Taking inspiration from the police character in Wong Kar-Wai’s movie Chungking Express, Lin Zhipeng – or No.223 – has become a leading figure in contemporary Chinese photography. After his blog North Latitude 23 exposed his work to the eyes of millions, Lin’s pictures have come to reflect the hedonist lifestyle of a young generation wishing to escape the rigid social rules of mainstream Chinese society.
Since then, Lin’s photographs have acted as a visual diary of the alternative youth spirit and culture that are thriving under a conservative cultural context with an anarchist mix of love and chaos, fantasy and eroticism, carefreeness and innocence. Already captivated with his work, we spoke with Lin about his spontaneous journey of photographing a generation stuck between modern life and tradition.
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You graduated with a degree in financial English but never worked in your field. What made you decide that pursuing a creative career was what you wanted instead of following a more conventional route?
Although I studied financial English, I was always really interested in the visual arts. After I graduated from university, I had been working in the media for seven years as an editor instead of as a photographer. Before, photography was just my hobby, but so far, I have been involved in it for fifteen years. I quit my job from media twelve years ago and became a freelance photographer. Photography is a faster way to create my memory diary that involves the experience of my growth.
Created in 2003, your blog North Latitude 23 featured everyday pictures accompanied by short texts and eventually blossomed with millions of views. In hindsight, how do you think your blog helped you to develop your presence as a photographer in the social media era?
I used the blog to build up my personal web-zine because I love to share. A blog or social media are very different from traditional commercial media in China. I have more freedom to express my thoughts and to see them on the Internet. The young generation is also growing up with the Internet and like to share their opinions through it.
Your work reflects an unfiltered perspective on non-mainstream youth in China with a raw energy not often found in the more polished imagery of the digital age. How is it that your use of film allows you to create an honest portrayal of everyday life and culture for young people?
Using film to make my works is just my ‘bad habit’. I don’t like to retouch my photographs and I am also not good at Photoshop. And because I take a lot of daily life pictures, I don’t want to waste too much time retouching them. On the other hand, the images in film are good enough; I don’t need to retouch them much. I just choose the equipment. For me, using film is not a serious question.
In my long-term photography career, there’s only one topic: ‘my growth’. My weird friends, my travelling, my daily life; all of the seeing and touching in my life. I don’t have specific aims to photograph youth in China. I just pick up the easiest way to photograph since there are many, many interesting young people around me. They inspire me and I love to document their funny lives. They are not the traditional group in China; they stand for some kind of youth life.
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Following the previous question, do you think your honest portrayal of youth culture is opening up a dialogue about freedom of expression, particularly for young people, in the still conservative mainstream consciousness of China?
I never related my works to politics. I think I am chasing a kind of freedom but it’s not real freedom. Even on Instagram, you cannot post any nude pictures with sex organs. Freedom is very, very important, and I try to express my freedom of opinions in a limited condition. That’s why I choose social media to share my works instead of traditional media.
Currently, the Akio Nagasawa Gallery Aoyama is hosting your first solo show in Japan. What went into the careful selection of the works you chose to present for this exhibition?
In this exhibition, all the pictures are selected from my work, which spans over fifteen years. I hardly do project-based shootings. So when there is an upcoming exhibition or publication, I just choose pictures from all of my body of work. In this one, some pictures are selected from my new photo book, Flowers and Fruits, while others are selected from other works that I have never shown before.
In addition to the documentary style of photography that you do, you also do fashion photography and freelance writing. Is the creation process the same for these different forms of expression? Are there times when you prefer one form over the other or do you treat all of them with equal importance?
For me, writing is equal to my personal photography; they are both my favourites. For fashion photography, I like to express my visual opinion on fashion; it’s not only because I work for fashion/creative magazines, but also I would like to use fashion shooting to create my personal works. But if I can choose, I don’t like to serve fashion shooting. I need a lot of freedom to shoot and I like to cooperate with it.
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Besides photography, what other artistic mediums do you want to pursue? I hear that you have an interest in filmmaking…
Yes, in these years, I am also trying to make some short films. It’s some kind of practice. Filmmaking is my final destination but I want to practise more and more. Film is a big and complicated industry; it’s not as easy as photographing. But now, I am also doing some art videos.
This may be more of a personal question for me, but have you ever thought of making individual prints of your photographs? I can already think of a few spots in my place where I could hang them.
You mean specific size and frame? Usually, my works have two sizes for selling: 100 x 67 cm and 50 x 33 cm. But if you need specific sizes, we can talk (smiles).
Due to the spontaneous nature of your work, you don’t seem like the type to plan your creative projects in advance. So instead of asking what’s next, I want to know how do you plan on growing as an artist? Do you plan on continuing the raw documentary style of photography that you’re doing now or try something new in the future?
Yes, I never think about the future. I just keep shooting as long as I like photographing. Even for my art, I never thought I could be an artist; I just chose what I liked and what I wanted to do. I don’t have any ambition for my art or for my life. Even though I may be tired of taking pictures, or even if my photos become very boring, it’s not a bad thing. I like to follow my inner thoughts and I don’t like to put any pressure on my life. So, for this question, my answer is ‘I don’t know’.
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