Models, photographers, and curators remember the groundbreaking photographer who depicted Chinese youth with tenderness and soul
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“I hate my past, and I don’t want to know the future,” declares the title of an album that the photographer and poet Ren Hang uploaded to the Chinese social media platform Douban in 2012. Originally a site for movie reviews, for many years Douban was as a sanctuary for artists and alternative voices. Here, Ren began to form a community around the soft and penetrating photographic images for which he soon became quietly revered. Often making friends with his models, he depicted Chinese youth with soulfulness and, by rejecting state-sanctioned narratives as well as the assumptions of a Western gaze, opened new avenues for East Asian and LGBTQ portraiture.
Ren Hang’s unresolved relationship to past and future alike speaks to the misalignments enforced upon young people by resurgent authoritarianisms worldwide. Unexpectedly, in February 2017, the photographer took his own life, aged 29. He left behind an oeuvre of work that addresses the beauty and pain of living in the present tense, and inspired a reinvention of photography and portraiture as means of free expression. Today, a new generation of artists and designers are looking beyond singular identities in order to address structures of representation and value production, often juxtaposing contemporary concerns with traditional Chinese cultural values. Though web platforms like Douban and WeChat are seeing increasing censorship, and exhibition spaces are being shut down, creative experimentation continues to persist.
Queer culture is created by communities, not individuals, and in celebration of Ren Hang’s still flowering impact, Dazed spoke to some of the models and friends who were influenced by Ren’s work, and to two curators building communities in China today.
FISH ZHANG, PHOTOGRAPHER AND MODEL
How did Ren Hang influence your photographic style, and in what ways has it developed?
Fish Zhang: I’m a full-time photographer, and I started photography because of Ren. We became friends when I was 18, when came up to me and he said he wanted to shoot me, leading me to model for him. I never thought I would start doing photography myself.
Then I moved to Tokyo, and Ren was visiting Tokyo quite often at that time. While he was in Tokyo, he started shooting friends and everyday life, and I was really influenced by that energy. That’s when I started photography, all because of him. These days, I’m experimenting on different things and moving beyond portraiture. I’m doing a new project about Chinese urban development. Thanks to the government, urban environments are changing so quickly – some places have turned from a village into a city in two generations. Sometimes there are fake tourist sites, too, like a fake Eiffel tower, or fake pyramids, and I’ve been documenting these locations. Perhaps there’s a parallel here with the commercial photography world. Though the challenges are different in China and Japan, often the industry is trend-driven. People don’t want something original.
BOHAN QIU, MODEL, WRITER and BRAND CONSULTANT
How has Ren Hang’s style influenced fashion aesthetics in China?
Bohan Qiu: When I first met Ren, I was a student. It was my first shoot. He wasn’t that big then, and it was one of his first times in Europe. He started out simply as a photographer – he never called himself an artist – but he developed an aesthetic value that transcended into fashion. There weren’t many Chinese photographers at the time, and I’m sure he inspired a lot of younger photographers.
Before Ren was working, a western aesthetic was often imported into China. Ren only shot Chinese models, and his way of working was organic. He used a point and shoot camera, and showed that you don’t need a big studio and professional lighting, that everything can be very DIY as long as your vision is clear, sharp, and unique. He found beauty in people in a way that hadn’t been done before and located a new image of, and voice for, Chinese youth. He created pictures in a way that was mega precise – he knew, for example, how much a head should tilt – but still he saw us as humans with desires, sexual cravings, emotions, and love stories. You see his influence a lot, like his splashes of red, and his iconic bright red lipstick.
Moving forward, I think we’ll see more layered explorations of identity in Chinese photography. We’re telling stories of our own, and finding inspiration anywhere from ink painting and calligraphy to nature, through visual references such as elephants and snow mountains. This era is about us. We’ve learned enough from the west.
“He found beauty in people in a way that hadn’t been done before and located a new image of, and voice for, Chinese youth” – Bohan Qiu
HO KING MAN, MODEL AND PUBLISHER
Why was it important to you to publish Ren Hang’s poetry, and how does it his poetry to his photography?
Ho King Man: Ren’s poetry had never been translated. Yet to me, as a publisher and a friend of his, it represents the time of a specific generation in China. His poems are simple to understand, and easy to read. Mostly, they are short, which relates to daily internet use. Online, on Weibo or WeChat, we tend to give less time to writing and reading. Ren concentrated on what he really wanted to say. He had deep thoughts behind the poetry, but he used humour instead of long, essayistic explanations. His poetry is like a funny movie that’s sad at the same time.
“His poetry is like a funny movie that’s sad at the same time” – Ho King Man
His poetry and photography feed each other – they are together and not together. He wrote things that he couldn’t photograph, and he photographed things that he couldn’t write.
I think that some of his work is still being censored in China. There’s a lot more that needs to be shown to the world, but unfortunately, it’s hard to do that. There is still so much more to be said.
ALVIN LI, ART CRITIC AND CURATOR, AND TING, CO-FOUNDER OF SHANGHAI QUEER FILM FESTIVAL
Ren Hang often depicted individuals, but values of friendship and community were foundational to his working methods. Can you speak about how queer community building is evolving in China, and what tensions persist?
Alvin Li: When I’ve worked with organisations like Shanghai Pride and CinemaQ in the past, we often talked about what kinds of parameters we should give to the work that’s being done. I think one of the tensions right now is between achieving visibility, on the one hand, and remaining looser, stranger, and more underground, on the other. Filmmaking is one of the most popular mediums that queer people are turning to because it provides so many possibilities. Cultural policy has gotten stricter and increasingly erratic recently, with more subversive works being filtered and galleries sometimes receiving fines. As a result, there is a proliferation of a more homonormative image.
Ting: Acceptance of LGBTQ issues in China is growing, but many queer Chinese people are still unfamiliar with the concept of community, and its power is often undervalued. At Shanghai Queer Film Festival, our audience is often new to these ideas, but they are usually very engaged, and once they get a feel of how they can belong they keep coming back. The line between audience, guests, and volunteers becomes very blurred. Right now, community building is about getting more people involved and pushing for true diversity in the process. Physical events are the best way to do it. Getting people together is much more effective than creating a WeChat group with five hundred people, where only ten people really talk.