Photosensitive is a monthly RADII column that focuses on Chinese photographers who are documenting modern trends, the youth and society in China.
“I do think that every girl has her own beauty. It is also what I intend to present in my works. Girls who are real, confident and stay true to themselves are beautiful to me” – photographer Luo Yang
The idea of beauty has increasingly become a more prevalent talking point in China in recent years. Users on social media sites such as Weibo have directed their ire (and occasionally praise) at the likes of Vogue and Zara for showing alternative sides of Asian beauty that doesn’t necessarily conform to mainstream ideals.
In some ways, these conversations seem poetic; what is beauty? Surely that’s a question that creatives have pondered for millennia without stumbling upon a correct answer.
As one of China’s leading photographic voices, Luo Yang has risen to prominence with work that is most clearly identified by its unflinching, intimate look at the lives of young Chinese people. Her own definition of beauty, stated above, is shown in her photos, which have helped fans of her work to connect with alternative definitions of beauty in China.
She truly started taking photographs when she was in college at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang, in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, the same area that she was born in. Having studied to be a graphic designer, she sought to pursue photography instead after receiving praise for her photos online.
Her work on the now celebrated series GIRLS, which has exhibited all over the world, began in 2008, as she started capturing images of Chinese women born in the 1980s. The project lasted for almost 10 years until 2017 and features models sporting a plethora of different hair colors and body shapes, at times nude or semi-nude, at others clothed.
“GIRLS is partly my own reflection of the emotions I went through during adolescence,” she says. “It’s a project where you can explore about yourself, and put yourself in a bigger context and present some shared moments of people from a particular time and generation.”
The project brought Luo Yang’s work to the global stage, as her subjects helped to subvert many of the preconceived ideas of young Chinese women held around the globe. She acknowledges that her work is sometimes met with surprise from people unfamiliar with China, but goes on to say that the bulk of the reactions to her work revolve around the connection viewers feel with her subjects.
“People see my works and they feel a connection, like an understanding of the shared feelings and emotions despite these girls’ different appearances and backgrounds,” she says.
“Making these people feel touched and bringing them comfort is what I want to do for the audience.”
Among the more powerful images in this series, we see a woman staring at the camera as she sports a black eye, we see women with shaved heads, piercings or technicolored hair gazing at Luo Yang’s camera in varied states of emotional (and physical) undress.
While the series points towards the lesser known guises of womanhood in China, Yang’s magical camera also opens up the inner worlds of these women, worlds that hide in the candid expressions of their eyes, their pose and the way they interact with her lens.
“I like to observe my subjects. And the more positive confirmation people receive from others, the more relaxed and confident they become, and the easier to be able to see and know their inside, as well as mine,” the Beijing- and Shanghai-based photographer tells us, “A shoot is actually a process of finding the balance between the photographer and the subject. I don’t have special ways of communication, but rather just chat with the models like we are friends.”
In her latest series, YOUTH, Yang points her camera towards a younger generation, born in the ’90s and ’00s. Focusing on a generation of people that she admits she does not understand quite as much as her own, the project is in ways an act of Yang observing and learning from this newer generation. (Laujan, the vocalist of Hong Kong punk band David Boring, is one figure who turns up in this new series; she can be seen on the left in the picture above.)
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Differing from GIRLS, this series also sets its focus on male and transgender subjects as well as women. The series is just as bold and many-hued as GIRLS, with Luo Yang again taking subculture as her inspiration.
One particularly striking photo in this series shows a woman wearing a red qipao sitting in the middle of a dinner table, surrounded by four seated friends. It’s a striking and suggestive image, hinting at the intersection of the traditional with a more modern approach.
“The ’90s and ’00s [generations] are facing so many possibilities that previous generations didn’t have,” says Luo Yang. “They are generally more self-centered and bold, trying to strike the balance between traditions and international cultures.”
As she continues to explore modern China from behind her camera, Luo Yang is also giving thought to bringing her unique perspectives to filmmaking. “It’s something I’m trying to explore at the moment. The film plan is still in its early stages, but it’ll also be about girls and their lives.”
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