Cover Photography: Luo Yang

A successor to Yang’s series Girls, Youth was a decade-long journey, capturing young Chinese people in their most authentic state

If Lena Dunham’s TV series Girls was a warts-and-all dissection of what it means to be a female millennial in America, Luo Yang’s 2018 photography series of the same name holds up a mirror to young women in China, breaking away from stereotypes and presumptions of femininity with unpolished images of subjects. Striking, raw and undeniably cool, Yang’s way with a lens has earned her praise from the likes of Ai Weiwei and attention far from her Shanghai studio.

For Girls, Yang shot Asian women, mostly born in the Eighties, over the course of a decade in settings where they felt most at ease, lending a sense of authenticity in an increasingly filtered and airbrushed world.

“The idea mostly came from my personal life,” she says. “I aimed for it to be a record of people I knew and what I saw on a daily basis. Their stories touched me and I thought it would’ve been such a pity to let those precious moments be forgotten in time.”

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Her latest work, Youth, resulted from Yang travelling across Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan while documenting the complexities of a cohort of vastly different young people within Greater China. She had one broad theme in mind: the notion of identity, particularly within Generation Z—the demographic born between 1997 and 2012 who are noted for their self-awareness and acceptance of difference in others. “Gender fluidity is one of the important features of this generation, and I wanted to explore this. Upon self-reflection after Girls, I realised I had to be more objective in my craft and include all genders,” Yang says.

Yang’s interest in photography started as a hobby she adopted while studying at the prestigious Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in China’s Liaoning province of China in the early 2000s. “I borrowed a point-and-shoot camera from a friend to record people around me—mostly my roommates—but, more importantly, to release my emotions during adolescence,” she says.

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After solo exhibitions in Paris last year and Berlin in 2016, the photographer, now in her mid-30s, is enjoying global exposure as well as a growing curiosity from the West towards the “real side” of China, as she puts it. Youth was scheduled to be exhibited in Arles, France, in June, but was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It would have been the first time the series was shown to the public outside China. A film version of her Girls photo series is in the works—likely to be a fictionalised story, though the project is still in pre-production. In the meantime, she is toying with the idea of moving her base to elsewhere in the world in search of fresh inspiration. “I like exploring different ways to be creative,” she adds. “I’m intrigued by the unknown.”

In seeking to portray her subjects as candidly as possible, digital retouching is out of the question for Yang—even if that means attracting controversy for her provocative storytelling. When criticism does come flying her way, Yang just lets the comments roll right off her back. “Everyone has different perceptions of my work and I don’t intend to provide an official explanation for it. Restoring authenticity is the most important thing for me. I like to maintain the essence of my work,” she says. Glimpsed by Yang, every body, presented imperfectly whole, remains forever young.

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