Decades of Photographing Women Below the Surface of Chinese Society

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Hu Yuanli sitting in the bath tub, Paris, 1992
Hu Yuanli sitting in the bath tub, Paris, 1992© Zhang Haier

Zhang Haier has made women his subject time and time again – now, a new book compiles these intimate portraits

Delving beneath the surface of Chinese society with his photography since the 1980s, image-maker Zhang Haier has amassed a vast collection of portraits of women. Intimate, voyeuristic and dark (quite literally: the photographer uses only natural light) in equal measure, Haier’s new book, Les Filles, brings together these arresting photographs.

Though photographing the female might be just one aspect of Haier’s extensive oeuvre – the photographer also enjoys capturing China’s urban streets and “likes cities”, reports Karen Smith in the book’s introduction – but it is women that he has returned to time and again. Haier approaches them as a photographic subject with a distinct streak of desire, and it is the candour and intimacy of his shots of women that have resulted in their censorship in China on occasion. Some characters recur throughout Les Filles – Haier’s wife and muse Hu Yuanli, for example, features in hundreds of images, in both naturalistic and stylised situations – while others are people the photographer has seen on the street and felt he needed to capture.  

There is often a note of the erotic here, though not exploitatively so. “The women belong to their era in China, one in which they struggle to find their own way and counter the force of society’s moralising gaze,” writes Smith, and so are complicit in this intimacy. The closeness is twofold: not only is Haier often physically close to his subjects, their faces staring down the lens, but the settings reflect a look into the women’s personal lives. They might be lying on a bed or in the bath, outstretched and dressed in clothes that hint at kink – frilled dresses, sheer blouses, a men’s uniform shirt, with stockings, suspenders and lace underwear visible under a silk dress. Haier captures women who exist in the underbelly of cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hong Kong, whose very appearance in these photographs is a refusal to align themselves with societal expectations.

Zhang Haier: Les Filles is out now, published by Ludion.