In 2012, Ai Weiwei designated her one of the “rising stars of Chinese photography” (New Statesman). Yang’s film photography is direct and depicts subjects that appear confident, yet her portraits of her female peers simultaneously show a vulnerable sensitivity. Dorrell Merritt sat down with Yang to discuss her progress and the background for her latest body of work GIRLS.
Dorrell Merritt: With the renaissance of 35mm film in particular and popularity of breaking the fourth wall through photography, intimate images of young women seem more commonplace than ever. Yet your images I feel surpass the level of being just a fleeting documentation, and become almost a social survey of the alternative, and contemporary lives the women in your images live in China. What is your relationship to the women in your images? Are they all friends, or are some less closely known?
Luo Yang: Some of them are my friends and some of them, friends of friends, while others are strangers who I got to know via the Internet.
DM: I read in the statement of your zine GIRLS which your exhibition images were taken from, that the duality of fragility and inner strength is a key component of the photographs. What girl/subject from the series do you feel represents this duality best?
LY: I think every picture expresses this duality, just some of them are stronger and some are less. For example, ‘Jin Jing’ and ‘Xie Yue’ both present this duality of fragility and inner strength best.
DM: Sexuality and unashamed pride of the female body, are recurring elements within the GIRLS series. Do you feel as if there is a shift taking place at all, in regards to the social or visual expectations of young women in China? Or is the new idea of femininity, still an isolated minority?
LY: I do feel as if there is a transition taking place in China, regarding the visual expectations of young women. People are starting to see the life of women as a more individual life, with personality and closer to reality. With the mass development of communication platforms in China for instance like Weibo and Wechat, Chinese women now have much bigger space to show their life and to present their attitude. It is still an isolated minority, but this is definitely a good change.
DM: How have the women that you photographed reacted in seeing themselves in the GIRLS series/zine?
LY: The girls in my pictures were really willing to express themselves. The shooting was like a chance or an exit for them to come out and express themselves. Therefore they are all very happy for me to show their pictures.
DM: Many of your images, through composition, the aesthetic of the photographic film, and the intimacy that you have with your subjects, convey a delicately cinematic aura. Would it be fair to suggest that you are in part, inspired by cinema/moving image?
LY: Yes, I like movies very much, and also I have been inspired by movies. When I was a little girl, movies opened a gate for me towards a new world, which made me feel a deep desire to express stories and to create images. The GIRLS images are just a moment of their life caught by the camera, a scene of each girl’s own movie. By the way, I am working on some videos recently, too.
DM: Back in 2012, you were part of Ai WeiWei’s’ Fuck Off 2 at the Groninger Museum. What was it like exhibiting alongside such a prominent figure in both art and politics?
LY: It is a pity that I could not attend the exhibition in person that time, but it was a memorable experience to cooperate with Ai Weiwei. I also feel that to be able to exhibit together with Ai Weiwei is of course, very encouraging to young artists (like I was at the time).
DM: Your series GIRLS, has just been exhibited at MO-Industries in Berlin, Germany. How was the editing process (choosing of images to exhibit) having shot so many images over the years for the series?
LY: MO-Industries and I did the editing process together, including choosing images and matching them together as well as positioning them onto the wall. It was a complicated process, but full of fun! For me, it also felt like reviewing my life.
DM: What’s next for you, post-exhibition? What are you currently working on and will it be an extension of your GIRLS series in any way?
LY: I will continue working on the subject of women. The GIRLS series is more like a portrait of the girls’ teenage mentality and life, as well as mine. Now both their lives and mine are undergoing lots of changes. I’d like to continue to document these changes of their lives, also their new confusions and emotions as they are now facing new challenges. This is what I want to present in my next exhibition.
Dorrell Merritt is a photographic artist and writer, originally from London, and now based in Berlin. He works primarily across images, prose and poems, and occasionally contributes articles to photographic journals and runs the photo-conversational project, SEED Monograph.