Luo Yang’s Portraits of China’s “Bold, Wild and True” Youth

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YOUTH, GIRLS. Selected Works
Wang Yanyun, GIRLS, 2017Photography by Luo Yang

As an exhibition of her electrifying portraiture continues in Austria, photographer Luo Yang speaks to AnOther about photographing China’s young people

Luo Yang is a rising photography star. Intimate and raw, her work offers a fascinating insight into the lives of China’s young people, sensitively capturing the moments of joy, freedom, and anguish which are so often the markers of our formative years. First exhibited in 2018, her Girls series garnered international acclaim for its portrayal of Chinese women born in the 1980s – featuring a cast of friends and acquaintances, who Yang photographed over the course of a decade, as she grew up alongside them. Now in her thirties, Yang’s ongoing Youth series turns the lens on the next generation of Chinese people: Generation Z.

As an exhibition displaying selected works from both these series continues at Austria’s Francisco Carolinum Museum, Yang speaks to AnOther about documenting China’s 21st century youth for over ten years. “At first, photography was a way to release my suppressed feelings during adolescence, to record the precious moments of friends around me who share similar emotions,” Yang says of her photography career, which began after borrowing a simple point-and-shoot camera from a friend, when she was still studying.

From this near-chance beginning, Yang felt compelled to continue documenting the women around her, embarking on a ten-year journey that would result in Girls. Hailing from multiple cities across the country, the women in Yang‘s images break away from traditional ideas of femininity in China, and are captured in all their complexity – in some images they radiate strength, while in others they bravely bear vulnerability. “They’ve formed a precious group image of Chinese women born in the 80s, who are less like the depiction in the mainstream media, but more bold, wild and true to themselves,” says Yang. 

A celebration of these women’s individuality, the project is a personal one for the photographer, who sees herself reflected in these shots of her peers. “In them I see the similar emotions and problems that are shared by many my age, me as well,” she says. “I grew up with these girls, and I put part of myself in this series.”

Also on show in Austria are images from Youth, Yang’s more personally removed – but no less tenderly approached – ongoing series, which captures the next generation of young people in China who are boldly rejecting societal norms in search of their own identity. “The idea of this series came very naturally when I gradually found that the new generations in China who are born in the 90s and 00s have formed their own culture and identity, which is different from my own,” Yang says of the project, which documents not only girls, but young men, non-binary and transgender individuals. “They are exposed to a more open and international environment, more gender-fluid, more self-centered and dare to speak out their own opinions,” she observes admiringly of Gen Z.

Together, these two series present a compelling document of young people in 21st-century China, recording their determined search for identity and autonomy amid the country’s ever-changing social landscape. Once describing herself as “a recorder of the present, with all its facets,” Yang is documenting this unique and difficult moment in history too, though, as ever, she is approaching this time through a distinctly human lens. “I shoot all the time,” she says. “But my main focus is still people.” 

YOUTH, GIRLS. Luo Yang Selected Works is at Francisco Carolinum Museum, Linz, Austria until February 21, 2021.