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Luo Yang, Carpe Diem
Chengzi (2017)Photography by Luo Yang

Luo Yang’s intimate photographs of China’s nonconformist young women

The Chinese photographer’s new photobook, Carpe Diem, brings together two iconic photo series to explore young adulthood through a multi-generational lens

In 2007, when Luo Yang was 23, the photographer began documenting hundreds of women that grew up in the same era as herself, a post-80s generation known as Ba ling hou. Titled Girls, the resulting photo series followed these women – often friends, friends of friends, or young women she met online – as they entered adulthood, recording changes to their bodies and lives against the backdrop of contemporary China, as well as the early online landscapes that set them apart from older generations.

“These images are very private photos of those girls, but it’s also a window for them to share their own small worlds,” Luo told Dazed, speaking about the series in 2018. “It’s intimate yet relatable.”

Living and working between Beijing and Shanghai, Luo is now in her late 30s. In 2019, after more than a decade spent looking down the lens at her own generation, she turned her gaze to younger subjects for a new series titled Youth – the focus shifted to the generation born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, vaguely clustered under Generation Z. Where Girls recorded a generation in the midst of breaking with China’s past after the Cultural Revolution, the images of Youth introduce the inhabitants of a whole new world: a globalised China, intertwined with the new realities of the internet and social media.

Carpe Diem, a new book published by La Maison De Z, places both of these photo series side-by-side, along with an assortment of other photographs taken over the course of three decades. In many of the images, young people – often pictured nude – seem to stare through the camera at the viewer, or perhaps at the photographer, their contemporary, or, in later years, an outsider looking in.

Naturally, there are similarities between the tender insights into the lives of two age groups as they each come of age, telling a cross-generational “story of youth”. However, Luo also draws out differences between her own generation and Gen Z. Perhaps most notably, Youth includes portraits of people from across the gender spectrum, expanding on the female-focused Girls project and reflecting the increasing fluidity of gender expression in youth culture.

“The kind of girls I shoot are a relative minority in China,” the photographer said in 2018. “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.” In Carpe Diem – which cuts through the glossy, sanitised imagery that surrounds more mainstream youth icons in China today – it’s clear to see that this ethic has remained in sharp focus across the course of Luo’s career, and will for the foreseeable future.

Luo Yang’s Carpe Diem is out now via La Maison De Z.