The Photographer Capturing What it’s Like Being a Woman in China

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GIRLS Luo Yang retrospective exhibition
Xie Yue, 2015© Luo Yang

As a travelling retrospective of her work opens in Bangkok, the Ai Weiwei-approved photographer Luo Yang discusses a decade spent photographing Chinese women

Luo Yang’s intimate imagery conveys an undeniable sense of softness, but beneath the fragile veneer lies a resolute layer of strength. Her photographs are primarily an exploration of individual identity, which the Beijing-based artist captures with disarming honesty and a vulnerability that never fails to reveal genuine boldness. “I’m from a very small town in northern China, where most people don’t think of being an artist as a real occupation,” Yang tells AnOther. “Art, and especially photography, has always been my way of knowing the world. I started using a camera to take pictures in university because I felt lonely and confused about the new life I was about to start, the big, strange world I was going to face.”

First a creative armour, the camera soon became second nature to Yang, whose work today spans over a decade and has been exhibited worldwide, from Hong Kong to Berlin.

Currently showing at Bangkok’s Woofpack and RDX Offsite, a ten-year retrospective co-curated by Chomwan Weeraworawit is revisiting the career of the image-maker described by Ai Weiwei as a “rising star of Chinese photography”. Presented by Moonduckling Films, the exhibition is titled GIRLS – a name evocative of Yang’s most recurring and distinctive photographic theme, femininity.

The collection of images includes portraits of Chinese women Yang has met in her private life, in a raw visual exploration of contemporary Chinese female identity. “Women are both soft and strong, a combination of vulnerability and toughness,” the photographer explains. “Their complexity has always inspired me, and through photography I always tried to understand them – today, I feel I’ve worked out most of the problems and confusions as a teenage girl which drove me to start this series. I’ve entered a different stage of life, so the retrospective is aiming to close one chapter on this eternal journey to self-discovery.”

Underlying tensions and ambivalent emotions are at the heart of Yang’s images, denying the viewer the possibility of a conclusive reading. In her work, highly staged portraits and carefully constructed poses alternate with a raw, blurred snapshot aesthetic; Yang works with film cameras only, deliberately slowing down the creative process and focusing on capturing a unique moment rather than refining an image in post-production.

Her frames don’t shy away from reflecting on the ever-shifting mentalities surrounding the topics of feminism and identity in modern China. Most of all, however, her work is a testament to her subjects’ individuality. “I don’t constantly work with politics in the back of my mind,” Yang concludes. “I tend to focus more on people, on each individual’s life and all the complexities playing into it – I hope my work touches people in a human way first and foremost.”

GIRLS by Luo Yang, presented by Moonduckling and produced by Annette Fausboll, Jean Alexandre Luciani and Julien Favre, is at Woofpack, Bangkok and RDX Offsite, Bangkok.