Source: The Beijing (9/27/17)
Beijing-Based Photographer Luo Yang Shoots to Smash Stereotypes of Chinese Girls
By Tom Arnstein
The first work that I saw by Luo Yang (pictured above) was a portion of her near decade-long and ongoing GIRLS series exhibited in Beijing as part of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Art Exhibition. In it, she documented Zhou Yan, the victim of an acid attack perpetrated by her former boyfriend. Scars mark the areas of skin where the acid splashed and sketched onto Zhou in that singular horrific and selfish attempt of ownership and destruction. Luo Yang’s skill lies in her ability to document that pain but also to coax out a playful side to her subjects, and through the short six-photograph collection we go from a reticent Zhou, a forearm pulled back to hide her face, to her legs outstretched and swinging playfully in a chair.
Born in Liaoning province’s capital of Shenyang, Yang now travels around China, and occasionally Europe, taking photos of Asian women. Through these images, which often pose the subjects partially clothed, atop overpasses, in back alleys, on rooftops, or simply relaxing at home, Yang hopes to capture the exceptional, the benign, and most importantly, the truthful fragments of what compose modern women (Asian or otherwise), emboldening and unhinging them from any preconceived ideas of weakness and subordination, one that sadly remains pervasive in both the East and West.
Now, alongside pop-up gallery organizer MO-Industries and crowdfunded via Kickstarter, Luo Yang has selected 80 of her favorite GIRLS images to make up her eponymous second book. At the time of writing, four days before cutoff, the campaign has just exceeded its EUD 15,000 backing and will be released in November this year.
If you would like to see a selection of the works that will make up Luo Yang’s new book, The Opposite House and MO-Industries will hold an exhibition in the hotel’s ground level and basement atriums.
Below we speak to Yang about what inspires her photography as well as an in-depth look at some of the women she has met during her travels.
TBJ: You choose to only work with film. What do you think film adds to your work that digital mediums wouldn’t be able to achieve?
Luo Yang: There is a humanizing impression in film; it’s rich in both texture and color. Shooting in film encourages me to contemplate more. There are also at times delightful surprises. It is truly a process that I enjoy.
Are there any requirements that you ask of a person before you photograph them for your series?
Generally, there are no requirements. I respect the girls’ looks as they are, of course, in the process of shooting I tend to be selective of the side of them that I am more interested in.
What’s the biggest obstacle when you first start shooting someone?
There is no special obstacle, just mainly to allow models to relax and exhibit their real selves. Having a conversation with them tends to make them loosen up. The key is to provide them with that sense of trust and security.
In your experience, how are attitudes changing among the girls that you shoot? Are there commonly shared beliefs that you come across as to their experience as girls in China? Are there notable differences between country and city girls?
I definitely feel that attitudes are changing. Girls are now braver in expressing themselves. Our advanced social media platforms also allow them to exhibit their lives in different ways. The younger generation is more individualistic and freer from the restraints that are enforced through traditions. For example, many young girls these days offer to take their clothes off during photo shoots; they are not afraid of showing off their bodies. Ten years ago I wouldn’t even think about shooting nudes.
Country and city girls share some common attitudes; they are independent, dream-driven, and sincere. However, [while] there is no special difference, the girls in the country give you this natural vibe, probably because they are closer to nature and more unaffected.
Your photos have an ethereal quality to them on account of the girls usually being alone, often adding a sense of sadness, but also a resoluteness, to your subjects. What are the reasons that you tend to shoot individuals over groups or couples?
I think every group and couple is also composed of individuals; each person is different and portraying them as individuals is my way to respect each and every one of them.
You’ve previously said that “The GIRLS series is more like a portrait of the girls’ teenage mentality and life, as well as mine. Now both their lives and mine are undergoing lots of changes. I’d like to continue to document these changes of their lives, also their new confusions and emotions as they are now facing new challenges.” How often do you return to your subjects? Would you consider documenting a girl or a group of girls in a longitudinal way?
It depends, it’s really just fate sometimes. There are a bunch of girls quite close to me, whom I have been documenting over time. I have seen new changes in their lives; some got married and had kids, and so on. Other girls, I have only met once, and perhaps I will never see them again. I cherish every opportunity of doing a shoot with someone and value all of their photos. Because of that, I hope to continue documenting some girls in a longitudinal way.
When you exhibit abroad, what is the reception to seeing a different side of women that is not often portrayed by the Chinese government or the mainstream media?
When I exhibit overseas, I receive a lot of surprised and curious reactions, and some people are deeply touched. It might very well be it is their first time seeing this group of independent and unique girls in China. [My work] has perhaps renewed their understanding of Chinese women.
If there’s one thing that you hope to achieve through your work what would it be?
I hope to be able to really show the life of each different girl and to illustrate the possibilities in a girl’s life.
Finally, could you choose five girls and photographs from your series and give a short explanation as to why they’re particularly important or memorable to you.
I met Grazzy in Yushu, Qinghai. This Tibetan girl has a dream of becoming a fashion designer. Upon meeting her, I was impressed by her dark skin and candid smile, she hopes one day she can go to New York to study fashion design, and to bring Tibetan elements to the international runway. She has just graduated from a university and is now working as an English TA in a primary school in a rural town outside of Yushu. She helped me see the wild power of a girl who has grown up in nature.
I first saw the cool girl Karman in a friend’s photo of a party and decided to do a photoshoot with her. Before, I imagined her to be a cool, playful, fashionable party girl. It wasn’t until I started to be in contact with her that I gradually learned about her life. She was adopted as a young child and the absence of loved ones made her very sensitive and gave her very low self-esteem. During university, she decided to change her way of life, as well as take pressure off her step-parents, deciding to drop out of university and leave the city that depressed her, starting a wanderer’s life instead. She went to a lot of cities, made a lot of friends, and in her journey has been looking for love and her suppressed self.
I took this photo in 2013. Ujin and I had known each other from work and also happened to be neighbors. One day she told me her story, that she and her boyfriend were having some relationship issues, remembering how in the morning he would tell her “baby, I love you” but would go off the grid at night. She decided to take her lipstick and go down into the garage to write on her boyfriend’s car “I love you, I love you” every day over a period of time. Perhaps her boyfriend was moved by her message and they got back together. This year when I met her, she was married but married to a different person. She said that when she thinks back on that time, she made such a fool of herself. Is there anyone who hasn’t been foolish in their relationships?
This picture was taken at Wang’s boyfriend’s studio, a few months after ending a several-year-long depressing relationship, and deciding to shave her head to start a new life with a brand new state.
Wan Ying and Snow Ying
This photo was shot in Chongqing. Chongqing is a very magical city, a city with a river of such magnitude, it always fills people with the presence of lots of stories. Of the twins, the younger is a mother whereas the elder sister is still single. They share the same blood, but have significantly different personalities and went in very different directions in life. The relationship between these twins is fantastic, loving one another but also seeing a different version of oneself in each other.
See more of Luo Yang’s work via her website here.
More stories by this author here.
Photos courtesy of Luo Yang