Photographer Luo Yang captures rare glimpse of China’s ‘brave and free’ youth

Neon hair, heavy black lipstick, friends gathered around a table in leopard print and lace. Luo Yang’s portraits of young people offer a rare glimpse into modern culture in China.

The Shanghai-based photographer says she was drawn to taking pictures as a way of recording emotions that rise up during adolescence. She has been documenting Chinese youth for more than a decade.

“They live bravely and authentically under the limits of traditional culture,” she said in an email interview.

Group of young people at a table
Luo Yang was born in Liaoning, China and is based in Shanghai. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Migrant Bird Space

Luo, now in her 30s, studied at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in China, majoring in graphic design. Her acclaimed 2019 series Girls features portraits of young women which she says reflect the “shifting mindset” on ideas of femininity and identity in China.

“The feelings I express are the authentic inner feelings of women,” she says. “I’ve learned that so many inspiring, interesting and brave women are living [as] themselves … independent, brave and free.”

A portrait from Luo’s 2019 Girls series.
A portrait from Luo’s 2019 Girls series. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Migrant Bird Space.

After Girls came the series Youth, a collection of men and women in China born in the late nineties and 2000s. She describes the work as an objective record of a younger generation. The group, she says, was more “sex and rock’n’roll than K-pop” and contrasts to the “sanitised image conveyed by the pop stars adored by young people in China today”.

“It’s a generation I don’t know much about so I use the creation of the series as a process to observe and understand their lives,” she says of the series, which was shot between 2019 and 2021.

The award-winning photographer has had solo shows in Paris, Berlin, Austria, Hong Kong and Bangkok. This month Luo will showcase some of her work in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the Photo 2022 exhibition.

Elias Redstone, artistic director of Photo 2022 exhibition, says Luo’s work “celebrates individuality” and the spirit of being alive.

“It is great to see this kind of freedom come from a Chinese artist. While her subjects are in China the emotions, the fashions, the desire to be yourself is a universal impulse. Luo Yang’s work is incredibly assured, refined and connects with youth culture globally.”

Photo 2022 exhibiting artist Luo Yang.
Photo 2022 exhibiting artist Luo Yang. Li Wusui. Luo Yang was born in Liaoning, China and lives and works in Beijing and Shanghai. Bold yet intimate, these are Luo Yang’s portraits. With her film camera, she explores and records the changes happening among contemporary Chinese young people Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Migrant Bird Space

Redstone says Luo, along with the late Ren Hang, is part of a group of artists that has emerged over the last decade seeking to push beyond traditional depictions of life and people in China.

“These photographers are looking to break the stereotypical images that often get represented in the West and often taken from an outsiders’ perspective,” he says.

“They are reclaiming their own narrative … there’s a dose of sexuality and liberation thrown in and it’s wonderful to see.”

Luo is busy working on her next project which she describes as “more relevant to my own living status and my growth”.

“I’ve wanted to focus on the people who face similar problems [or] dilemmas.” She expects the project will be released this year and may see a departure from her use of film.

“I’m also exploring more in the field of moving image, after all movies are something I love greatly too.”

Portrait of a woman holding a goldfish in a bag
Luo won the Jimei-Arles female photographers award 2019 and was shortlisted for C/O Berlin Talent award in 2019. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Migrant Bird Space.

The Guardian

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