by Sheung Yiu

© Visitors looking at the work of Li Lang at Blindspot Gallery

‘Don’t expect a long answer from Ren Hang’ the Gallery Manager told me. This came as no surprise to me. I have read his interview with Vice. He unintentionally shut down ‘deep questions’, perhaps because his working process does not fit in traditional photography practices. His portraits, much like his personality, are lively and straightforward, which makes them especially interesting when put next to Li Lang’s portraits of his father.

© Li Lang

© Ren Hang and his camera

Both are established photographers in the contemporary Chinese art scene, Ren Hang, has gained international attention with his eccentric portraits of Chinese young nudes; and Li Lang, most recognized for his documentary on the unique lifestyle of Sichuan aboriginal minorities, Yi (彝族).The two sets of portraits, Ren Hang’s of his mother and Li Lang’s of his father, show two dissimilar, if not polar oppositephotographic approaches.

I sat down with each photographer and talked about their projects.

Ren Hang is a natural story teller. He answered every question with an anecdote. He is intuitive, direct and fun-spirited.His energy channels through his portraits; Li is contemplative and eloquent. He fluently articulated his thought process step by step. Closely examine all 30, 218 days he wrote on each photograph of his father’s aged body and personal belongings, you can feel the depth of his longing and his refusal to forget.


© Li Lang, My Father’s Last Portrait B, 2014

© Li Lang, My Father’s Last Portrait B (detail), 2014

What is your first camera? What is your first memory with photography?

Li Lang (LL): It was so long ago. I was a secondary school student travelling with my parents to meet a friend, I owned a HongMei, china-made medium format folding camera. I took some pictures during our trip as a record. In our times, photography was a luxury, not every family own a camera.

When did you start to see photography as an art form/ a way of expression?

LL: When I graduated from university, I chose photography to keep my mind off mundane work. I felt the need for self expression and an ownership to the medium. I believed it can realize my dream in the future.

© Li Lang Body A, 2014

How is your research process on this series of portrait?

LL: When I took these photo, I had no idea it would turn out the way it is now. I approached the project with a mindset to create powerful photography. However, when my father passed away, the photographs meant nothing and lacked the power they had. Regarding photography, I was in an awkward situation. At my father’s burial, I noticed that the tombstones nearby all had 2 numbers, one was the date of birth, the other was the date of death, connected by a hyphen.That two numbers summarised their lives. I realised it would be the same for my father, he lived a short life and he was just an ordinary person, he may only be remembered by anyone except family, who once in a while visits the cemetery during Chinese festivals of worship. I will be ashamed to let my father’s life diminishes into numbers. I wanted to show every day of his life. I had an idea to write each of his day on the photograph I took, because everyday is important to him.

You have used three years to write every date that your eighty-year-old father have lived on. What were you thinking about when you are dictating the dates? How is the journey like?

LL: Reflecting is a peculiar experience. One cannot understand what I went through if one had not experience it. I know very few about my dad’s history, China had a very turbulent history, especially before 1949 and during the cultural revolution in 1966-1976, my parents do not wish to mention anything around those periods. Before he passed away, he would gave us a glimpse of his history, but we were too busy taking care of his body and did not take much of it in.

I reflected on everyday of my father’s life as I wrote the dates he had lived. As I wrote 3rd December 1927, my father’s birthday, I would make up scenes, maybe he was born at night, maybe at his home. In his twenties, I imagined his journey as a soldier in Myanmar during WWII. These memories and scenes are ambiguous until I scribbled my birthday on the photos, his lives became clearer and clearer to me. 1st Sept 1976 when he took me to my first day at primary school, when I went to high school, when we farewelled at the train station before I went to university. I kept writing all his dates on Earth. When I reached the few days before his death, those memories are unclouded, not a bit dubious, the scenes unraveled in my eyes. I can still remember everything that happened on the night of 27th August 2010. To me, this act of writing is a subjective revisualization.

© Li Lang, My Father’s Bracelet, 2014

Which is more important to you, the process or the results of making photograph? a photographic print or the context of a photograph?

LL: Process is more important. I think many photographers can deliver better still life photos than this set I made. If we solely look at them from a photographic point of view, I would say the photos have not enough depth of field. That is of no importance to me however, what matters is that I express my thoughts through my actions of writing on these photos.

