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Ye Fan Got Her First Camera in 2016. Now Her Photos Are in ‘Vogue’

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Photosensitive is a RADII column that focuses on Chinese photographers who are documenting modern trends, youth, and society in China. This month, we introduce Ye Fan, a New York-based photographer whose work has appeared in several major publications.

Ye Fan never dreamed of being a professional photographer. She had a good job — a great job, in fact, working in entertainment PR in her hometown of Shanghai. Her career trajectory up to 2016 was, by any measure, a success story. But she wanted something different.

When Fan made the “reckless” decision to study photography in New York City at 30 years old, it was not in the hopes of making it big, but as a gap year away from the monotony of an already well-established career. Up to that point, she hadn’t even owned a camera.

From the project ‘TA’

Fan studied photography at the Columbia University School of Visual Arts, where she earned an internship with iconic portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz and continued her education in the International Center of Photography Photojournalism and Creative Practice Program.

Six years after arriving for her ‘year’ abroad, Fan is still in New York. Now, you can find her photos in major publications like Vogue ItaliaHarper’s BazaarPeople MagazineLensCulture, and much more. 

“I feel like I am so lucky because when I started photography school, I was like, ‘there’s no way I could be a photographer, are you kidding me?’” says Fan. “There are thousands of wedding photographers, editorial photographers — how do you fight for attention? It’s impossible.”

But the hope that she would defy the odds always lingered, and despite her doubts, she did exactly that. Public relations, she says, is a thing of the past.

From the project ‘TA’

Of all her work so far, she considers ‘TA’ (她) the most honest and personal. (The Chinese character 她 translates to ‘her’ in English, although the pinyin ta is gender-neutral.) TA began as a school assignment and has lasted for years, with Fan exploring the lives and experiences of China-born women in New York, like herself, through her Leica lens.

“Photography, to me, if you’re not authentic and honest, it will come through in your work,” says Fan.

“There are times you feel extremely lonely in New York. The city can really get to you. So, I thought, why not find a group of … people in my shoes — in similar situations.”

From the project ‘TA’

Most of her subjects work in fashion, and she grants them complete control over their clothing and accessories.

“I will always encourage them to wear whatever they feel most themselves in,” she says — clothing that represents “how they interpret modern feminism. And they always end up wearing their own designs.”

From the project ‘TA’

The project has been a resounding success — some of the prints were even purchased by a gallery in Munich, Germany, where they are on display until June 2022

From the project ‘TA’

Fan describes her shooting process as slow and intimate. “We talk, and then we shoot frames. And then we’ll rest, we talk, and we shoot frames. I kind of want to capture the energy and synergy,” she says. 

From the project ‘TA’

She has come to see ‘TA’ as a sort of artistic therapy — both for herself and her subjects.

The work evokes “a feeling that you are not alone. You have a set of listening ears, and so do they, from me,” Fan tells RADII. “You don’t realize how a nice and warm chat can just change your feelings. It really does. When you kind of have a hard day, or nothing’s really going right, it really is a lifting energy and a lifting experience.”

From the project ‘TA’

Eventually, she plans to compile the photos on her website along with a set of 10 questions that she asks each model. 

Feminism, intimacy, and individual spirit are recurring themes in her work, and she takes care to stay true to her personal style. “I want to make sure my audience and the outer world understand my work and style in a very short amount of time,” she says. 

From the project ‘TA’

But Fan’s range of projects is far from monolithic: Her latest endeavor is a long-term documentary-style project featuring the fine-dining restaurant Eleven Madison Park — voted the world’s best restaurant in 2017.

Eleven Madison Park

Fan captures the delicate dance between the kitchen and dining room teams from their busiest hours to break times. It is at once seemingly chaotic and remarkably orderly. 

Eleven Madison Park

True to her visual spirit, the series, now in its fifth month, incorporates color and black and white photos, and she shoots with both Polaroid and film cameras, in addition to her Leica.

Eleven Madison Park

“I feel like it really takes a village, a team, to do what they do. I hope that anyone who embodies team spirit, anyone working in a community, or anyone who is pursuing a job in creation, will find this interesting,” she says.

Eleven Madison Park

When exploring her art and creative process, another theme comes to mind: Fan draws inspiration from her subjects, whether featuring women like herself or, indeed, world-class restauranteurs.

“[Eleven Madison Park] changes menus four times a year and also conducts weekly tastings — meetings where the whole team brainstorms the new menu … It’s really amazing to see how things come together, the consistency of it,” says Fan.  

“For me, as a creative, I appreciate that. Hopefully, I can also embody this consistency in my photography. 

“Having the drive to push yourself to renewal, I think that’s actually very tough.”

Daniel Humm, chef and owner of Eleven Madison Park

Fan plans to return to China one day, but her work in New York isn’t done yet. “I only kicked off my career here in New York in 2019, so I really want to spend a few more years here to see where it goes,” she says.

All images courtesy of Ye Fan

Jesse Pottinger
    Jesse is a Vancouver-based journalist who spent four back-to-back summers living in Guangzhou and working with That’s magazines. He currently serves as a remotely-based junior editor with RADII. Jesse has spent considerable time traveling around China over the past half-decade and has something of a passion for dumplings. You can follow his adventures on Instagram at @messy_jesse.
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