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Inspired by an instinctive childhood fascination with female nudity, Xiao Guanmu (a moniker which translates to “Little Coffin”) uses her photography to challenge mainstream notions of beauty. For the last five years, the Beijing-based photographer has been traveling around China photographing nude portraits of young women from all walks of life.
In a society where expression through nudity is often seen as taboo, Xiao Guanmu’s portraits have a refreshing, humanizing quality. The models are photographed in their own homes in a collaborative way that allows them control over their own portrayal. By letting each model decide where and how they want to be shot, Xiao Guanmu creates a safe space for self-expression. With no prior plan determining the portraits, she makes each creative decision based on the objects present in the scene, available light, and each model’s personality. With nudity serving as a metaphor for stripping away societal pressures, Xiao Guanmu’s work penetrates through the banalities of the material world, revealing the human experiences of her models.
Photography, for Xiao Guanmu, is not just a platform to record what she sees; it’s also a way to transcend her understanding of the world through the lived experience of others. “Through photography, I get to know and understand myself,” she tells RADII. “To constantly have new feelings is the best part of the experience for me.”
After taking brief hiatus from photography in 2018 to overcome a personal tragedy, Xiao Guanmu is preparing to release her second book, the follow up to 2017’s Lai Dou Lai Le (“来都来了,” an online joke roughly translating to “you’re already here”). The new book picks up where Lai Dou Lai Le left off, with 100 nude portraits of women who approached Xiao Guanmu, requesting to have their photograph taken.
“Through photography, I get to know and understand myself. To constantly have new feelings is the best part of the experience for me.” — Photographer Xiao Guanmu
L to R: Xiao Guanmu’s two photobooks, 再来一杯 (2019) and 来都来了 (2017)
Shooting exclusively in public places or in the homes of her models has helped Xiao Guanmu acquire one of her most noteworthy talents: the ability to craft stories about strangers using very limited space and light. “I always insist on shooting [in this kind of environment] because I think it’s beautiful,” she says. It’s rough and messy, but it has a texture you can’t get in a ‘perfect’ studio.” This texture, along with her vibrant color schemes, evokes each model’s unique personality and gives a dream-like quality to her work. “Although the setting is sometimes not perfect, imperfection is a type of perfection,” she acknowledges.
Xiao Guanmu’s portrait series is a window into a changing attitude. The attitude, shared by groups of younger women in China, challenges the outdated, traditional notion of beauty and womanhood. “Many people have given up on the idea that it’s the norm for a girl to look for a husband and live a life as a housewife,” Xiao Guanmu states. Her work contextualizes this shifting attitude as a modern-day conversation that is personal to every woman.
“Many people have given up on the idea that it’s the norm for a girl to look for a husband and live a life as a housewife” — Xiao Guanmu
Xiao Guanmu’s photography opens up a dialogue between young women and conservative attitudes towards femininity. The authentic self-expressions her work captures give a voice to this generation of women. “Things that are too perfect create a sense of panic that makes me feel stiff,” she says. “People should create beauty, but I think it’s important to first develop a sensibility for the discovery and tolerance of beauty.”
Beauty, Xiao Guanmu asserts, is a construct that women must create and own for themselves.
RADII: Can you talk a little about the philosophy behind your work?
Xiao Guanmu: Photography to me is like writing a diary. Both are recording history. Diaries records text, whereas photography is more [visual] and explicit. When I see a beautiful scene, just pressing the shutter is enough for me to record its essence.
How would you describe your style, and what are some of the messages you want to communicate?
Personally, I don’t like explaining to people who haven’t seen my work before what my style is like. Ask a thousand people what they think of Hamlet, and you get a thousand different answers. Everyone has different aesthetic concepts and grew up in different environments. Different people will look at the same photograph and have different thoughts and ideas. I don’t think this [my style] is something I can explain or get consensus on.
My photographs don’t have a specific theme, but I do like to shoot in brightly colored, old houses or in sunny ruins. At the end of the day, why I always insist on shooting in this kind of environment is because I think it’s beautiful. This kind of beauty is not the simplistic kind of beauty. Even though it’s rough and messy, it has a texture you can’t get in a “perfect” studio. And I think it’s unique.
What I want to express is actually quite simple. I don’t like to shoot in a studio, I don’t like to use lights or set up and design a scene for shooting. I also don’t shoot very deliberately. Although the setting is sometimes not perfect, imperfection is a type of perfection. Things that are too perfect create a sense of panic that makes me feel stiff. People should create beauty, but I think it’s important to first develop a sensibility for the discovery and tolerance of beauty.
What would you say is your main motivation to continue taking pictures?
