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Luo Yang
Photography Luo Yang

Luo Yang’s photos show women rebelling against classic Chinese femininity

Luo Yang captures intimate images of her friends – and has already been given the thumbs up from Ai Weiwei

Luo Yang’s photography was first exhibited in Europe as part of Ai Weiwei’s FUCK OFF 2 – the sequel to the artist’s radical FUCK OFF (2000) – held at the Groninger Museum, Netherlands, in 2013.

Born in 1984 in northeast China, Luo studied Fine Arts and Graphic Design at the prestigious Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, before delving into photography as a means to “relieve (herself) of loneliness”. In 2008, she began shooting portraits of her friends to reflect feelings of unease that she felt she shared with other young women, and, as a result, depicting a part of contemporary China that she believes is rarely shown in the west. “Growing up, I think every girl experiences a certain degree of loneliness and disillusionment,” she explains over email. Coming-of-age, she explains, can be a stressful period, but also a time of self-development that creates space for imagination and dreams. “These images are very private photos of those girls, but it’s also a window for them to share their own small worlds,” she adds. “It’s intimate yet relatable.”

Titled GIRLS, the project is still ongoing eleven years on and has seen its subjects grow – both individually and in number – over time. “At first I just took photos of my friends. I went to their places and hung out.” Soon after, Luo began to photograph friends of friends, acquaintances, or girls she met online. “Usually the shooting takes place at an environment that they are familiar with, no preparations or particular settings.”

In the first series, a still depicts a friend shaving her head “to symbolise a fresh start”, Luo explains. In 2017, the same girl was photographed again, this time heavily pregnant. “I hope to keep recording her life changes, in five, or ten years, such continuous recording will be meaningful and interesting.”

“(The girls I shoot) might be slightly different from the mainstream typical Chinese girls, but they are also real” – Luo Yang

Alternating between posing and off-the-cuff snapshots, Luo’s work offers a new vision of Chinese women as they gaze candidly at the lens. Against the backdrop of concrete-covered cityscapes, urban parks, or the colourful wallpaper of someone’s home, GIRLS poses questions about identity and the contradictions that arise between one’s imagination and the overwhelming presence of the physical world outside of our minds.

Though she aspires to make sense of a collective experience, Luo is aware of the limitations of her project. “The kind of girls I shoot are a relative minority in China,” she admits. “They are the independent, free-spirited women that challenge traditional ideas around femininity. They might be slightly different from the mainstream typical Chinese girls, but they are also real.”

Luo also knows only too well that a girl’s portrayal is so often out of her control. Her subjects’ frank, glaring faces and at times naked bodies are open to interpretation. “Their world is one which is subject to the weight of age and, as the girls’ lives become entwined with their surrounding society, they find themselves rooted and engulfed within an ever-advancing state of uncontrollable perceptions.” Luo, however, wants to give girls a platform to express themselves and continue growing. “These qualities are very precious to me, so I’d like to use images to record and preserve their legacy.”