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Intimate and defiant portraits of ‘GIRLS’ in present-day China (NSFW)

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Described as one of the “rising stars of Chinese photography” by Ai Wewei in 2012, Beijing-based Luo Yang is gaining international recognition for her candid photographs of women in contemporary China. GIRLS began in 2007 as a deeply personal series, for in her subjects, Luo observed emotions and questions very similar to her own. The intimate photographs that constitute GIRLS alternate between carefully staged portraits depicting an emerging Chinese subculture that defies our expectations, and snapshots that favour a raw, blurred aesthetic. The photographer simultaneously manages to convey the girls’ defiance and ultra-cool composure, alongside their vulnerability, shyness and insecurities. Luo elaborates: “I can’t say that they represent a whole new generation of women in China, but they are absolutely a group of women who represent independence and freedom”.

The girls behind the series were friends or friends of friends; some were just strangers, or people the photographer had connected with via the internet. The intuitive dialogue between the photographer and subject which brought Luo’s work to fruition also enabled her to have a better understanding of herself. Beyond their diverse circumstances and backgrounds, Luo felt that she and her subjects all shared the same character traits, questions, feelings, fragilities and confusions. At the same time, the ambivalent emotions and tensions which animate Luo’s images testify to the girls’ individuality, suggesting a change in attitude regarding femininity and identity in present-day China. “Every shoot is very natural” explains Luo, “we chitchat, go to their places, play and relax together. What I’m actually trying to do is observe and understand, and this means I need to approach them in a very natural way. With some, I can catch real moments in just one shooting, while with others I need a few attempts”.

The intimate moments captured in Luo’s photographs demonstrate the trust generated through conversations and photo sessions which allowed the subjects to feel comfortable. Many of the girls depicted are nude or exposing more flesh than we might have anticipated; this vulnerable state which is usually reserved for the private sphere is juxtaposed against irrevocably public urban landscapes. Elsewhere the girls are portrayed with their lovers behind the curtains of their own homes. Their candidness in front of the lens serves as a reminder of the girls’ independence, which is all the more meaningful when compared to expectations for women in a society which is traditionally male-dominated.

The girls depicted are chasing their dreams without bounds. Luo believes that the situation for women in China is evolving, and hopes that she too will join forces with these liberated girls who are defying societal expectations: “I feel they are braver than I am; they are doing things that I don’t have the courage to do. We might have different values and worldviews, but what we [the girls and I] have in common are a fragility and braveness inside of us; we face the world with our sincerity. Shooting their life is like shooting my own. Only I feel I perceive the world as bigger”.

Support the making of Luo Yang’s book Empowered Chinese Femininity: GIRLS (2007-2017) over on Kickstarter. Luo Yang is represented by Mo-Industries.

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All images © Luo Yang

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