When I was very young — a time when we were not as tightly controlled as we are today — I’d often go to the supermarket and look at the [naked] bodies on the covers of the top-shelf magazines. At that time, I didn’t understand anything about it, but I didn’t think it was pornographic. I was magically drawn to it. I thought women’s bodies were so beautiful.
After growing up and working for two years, one day I suddenly recalled this memory. I grabbed my monthly salary, went out and bought a camera, and that’s how I started.
To be honest, by 2018, I was tired of taking photos. That year I hardly took any new photos. Everyday I chose to just laze on the sofa, on the bed, or wherever I could just collapse down onto. It wasn’t until this year, when I experienced a series of shocking events, that I realized I should continue to do this project. I still love it.
For a while I didn’t know how to express this love, and I didn’t want to use the same form of expression as before. Just like running a marathon, when you get halfway through, you may feel tired and need to find a place on the side of the road to rest and think about how to run the next half. When you understand how to start again, you start again. I think I’ve already reached the next starting point.
When shooting each individual model, how much does their personality and life experience influence the shot?
I think it does have an impact on my photography. Some girls are not very open, and choose [to shoot in] quite private, closed-off, small spaces. Some models are my friends, who are a little more wild and open to go to many different places to shoot — the creative canvas is a little bigger. I also like to take photos in models’ homes. Their homes are more reflective of their individual life experiences. The resulting photos are much more authentic.
Can you describe a little about your creative process when deciding how to shoot a single portrait?
To be honest, my creative process is quite random. I don’t think about how I am going to shoot in advance. A lot of the time is spent hanging out and drinking with the models. We’ll often walk to a place and think, “Ah, this place is not bad,” and we’ll shoot some shots. Or we’ll be lying around at their home, chatting, when the sun suddenly comes through and we’ll start taking pictures. It’s all pretty random. I don’t like to make plans ahead of time and follow them. It makes me feel set in my ways.
“Things that are too perfect create a sense of panic that makes me feel stiff — people should create beauty, but I think it’s important to first develop a sensibility for the discovery and tolerance of beauty” — Xiao Guanmu
Your photography touches on subjects such as sexuality, lust, empowerment, constraint, and freedom. Are these themes you intended to explore further? If not, what are some other subjects you aim to explore?
I’ve always thought that people should just live in the moment. The current generation is always the best generation to live in. To begin with I was simply just searching the web for people interested in having their photos taken. After going to a lot of different places, I got to know a lot of new people and friends, and inadvertently started taking pictures of my female friends I hung around with. They are all such a great group of people. Even though some of them have different lifestyles from normal people, they are all free and independent. They don’t conform to the majority, and they have their own way of thinking. This is a genuine state of mind and I want to document it.
Would you say these themes and your subjects are representative of the younger generations of females in China?
I feel that [the photographs] represent another side to ordinary women in China. They [the models] are all independent women, reject the surface-level constraints [of society], and do what they enjoy doing.
How do you think the role of women is changing in Chinese society? Or is it? Does this serve as a source of inspiration for your photography?
There have been huge changes. I studied school in a second-tier city. When I got into arguments with my classmates, I used to use the phrase “gay” as an insult to offend them. Nowadays many people are starting to recognize this group [the gay community]. The same for females — many people have given up on the idea that it’s the norm for a girl to look for a husband and live a life as a housewife. Chinese females can be much more independent and can thrive in this day and age. I believe in egalitarianism, and it’s this belief that makes me more enthusiastic about documenting the women around me.
“I believe in egalitarianism, and it’s this belief that makes me more enthusiastic about documenting the women around me”
Lastly, who or what would you say is your biggest influence?
Before I got into photography, I really liked a Japanese photographer named Xi Jiang Ying Gong. When I saw his photos for the first time, I sat there opposite the screen, and was bowled over by the energy in the photos. I can’t express it in depth, but that’s the feeling I got. It left me with the thought that his photographs are very powerful. I wanted to be like him and take lots of powerful photos. That was my initial inspiration.
“It’s impossible to find or build a perfect scene every time, but I can certainly trudge through the dirt and see through the decay to find the beauty in any environment”
Actually, the biggest source of inspiration for me is the friends and people around me. My friends are all my mannequins and models. They give me a lot of inspiration just from daily life alone. Life is rough and chaotic. Although we often find ourselves in dirt, we also know how to party in the dirt, and to make ourselves and each other happier. This is the same for me when it comes to photography — it is impossible to find or build a perfect scene every time, but I can certainly trudge through the dirt and see through the decay to find the beauty in any environment.
All photos courtesy Xiao Guanmu. Follow her on Instagram.
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