Living in China taught me how to use a camera as a lens to look through people, understand a culture, and go beyond the appearance. I like to compare photographers with writers: they both tell a story, they can portrait the same subjects, always highlighting a different angle. It is all a matter of perspective, and Chinese society can be seen under many points of view or, better, lenses.
Living in a stimulating Art Academy environment was a gratifying experience that pushes exploring the contemporary art world. In three years, I met many fascinating artists, and I had the great opportunity to be introduced to the heart of Hangzhou and Shanghai’s artistic life. I learned a lot about photography: I had my first experience in a dark room, and I washed films for the first time. That was exciting. Devin Junior, a great Indonesian photographer I met in Hangzhou, gave me his old point and shoot and initiated me to analog photography. My new passion brought me looking for other photographers’ works: I found Chinese contemporary photography so uplifting.
In this article I would like to introduce five amazing chinese photographers that inspires me: artists you should know if you want to enter the contemporary Chinese art scene or understand China looking at it from many different perspectives.
Fan Ho is one of the most famous Chinese photographer, best known for his photos depicting the city of Hong Kong between the 1950s and 1960s. In that years, Hong Kong was chaotic: the city began against the chaotic backdrop of the resumption of British sovereignty after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong ended in 1945 and the renewal of the Nationalist-Communist Civil War in mainland China. It prompted a massive influx of refugees from the mainland, causing a huge population surge.
Fan Ho finds order in that chaos with his photographs, drawing a perfect geometry of shadows and buildings in each of his shots. His black and white photos are pure poetry and a unique portrait of Hong Kong and its inhabitants: every picture has high contrasts between shadows and lights, most of the time the artist created in the darkroom developing process of films. One of his most famous photos is “Approaching Shadow” ( (1954), which in 2015 sold at auction for $ 48,000. Regarding this shot, in an interview with the South China Morning Post, he stated that he had seen a white wall near Causeway Bay, and he had asked his cousin to stand there. Fan Ho first created the composition and then finished it by adding the dark triangular shadow in the darkroom. In reality, there was no shadow on the wall. He “created” this image to express the concept that the girl’s youth would have vanished, soon covered by the shadow of time.
Li Wei photographs border on the absurd. This contemporary artist from Beijing usually depicts himself in apparently gravity-defying situations. Li Wei’s photographic carrier started as a performance artist, and he was using a camera only to record each performance’s procedure. His artistic background as a performer is relevant in his photographic work.
One of his most famous performances, transformed into a series of surreal pictures, is “Li Wei falls into…”. Through this performance, he wanted to convey the modern man’s wish to hide away from the daily difficulties, so he depicts himself having the head under the ground giving the impression his body actually falls from the sky, like a missile. Li Wei has challenged the public audience’s perception of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ with his work. Li Wei has challenged the general audience’s perception of “reality” and “truth” with his work.
Li Wei’s art may seem humorous, but the artist addresses a wide range of topics and problems in contemporary China, from gender inequality to politics.
“Breaking Free” series is another of his most famous artworks: through photographs depicting unrealistic gravity-defying situations, he explores the feeling of ordinary Chinese people experiencing and dealing with China’s rapid changes and its economy. Due to the destruction of old buildings, most people in China were forced to move into small apartments in cities and suburbs and constrict into small confined spaces. As a result, Li Wei wants to express people’s will of breaking free from social constraints.
What happens when a man and a woman subvert gender roles and balance power in a romantic relationship? This message is what the artist Pixy Liao wants to transmit through her photographs. Pixy Liao’s photographic work is characterized by a bright, colorful palette and meticulous staging. Pixy Liao makes both her life and art project a long-term experimental relationship.
The artist challenges the public on how a man and a woman should behave in a heterosexual relationship. In her “Experimental Relationship” series ( 2007-ongoing), the artist explores and questions her relationship with her boyfriend, Moro. Each shot offers the playful staging of the most intimate dimension of the bond between Pixy and Moro, often subverting gender roles and showing the most intimate side of a relationship.The photographs of the Chinese artist Pixy Liao reveal through a non-verbal dialogue made up of gestures, looks, moods, silent messages, a living and genuine, anti-traditionalist story, daily episodes of a sentimental autobiography, that of the photographer and her partner.
Luo Yang is a young artist from Shenyang with an eye for Chinese Generation Z’s hidden beauty. With her photograph, she captures what it’s like to be a young person in China. Her pictures immortalize the imperfect beauty of young people, especially women, in their ’20s.
Her 2018 exhibition, GIRLS, bonded Yang as a prominent figure in the new Chinese photography wave and a documentarian of her native country’s ever-changing social structures. The idea first came when Yang realized how fast China’s social landscape was changing, noting the ever-growing possibilities of those transformations. She didn’t want to show her emotions in her work, so she usually presents strangers to create a visual recording of young people’s lives today. Displaced from any political message, yet with the subtle purpose of showing the world a portrayal of China diverts from stereotypes. “New Generation” primarily appeals to the viewer’s emotional sensibility as a celebration of the courage and freedom to be yourself. She portrays a pioneering generation, more “sex, and rock’n’roll” than “K-pop,” in contrast with the ultra-sophisticated and sanitized and clean image conveyed by Chinese pop stars. Using film photography, the artist transmits the vibrant colors and raw textures of bodies: young adults already mature beyond their childish appearance.
Chi Peng was born at the beginning of China’s one-child policy in 1981, and this fact profoundly influenced his art production. Themes of loneliness as a direct result of this policy are evident in Chi Peng’s photographic work. His photographs are surreal but embrace ideas surrounding escapism, adolescence, and sexual identity evolve from a fear of failure widespread in his one-child generation.
As the main protagonist in his work, Peng’s self-portraits show this concern through manipulating imagery, most evident in the fleeing subjects. He created a parallel dimension and a dystopian reality: he materializes the feeling and fear of many Chinese’s failures from his generation. However, with China’s social and economic progression and eradicating the one-child policy, Chi Penge recently explores optimism in his artwork. In Peng’s Dream Series, we see the photographer edit himself as a dragonfly, soaring carefree and hopeful for the future.