but also, they own a strong aesthetic power, so I hope people can realise how beautiful they are and how well they complement the naked body.
What do you plan, look forward to and hope for in these uncertain times we live in?
For sure, I want to continue making your eyes bleed on Instagram (laughs). And then I want to publish my book by next year, so if some editor is reading this, please contact me!
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