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Lithium Photographer Luo Yang on capturing the authenticity of Chinese women

Dec. 6, 2018
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Luo Yang is documenting an emerging generation of Chinese women: one that rebels against expectations surrounding femininity and embraces honesty and individuality. The 34-year-old graduated from Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in 2009 with a BFA in Graphic Design, but opted to become a photographer instead and has since exhibited her work in major cities across China and Europe. I spoke to Yang about her intimate portraits and the ways in which they defy traditional ideas about who the Chinese woman is and ought to be.

Adolescent: How did you get started with portrait photography?

Luo Yang: I was studying in an art academy and started taking photos for friends. Gradually, I [realized I wanted to do it more seriously].

Adolescent: What qualities of Chinese culture do you seek to show in your work?

Luo: China is too big and broad of a word. So is Chinese culture, which is largely different from place to place. What I'm trying to do is present the most authentic side of Chinese women, whatever that is. 

Adolescent: Why do you opt to shoot mostly young adult women? Where do you find your models?

Luo: I started to shoot as a young woman, [and] naturally I tend to shoot [who] I care [about] and can resonate the most with: other girls...trying to find answers. My models are friends, friends's friends, and girls I [meet] wherever I go. Sometimes even strangers on the street. 

Adolescent: Can you talk about your photography project Girls?

Luo: It's a project I've been doing since 2008. It's not only [a] presentation of contemporary Chinese women who live less traditionally, but also [an] honest record of my own growth and maturity as a photographer. 

Adolescent: You’ve been shooting for Girls for ten years. How do you keep yourself interested in the project after working on it for so long? Do you ever feel creatively fatigued by it?

Luo: The reason I started this project was very natural, and I didn't force myself to do this at all… I keep discovering new stories, new things in people, and that gives me the motivation and impulse to record them with my camera. [Different people’s beauty] is never the same, and that's what keeps me going. It's not tiring at all. It's just natural. 

Adolescent: You live and work in Beijing and Shanghai. What are the differences between the two cities? How is this translated through your work?

Luo: Beijing is more down to Earth, more authentic, and less sophisticated. Life there is simple and more primitive. But Shanghai is like a delicate commodity; it's more beautiful on the outside, more commercialized... My work reflects not only Beijing and Shanghai, but rather, girls with various backgrounds.  

Adolescent: What’s the narrative surrounding Chinese women and their place in society? In what ways does your work correspond to and contrast with this?

Luo: The traditional culture has relatively fixed expectations for Chinese women: get married, find a nice husband, and have children. If a woman doesn't get married in her 30s, she'll be considered "leftovers" and will probably face pressure from older generations.

The girls in my work don't necessarily abide by such traditional expectations. They are less typical Chinese girls, and are true to themselves. They dare to live differently. 

Adolescent: Aside from the depiction of women in Chinese culture, are there any other subjects your photography focuses on?

Luo: I also have an Across China series, which mainly records what I encountered while touring China. And recently, I started shooting boys. 

Adolescent: What has the response to your photos been in China? What about the rest of the world?

Luo: People generally like my photos, but perhaps my work is more popular in the West. In China, people see my photos as they are. Sometimes Western people like to associate my work with [stereotypes]. 

Adolescent: What role has social media played in your work as a photographer? Apps like Instagram are typically given a bad rep for commodifying art, but can you think of any ways in which they’ve had a positive effect?

Luo: It simply helps more people know about my work. I see social media as a way to communicate with young people... Also, my art is not cold and distant. The nature of it is humanitarian. It's about people and their authentic lives, and I definitely see such similarities in social media. 

Follow Luo Yang on Instagram and check out her website.