Visual Culture

5 Photographers Capturing Chinese Youth Culture Today

Jacqui Palumbo
Aug 5, 2019 5:48PM

A new generation of Chinese photographers has come of age during a period of significant economic and social change. Many of them shoot bold images that challenge convention in a time of social and political restrictions. The five photographers featured here closely identify with their subjects’ experiences, exploring identity, displacement, change, and beauty. Each photographer uses their camera to explore their own sense of self within a more collective sense of Chinese identity.

Luo Yang (b. 1984)

In Luo Yang’s decade-long portrait series “Girls” (2008–ongoing), rebellion presents itself in the details. Arms raise to reveal delicate armpit hair; nipples softly protrude from wrinkled dresses; and women in sheer fabrics or wearing nothing at all, hold the camera’s gaze with unflinching eye contact.

Yang captures identity and sexuality in all of its complexity, eschewing the idealized, sterile beauty promoted in Chinese media. In 2012, Ai Weiwei called the self-taught artist one of the “rising stars of Chinese photography.” Her work has exhibited across Asia and in Berlin, and last year the BBC named her one of the most 100 influential women of 2018.


“I simply present [them] as they really are, and reveal their private and honest moments,” she said of the women she photographs. “They are more independent, brave, and free, daring to challenge the restraints of traditional values cast on them.”

Yang feels an intimate connection with the girls, who are both friends and strangers. She began the series as an outlet for her own adolescent emotions. “They all share a certain degree of similarities with myself: The same loneliness, confusions happened in their life,” she explained. “But on the other hand they are more courageous.”

As Yang ages, the project does too. She has now captured femininity across generations—millennials born in the ‘80s and ‘90s to Gen Z girls coming of age today. More recently, she has begun exploring the series beyond her native country, photographing girls in Thailand.

Yangkun Shi (b. 1991)

Yangkun Shi, from the series “Solastalgia”, 2016-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2016, when Yangkun Shi returned from his studies in London to the small city of Shangshui in China’s Henan province, he was struck by an intense feeling of melancholy. His modernizing native city felt unfamiliar to him; he couldn’t shake his feelings of homesickness despite being home.

Combining his training in documentary photography from University of the Arts London with his fine-art sensibility, Shi began a delicate body of work from his insider-outsider perspective, titled “Solastalgia” (2016–ongoing), a term from philosopher Glenn Albrecht that describes the very feelings he was experiencing.

Shi’s second body of work, “Retrotopia” (2018–ongoing), is similarly guided by the emotional pull of nostalgia. The series examines life in three villages that purport to be “the last bastions of China’s socialism utopia,” Shi explained, as the rest of the country marks four decades since it departed from Maoism and embraced market socialism.

“But Mao’s China is a thing of the past, and younger, more individualistic villagers sometimes chafe under the reality of life lived inside of a time capsule,” Shi writes in his artist statement. He most often turns his lens on youth because “they represent the country’s future,” he said, explaining that the gap between his generation and his parents’ often feels hard to bridge.

The two series are inextricably linked, as they both explore the uncertainty of China’s rapidly changing social and economic landscape. “‘Retrotopia’ is an exploration of where we come from, and ‘Solastalgia’ is trying to question where we are heading,” he explained.

Leslie Zhang (b. 1992)

Courtesy of Leslie Zhang.

Courtesy of Leslie Zhang.

In the past couple of years, Leslie Zhang has gained a following for his bold fashion and beauty imagery that combines Eastern and Western influences with the otherworldly. Zhang’s vision is theatrical and idiosyncratic, with contemporary silhouettes meeting traditional details. In one image, a male model in all black leans over a table, weighed down by a blue and white porcelain tea kettle chained to his ear; in another, a model in a vibrant red suit and black velvet gloves embraces a black swan.

Zhang has said that he seeks out everyday romances in his images, which have appeared in the Chinese editions of Vogue and T, among many others. His frames are awash in longing, ardor, and poignancy. “Through photography I can create a metaphysical reality of my own,” Zhang said. He believes film lends itself to creating “a romantic visual language,” explaining that the textures of film, the ritual of processing it, and the surprises inherent to analog photography inform his work.

Zhang discovered his love for photography while studying film editing in college. When he was starting out in the fashion industry, Zhang initially tried to make images that felt in line with contemporary international trends, but he felt a lack of connection to his work. He turned to the design aesthetics from his childhood and his own memories as the basis for his visual language.

“This doesn’t mean literally recreating what’s been done in China in the past,” he said, “but it’s about having this personal lineage for myself.” Zhang has echoed this sentiment before, telling It’s Nice That in 2018 that he has “the deepest emotional connection” to his memories as an adolescent in his home country. He sifts through those memories to create the careful details of the drama that unfolds in front of his lens.

Ronghui Chen (b. 1989)

Years ago, photographer Ronghui Chen read Tales of the Hulan River (1942), a novel by Xiao Hong set in the frigid landscape of northeastern China. He couldn’t get the scenes of the region out of his mind. As someone who grew up in Lishui, a small town in the southern Zhejiang province, a land of ice and snow held a certain allure.

That curiosity would drive his long-term project “Freezing Land” (2016–2019), set in the northeastern countryside, a region once bolstered by its proximity to the Soviet Union, but has since fallen into decline. “This land represented China’s communist roots and authoritarianism,” Chen said. “But now, it has become the most recessionary land in China, with shrinking cities and declining population.”

Chen sought out subjects growing up in this climate, using the social media app Kuaishou to locate people willing to open up about their lives. He found that each of them were experiencing a sense of uncertainty and probed whether they would they leave for a bigger city in search of new opportunities, or remain in a city mired by history?

It’s a decision familiar to Chen, who left Lishui to study photojournalism in the city of Nanchang. “Like so many other young Chinese, this has left me with an unstable sense of self,” he said. “Now that I’ve left, I feel out of place in both the city and countryside.”

Chen identified so strongly with the young people he met that it gave his work a new sense of purpose. “I’m not just photographing the lost ‘Chinese Dream’ on this freezing northeastern land,” he explained, “but also the uncertainty we young people, as individuals, are facing under today’s collectivism in China.”

Ye Fan (b. 1986)

Ye Fan, from the series “Her,” 2017–ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

When Shanghai-born Ye Fan spent a year in America during a high school cultural exchange program, she repeatedly encountered the stereotype that Chinese girls are shy and submissive. Now as a photographer, she challenges that notion through the series, “Her” (2017–ongoing), which explores a more nuanced view of modern Chinese femininity.

“Individuality is not bound by where you were born,” Fan said. “We are so unique in our own way and our desire to express it is universal.”

Fan is currently living in New York after a five-year stint in entertainment PR in China. She took a photography workshop at Columbia University in 2016 that set her on her current path. Photography has helped her understand the complexity of her own personality. Fan said she has been told her entire life that she is too sensitive, but she has come to appreciate that side of herself.

Her subjects, like herself, were born in China but came abroad to study art or design. “We all found a piece of home in New York,” she said. She wants each young woman to be themselves, but she helps nudge them outside of their comfort zones. Junyi, a painter, showed up in a traditional silk qipao dress; she and Fan decided to shoot in a pool. The tranquil image shows a polished girl in a carefree moment, her eyes closed as she floats in her gown.

Fan plans to continue the series around her native country. “It has been a mind-blowing experience, to see so many different personalities and individualities [with] their own way of illustrating youth and femininity through my lens,” she said.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.