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This Photographer Captures the Essence of China’s Wandering Youth

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Photosensitive is a RADII column that focuses on Chinese photographers who are documenting modern trends, youth, and society in China. 

In his 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying: An Observation,” Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde preached that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

If this truly is the case (and we reckon this is very much up for debate), we’ve found a sterling example of the exception to Wilde’s observation on the relationship between a natural existence and the creative realm: a Yunnan-based photographer whose work imitates his own life experiences and feelings while shining a light on estrangement, youthful loneliness, and the sense of belonging.

Ziyi Le was born in 1993 and raised in Xiamen, Fujian province, in East China. During his childhood, he spent little time — and little time communicating — with his parents. This household environment during his youth led to longstanding feelings of alienation that gave rise to a sense of being left “in the middle of nowhere.”

“Every time I’m confronted with these engrained family issues, my instinct is to shun away,” says Le.

Ziyi Le

Twenty-eight-year-old photographer Ziyi Le

In March of 2020, the 28-year-old photographer moved to the city of Hangzhou to escape his anxieties and develop his career.

There, he decided to launch a personal photo project titled “New Comer,” an exploration of the emotional void among young people like himself who have moved away from home and relocated to different cities — “to see their faces as well as examine my own deep self-doubt.”

Before he began shooting, he posted an announcement about the project on Weibo, a popular microblogging platform in China, to recruit subjects. More than 40 applicants contacted him.

“Before shooting, I predicted the reasons that drove my subjects to move to different cities: a career, more money, emotional issues, or just escaping family. In the process of shooting and communicating with them, I found my predictions to be fitting,” Le tells RADII. “But even if I shared a lot in common with them, I was still touched by each and every individual — his or her willingness to thrive, and the efforts taken to gain redemption in ways positive or negative.”

Ziyi Le series

An image from Ziyi Le’s “New Comer” photo project

At the end of March 2021 — a year after he arrived in Hangzhou, Le decided it was time to leave his new home to continue his photo project in the stunning southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan.

He can list numerous potential reasons for choosing to depart Hangzhou — unrelentingly damp weather, lackluster culinary options — but he ultimately attributes his relocation to one thing:

“I belong to nowhere. It sounds desolate, but for me, it is a cheer-up.”

This concept — of being a citizen of no place, an on-the-move youth exploring new horizons — is clearly a big part of Le’s identity, and it is superbly presented in “New Comer.” The project’s images are hauntingly beautiful and exude a deep sense of both youthful independence and overwhelming loneliness.

“In the end, I thank all the applicants who join my project; no matter how the photos are presented, they bring me closer to my inner reality through talking with, taking photos of, and observing you all. It comforts me in a silent way, like a mirror,” says Le, who adds, “I will carry on with this subject in the next city I move to, simultaneously escaping and pursuing.”

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Ziyi Le is an independent photographer who resides in Southwest China’s Yunnan province. Le self-published the photo book “Well Forever” (长寿水井) in 2018 and held a solo exhibition of images featured in the book at Banshan Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, in 2019. He also exhibited the work “漫 无” in the group show “Expectations” organized by Simple Living. In 2021, Le was nominated for the BarTur Photo Award (Britain).

All images courtesy of Ziyi Le

Matthew Bossons
Matt is RADII's managing editor. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Matt has worked as a journalist in China for over half a decade and has had work published in major Chinese media outlets and international publications. He has previously lived in Guangzhou and Beijing and is now a Shanghairen. In his spare time, Matt enjoys knapping stone tools, sampling craft beer, and tossing on his scuba gear for an underwater adventure.

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