5 Photographers to Follow this December
From the ephemeral, sun-drenched imagery of Li Hui to the considered portraiture of Widline Cadet, the photographers below hail from diverse backgrounds and have developed striking practices. You may have seen their work in a group exhibition of emerging talent, or paused to consider one of their images in the New York Times or the California Sunday Magazine. Each has a truly distinct point of view.
There’s a delicate sensuality to the work of Li Hui. Sunlight spreads across skin; body parts are cropped and gently abstracted; touching is presented as a sacred act. Her work exists “somewhere between fantasy and reality, a delicate balance,” she explained via email.
Nature is always present in the forms of blooming flowers, an expanse of wheatfields, or patterns of golden-hour light. Li’s use of the natural world comes from her upbringing in Hangzhou, China. “Hangzhou is a city full of natural scenery, with lakes, mountains, and untouched wilderness. It is a very relaxed and free city,” she said. Unlike other Chinese metropolises, it’s “peaceful and serene.”
But the quiet moments Li photographs are also representative of her introverted personality. “As a result, I’m more sensitive to my surroundings,” she noted. That sensitivity helps her capture subtleties that others might miss—“visible but easily overlooked intimate details,” she said.
Li’s images from her most recent book, No Word From Above, were exhibited at Red Hook Lab’s “Labs New Artists II” this past summer and at Photo Vogue Festival last month. They also caught the eye of The New Yorker’s photo team, who invited her to share her work on the magazine’s Instagram feed.
Though Li is better known outside of China, last year, with the release of No Word From Above (her third monograph), she had a solo exhibition in her native city. “It was great to finally show my work in my community,” she reflected.
As a first-generation immigrant from Haiti, who moved to New York City at 10 years old, Widline Cadet has two homes. Her father and extended family remain in Haiti, while Cadet studies for her MFA at Syracuse University. The push-and-pull between these two lives has shaped Cadet’s work, particularly in regard to her relationships with her family, ancestry, and birth country, as well as herself. “In exploring all these things in my work, I’ve grown closer to them,” Cadet said. Her feelings of having a dual identity are common to first-generation immigrants. Cadet examines in her images her own personal narratives, as well as “our collective identity as Haitians living and settling in America,” she told Don’t Smile.
Cadet’s series “Home Bodies,” which she began in 2013, was based on the “immense sense of loss” she felt in regard to how little she understood her family’s ancestry. She began her own archive, photographing her family members in the U.S. and in Haiti “to bridge the distance.” That work led to a commission from the California Sunday Magazine as part of its first photo issue, which dealt with the concept of home. (Cadet also showed that work in “At Home,” an exhibition the magazine held at the Aperture Foundation.) For that assignment, Cadet visited Denver to photograph a “thriving” black community, whose residents work to preserve its history, as well as shape their own—a concept with which Cadet was intimately familiar.
Currently, Cadet considers herself to be in a “transitional stage” of her work as she continues to turn her camera inward. She photographs herself with fellow artists and friends with whom she shares a connection: Their gestures and gazes suggest deeply interior moments.
An Rong Xu
Photographer-director An Rong Xu’s practice spans an endless number of subjects. He has directed music videos for mandopop artists, as well as a series of short films about love in Korea, China, and Taiwan. In his four years working for the New York Times, Xu has shot everything from cheap local eats to the B-boys of Seoul. In November, he was commissioned by the Times to photograph a story about the arrival of brown pointe shoes for black ballet dancers; the painterly series is redolent of Edgar Degas, but features a quiet-yet-heavy ritual, showing the dancers as they stain their pointe shoes to match the color of their skin.
But Xu is also currently exhibiting a documentary series close to his heart, focused on Chinese-Americans, in the “Interior Lives” show at the Museum of the City of New York. Born in China and raised in New York’s Chinatown, Xu commented: “I often neglected and took for granted the amount of struggle, hustle, and perseverance that I saw [in Chinatown]. It wasn’t until I was older that I started realizing this world I grew up in was what my vision was built on.”
The Chinese word for the United States, Xu noted, is měiguó, or “beautiful country.” Since the 1800s, Chinese migrants have come to the U.S. with that picture in their minds, but they have been excluded from key moments in history to which they were integral, Xu explained. “They have been considered the perpetual foreigner, regardless of how many generations and countless contributions to American history have been made by them,” he said. “This work is a journey into the ‘beautiful country’ that I, as a Chinese-American, have sought after my whole life.”
In Alice Mann’s series “Drummies,” the young drum majorettes of South Africa shine—both through the strips of glitter that adorn their color-blocked uniforms, and their playful-yet-assured presence.
The sport, once widely popular in South Africa, is now viewed nostalgically by many, Mann writes in her artist statement. But for young girls in communities with few opportunities, where life is dangerous due to gang violence, being a part of the Drummies community is inspiring.
Though she is currently based in London, Mann was born in Cape Town, and has traveled back to her native city to shoot the ongoing project. So far, she has visited six primary and senior schools in the Western Cape. She said of her first meeting with one team, in early 2017: “I was instantly struck by the confidence and energy of the girls I met. Although some of them were so young, their passion for the sport and complete belief in what they were doing was infectious.”
Since then, the work has garnered Mann the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, as well as a nod from the British Journal of Photography as one of the “31 Women to Watch Out For.” She has also been featured in a number of exhibitions and fairs, from “New African Photography III” at Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn to Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia.
Though Mann’s lighting, compositions, and palette commingle in a way that’s formally striking, the girls sell the images, too: lined up in stoic formation, exuberantly moving through Mann’s frame, or relaxing into one another and giggling. The Drummies identity is an empowering one, and that’s ultimately what Mann wants to express. Next up, she’s working on a monograph of the work, and hopes to photograph drum majorettes in other provinces to show the sport’s wider impact in South African culture.
The story that Peruvian photographer Sharon Castellanos tells is one of rolling mountains, billowing smoke, and snowy solitude. Her human subjects retain an air of mystery—silhouettes that become part of the landscape, or are whited out entirely with the flash of her camera; their eyes seem to hold secrets, despite their direct gaze.
Like the work of beloved Mexican photographer Flor Garduño, under Castellanos’s lens, the land, its people, and its animals seem to be part of a world of magical realism. In fact, she is inspired by painters like René Magritte (she makes a reference to his gravity-defying bowler hat in one image) and poets like César Vallejo, who each spun Surrealist worlds like silk. Looking at Castellanos’s deep black-and-white images, you might think they are all of the same place and time. But pull back the curtain, and you’ll find the photographer has captured two distinct regions with the same eye: the Peruvian Andes and the Swiss Alps.
Castellanos, who is currently part of photo agency VII’s mentorship program, has been based in Cusco City since 2013, but participated in a three-month artist residency program in the Canton of Valais, which provided a new landscape that she made her own. “[Photography] has allowed me to connect with people from different backgrounds and with places that I couldn’t have visited in other way,” she wrote via email. “[It helps me to] understand diverse situations and rethink them with another perspective.”
Usually, that means photographing the space between what is seen and what is true, piecing together mythologies with her images. But her work always comes back to the land and the people who occupy it.