It’s not often that a single-focus project lasts for more than ten years, but for Chinese photographer Luo Yang, time was never the protagonist. Her project Girls reflects a state of mind that is both biographical as well as societal. It’s a glimpse into a generation of female characters who are experiencing the changes of modern-day China and the bewilderment it’s bringing along.
This past December, your ten-year-long project Girls was exhibited in two different ways and venues in Bangkok, presented by Moonduckling. But how did it all start? When did you first hold a camera in your hands, and when did you know it would be a partner for life?
I got my first camera in college. Back then, it was purely a way to release the accumulated emotions and confusions during adolescence, but as I started to shoot people/girlfriends around me, I started to realize that it was something I wanted to continue doing, as I found comfort and peace in photography. It healed my highly-stressed youth and brought me into a much broader world.
As much as the project Girls is about the transitions in the lives of these girls, you have said that it is also a reflection of your own life. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your upbringing. How do you see yourself in the girls?
I was born in a small town, so art, and especially photography, became the bridge that connected me to another world. I was able to connect to the girls I shot. I realized that we all went through a similar phase – we all felt stressed, lost, confused at times. It brought me comfort and gave me the answer to my own life problems. Also, the series brought me opportunities to go and see a much bigger world.
Where did you encounter the subjects you portrayed in that specific series?
Some approached me on the Internet, some are my friends and friends of friends. And some are just random strangers that I bumped into on the street.
Your photos are both raw and confronting, shot in a snapshot aesthetic, but at the same time, delicate and highly staged. I sense there is a contrast between something caught yet carefully constructed. Why not one or the other?
I see the qualities in the girls that I want to capture, and by putting them in a certain environment, those qualities are able to be exposed in front of the camera. This interaction between me and the model is subtle yet sophisticated. We build connections and they’ll show me what I need. And when they do, there’s no need to carefully construct an image, because all those moments are the ones I want. And throughout the whole time, I try to present what’s in them, to present the authenticity, not to stage or construct anything out of thin air.
In an interview with BBC, you say that Chinese girls are “living through a time of change and sometimes conflict.” Can you elaborate on this? Aren’t all girls, anywhere in the world?
It’s true that universally this is how things go. People are changing, especially in the current day and age. What I mean is that I simply observe Chinese girls in a more Chinese context in particular – China may be one of the most rapidly changing countries in the world nowadays. And the girls, their lives are influenced by such societal changes: different fashion trends, pop culture, family traditions versus a more open and freer lifestyle, etc.
Nonetheless, it’s important to mention that Girls revolves around a minority in China. Why did you make the projective exclusive?
I didn’t intend to make it a series of a small group of people. Those girls all have ordinary lives like everyone else, they are no one special. It’s just that they are braver than other girls to live hard and more vividly, and I see a unique beauty in each one of them. They are the most common Chinese girls, the real side of China, yet they are also the pioneers.
Viewing your many photos over the years, nudity doesn’t go unnoticed. Why is this important to your portraits?
I didn’t intentionally take nude photos. It’s more the choice of the girls because I put them in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable, and they will show me their most real self in ways they are comfortable with. So my attitude is that I don’t avoid it, and I don’t advocate it. I just let it happen naturally.
What do you consider to be femininity?
It’s a combination of both vulnerability and toughness, the most amazing and beautiful thing in the world.
Maternity is another subject you touch in your intimate photos of a couple, titled Wang Yanyn. The images are absolutely beautiful and once again revolving around the theme of transition. Can you tell us a little bit about the story behind this series?
She became a friend of mine since I started taking photos of her. My photos recorded her life in the past years: meeting her boyfriend, getting married, getting pregnant, having a baby. I consider her more as a friend, so taking photos for her is a very natural and habitual thing. Whenever we meet to take photos, I know the changes she goes through her life. Her story is as clear as you can see in the photos.
What has been the response to your photos in China?
People in China see my photos as an honest record of girls’ lives, simple as they are. Whereas in the West, my works are inevitably interpreted from a political or feminist perspective, neither of which is my intention.
There is a huge wave of up-and-coming photographers in China breaking society’s standards and developing a language that seems unique and that is very fresh. We could consider the late Ren Hang the most representative, but there are others: Lin Zhipeng, Alexandra Leese, or yourself. How would you say this new generation of creatives will shape the landscape of the country?
It is definitely a good thing to see more artists being able to make the world see their talents. We are in a time of information explosion, singularity and uniformed patterns no longer reflect the current situation in China, and it no longer suits the need as well. Those artists you mentioned are the pioneers to inspire and to encourage more talents to arise.
Also, could you tell us three/five Chinese photographers/artists we should keep an eye on?
Chen Zhe, You Li, Feng Li, Zhang Kechun, and Lin Zhipeng.
Not many artists can say that they’ve been working on a project for ten years (and ongoing). Do you intend to break this record? Or do you have other plans for the future?
There’s no intention of breaking any record here. I didn’t think of it as a thing I must keep or do, it’s just a habit for me. I experience new things, meet new people and, naturally, I want to record them with my camera. So yes, this series will go on and I don’t know how long it will last.