In the majority of discourse about photography, the image is usually the key issue, not the subject being photographed. In this project, I take more emphasis on the subject per se. The photograph is just a paper which I bestowed my spirituality.

Are there any contemporary photographers that inspire you?

LL: This project is barely related to fine arts, it is a collection of images. If there is an artist that inspire this project, it would be English sculptor Antony Gormley, whose work shows me the spectacle of the bigness of singular element. Another artist I draw inspiration from is American architect, Maya Lin. I also like the work of American photographer, Diana Arbus.

© Li Lang, The Last Hair, 2014

What are your plan for the next project?

LL: I fear this question the most because I really have no idea what I will do next, maybe I will three or four years later. Right now, I am still working on this project.


© Ren Hang, Untitled 62, 2014

What is your first camera? What is your first memory with photography?

Ren Hang (RH): My dad’s camera. I had it since I was young. I used it to take pictures of my family, just everything.

When did you start to see photography as an art form/ a way of expression?

RH: I do not care how people want to call me, but I think I am a photographer now (?), I do not really like being called ‘an artist’.

I know you studied advertising in university, would you consider attending art school given the chance?

RH: Why? It is a waste of time.

Is nude sexy? Is nude weird?

RH: Nudes are nudes. they are not sexy nor quirky. If they have any meaning, it is because I give them meaning.

Have you ever looked back at your photograph and realized that was actually a metaphor or relevant to a personal experience?

RH: There sure is a connection, but it is one that cannot be put into words, It’s a natural, imperceptible connection.

You write poems. Is there a relationship between your poetry and your photography?

RH: There is no relationship. When I write poem, I do not think about photography, When I shoot, I do not think about my poems. These are just two things that simultaneously happen to me.

Why do you want to photograph your mother?

RH: I have always wanted o photograph my mother because she is getting older. (There is also beauty in maturity but I still think youth are more beautiful.) I did not photograph her when she was the prettiest, so I wanted to do as much as I can and as early as I can. China Vice coincidentally needed me for a project and I told them I had this idea of doing portraits of my mother. They agreed and so I went back and shot it. It was always on my mind but I lacked the motivation. I thought I could wait since my mother is always by my side. I began photographing my mother since then and never stops.

© Ren Hang, Untitled 66, 2014

Have you shown your mother your photography before the shooting session? What did she think about the nude portraits?

RH: I have never discussed my work with her before I invited her for a photo shoot. When I called her though, her first response was «Do I need to be naked?», and so I knew she had a brief idea of what I do. We can talk about my work more openly after we made these portraits. I would let her see my work and she would ask «Why are there so many people who posed nude for you? Aren’t they shy? Are they voluntary?», I would answer ‘yes’ to which she replied ‘okay.’ That is it. She does not think it is weird.

How is directing your mother in front of the camera?

RH: It is the same, I asked my mother to do whatever I wanted her to pose. My mum helped me to buy that pig head. I asked for it. I just suddenly wanted a pig head, I called my mum and asked her if she could buy one for me, she told my dad to do so and my dad bought it. My dad asked if I needed his help, my mum declined it because she thought my dad would not be of good help.

© Ren Hang, Untitled 59, 2014

Ever thought of doing portrait of your father as a sequel?

RH: I did not think of photography my father. He is a shy guy.

The animals and props you used so often in your photographs, are they pre-conceived or randomly added?

RH: Some of them, like the pig head, are preconceived, others are randomly brought into the photos, the swan in one of the portraits exhibited for example, is rent from a vender on the road. He asked me what the swan it for, I told him it is for a photo shoot, he said okay and told me how much the swan was and when he would deliver the swan, I paid a deposit, he gave me the swan, I sent it back when I am done.

© Ren Hang, Untitled 61, 2014

Are there any contemporary photographers that inspire you? (Even deceased photographers?)

RH: Yes. Shuji Terayama (寺山 修司). He is my favourite. He is a director as well as photographer. I love all of his work.

Please tell us your favourite photo exhibition.

RH: This exhibition (laugh), maybe his (Shuji Terayama). All his exhibitions are good.

‘My Mum/ My Father’ is an ongoing exhibition at Blindspot Gallery featuring the work of Chinese photographers Li Lang and Ren Hang. The exhibition ends on 25th Feb. For more details, click here.


Li Lang
Ren Hang
urbanautica China