Growing up in a small town in Liaoning Province, China, Luo Yang was encouraged to follow her own nature. “A woman’s nature is able to tolerate a lot of things,” she says. And sure, quiet tolerance can be harnessed as a source of strength, but it has also been misconstrued as diminutive through countless portrayals of Chinese women in the West—something the 34-year-old is helping to shift through her bold, unvarnished photographs of young women across the country today.
Yang started taking photos of friends and classmates when she was studying at the prestigious Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang. She’d been experiencing a strong sense of loneliness for years (“I guess it’s the kind of desperation and disappointment that generates from the difference between dreams and reality,” she says), which she had been trying to shake. So, in 2007, she borrowed a vintage Nikon and began shooting the foundations of what would become her decade-long series, GIRLS.
At first, the motive behind her photos was pretty simple: to better understand herself, as well as others. “I didn’t try to intentionally show a particular side of Chinese women,” says Yang. “I was simply recording women that I find beautiful and moving.” Through the years, however, Yang’s photos have come to reveal a rebellious current running through contemporary China, whether demonstrated by her subjects’ provocative expressions, defiantly altered bodies, or highly individual takes on traditional femininity. “They are tough yet fragile and vulnerable, beautiful yet helpless,” she says.
Many of Yang’s girls are nude, or partially nude, and curled up with their lovers. Others are portrayed in and among their mundane, everyday surroundings. There’s always something piercingly revelatory about the images, which is likely a representation of the kinship she feels towards her subjects. “We are the same generation facing the same society, same education system, same traditional family background, and had the same confused teenage years,” she says.
“With the Internet, the lives of young people won’t differ that much, but I think the girls in Beijing are more straightforward and independent,” she says. Yang, who currently splits her time between Beijing and Shanghai, has set her sights beyond her home turf for the next phase of GIRLS, with which she hopes to further illuminate her subjects’ “true selves.” The rest of the world has already taken note of Yang, whose work was highlighted in Ai Wewei’s “Fuck Off 2” (the follow-up to his radical 2000 exhibition) alongside a rising crop of Chinese artists, and subsequently across Europe and Asia.
Yang doesn’t cite a particular inspiration, though she does reference female artists as foundational in her career. “I like different things at different times, but in general I think female artists and artistic films have influenced me greatly,” she says. “The GIRLS series didn’t begin with a very thought-out plan, but looking back, it’s been ten years, so I’ll say it’s more about persistence.”
“Girls” photo series photographed and courtesy of Luo Yang.