In conversation with Ren Hang (2012)

China’s most important photographer doesn’t care about art


I spent the summer of 2012 as an intern at a magazine in Beijing while working on a publication of my own. One day a friend at the magazine mentioned that her friend was a good photographer and perhaps I’d like to interview him for my magazine?

After a quick look at some of his photos — teens and tweens on rooftops in bright clothes or in the nude, against the backdrop of the grey cityscape — I figured I might as well; always good to meet new people.

Hang’s photographs carried the tags of nude, youth, sexuality, social norms, gay?, even in China!, and seemed enough for a story. That’s what I went with; the significance of Ren Hang would not become clear to me until a few years later.


This interview was originally conducted in Mandarin. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity. Interview by Erik Bernhardsson. Translation by Dier Zhang.

You are part of the post-80s generations that’s been much talked about as a monumental change because it’s supposed to be a generation that is uniquely independent and “creative”. But I wonder, is this really some magic property that is reflected in one’s photography?

Not really [laughs]. Can I just respond with very simple answers? There’s a lot of different kinds of influences, like eating a meal would influence you. I guess there’s some influence but it’s not really significant.

My point is that everyone is trying to find Chinese creativity and Chinese influence on the world. And it’s really dated conversation, because everybody talks about it. This is all that anybody comes up with.

You do a lot of nudes, which makes your work stand out because it’s not been very common, and perhaps it’s a little bit illegal to publish. Is there something of a sexual liberation going on?

A sexual liberation, something like that? No.

It’s not, ok.

Nudes are there since always. We were born nude. So talking about revolution, I don’t think there’s anything to revolutionize. Unless people are born with clothes on, and I want to take their clothes off, then I think this is a revolution. If it was already like that, then it’s not a revolution. I just photographed things on their more natural conditions.

People imagine the topic of sexuality to be taboo in China.

I don’t think it’s related to our times, these are individual cases. Like how to say it, I think it depends on different people, it doesn’t really relate to other things. I was not in the whole “parents told you that you can only have sex if you get married” era. The time after I grow up was already over that period, it was already different, like everyone was already more relaxed.

So, what about these books. Are they illegal?

Yeah. [laughs] But it’s not the content that is illegal, the process of making this whole thing happen is already illegal. China does not allow independent publishing, like self-publishing.

No problem with the content?

Of course the content is a problem as well, but like, you are printing this, like this printing process itself is illegal already.

So print yourself is illegal. Doesn’t matter what it is.

But even if printing become legal, the content wouldn’t be either.

So what’s like printing in China? What do I need to do to make it legal? Just for printing. The legal stuff.

The normal way is to find a publisher, to have a legit ISSN number, and then no nudity in the content, then it’s legal.

If you know they’re illegal and you can’t sell them, why did you print so many? 500 copies, right?

They do sell.

Where?

Online, and at some art bookstores.

But they sell it because they know you personally?

Yeah, yeah. They have their own commerce risks because of the content. So like this self-publishing is not legal, but people don’t really care nor pay attention to it, but if the contents are shown to the police, then it will be a problem.

But I feel like doing all these are really interesting, because I don’t know if they’ve seen my work before, but finally there’s a publisher who wants to publish my work into books.

Oh, there is?

Yeah, but not in China, it’s in Oslo, in Norway.

It’s a brand new publisher.

Are you guys still negotiating, or?

We just signed the contract; it will be out by Oct.

Oh, cool. Have you met him?

I don’t know where he got my email address and wrote me an email. He asked if I would be willing to do it, of course I’m willing to. [laughs]

Was it on Flickr?

I think it might have been through Flickr.

So how is the Internet changing photography?

The internet is like TV, like television.

I want to go back to the whole point of legality, because a lot of things are illegal but nobody cares as long as you are small. Could you say that in some ways, in practice, it’s kind of free?

Um, no. [laughs] It’s very hard, to make this thing happen, it’s very hard.

What difficulties have you been through?

Nobody being willing to print for you. No one is willing to print for you, like you contacted 20, 40, none of them wants to help you print. Even if you’re willing to pay several thousand rmb more, they still won’t do it.

So how did you print your book?

Eventually I found a friend. He’s very afraid of it too, like we can’t sign contracts, no receipts when receiving money, and I can’t have his contact information, nor could I go to his factory. It’s always him driving to find me. He even said that you need to delete the messages as soon as you read them, delete the emails I sent to you too.

He’s very afraid.

Yea he said if you get caught, then his factory, it’s 6,000,000 rmb per machine.

They will be confiscated.

Yes, so we’re like, because he’s a friend so he would be willing to take this risk.

He would do my book in the middle of the night, after work.

Oh, so other workers don’t even know, just one or two of them are helping you do this.

So there’re more rules and restrictions here and so there’s more freedom as well. Like, “freedom”.

Why is that?

It’s like, I thought about a problem before: Once I was passing by People’s Square, I was looking at it from far away, because I was on a bus so I could overlook it. And I saw there’re actually police all around the park watching. My friends say that there’re a lot of plain-clothes police inside the park as well. Everyone looked so happy they were flying kites. And then I was like why are they so happy; it was like a place in prison where they let the prisoners out exercising for a certain period of time. (There’s a specific Chinese word for this: 放风). People were actually watching them; people who don’t know about this even feel that they are free. So maybe people think it’s free but…

What does fangfeng (放风) mean?

Fangfeng is, for example, you are in prison, and you can’t be staying in that little cabin all day long. So they have like, for example, at 3 pm, everyone can come out to this little plaza and exercise a bit and stuff like that. But the police are still watching them.

Right now in Beijing, there’s a lot of campaigns to make people civilized, like城市,文明城市,or朝阳, 文明, these types of slogans.

But civilization restricts freedom in a different way, like culturally. If there’s too many social norms and moral ideas, it restricts what you can say and who you can be.

Why are there so many campaigns in China, to promote morality, because there’s a lack of it. Like if it has it, then why they are still sticking the campaigns out and saying we are promoting… We are promoting this because we don’t have this. But for me, I feel like I live here, I feel fine about my life here, I don’t’ think, I don’t like to go abroad, like traveling yes, but not live abroad.

Why?

Because I just like China, it is like this, it is like this when I’m alive. A single person’s effort won’t be able to change this society, or this country.

Right, right.

So I think all I could do is, live to your life to the fullest as long as you’re happy, that’s it.

So do you feel happy?

I’m happy. I’m happy that I could shoot nude photos because, even though it is like that, I don’t want to overthrow it, I can’t overthrow it either. My general direction is going along with it, but I control my own specific/smaller directions. Because I can’t control the big direction, like I say I want to…

What’s the big direction? And what’re small directions?

The big direction is that we are promoting civilization, like we are walking towards being civilized. So I can’t just change this big direction, I say we should promote gender equality. Like for example, the big direction today, can you understand the example I have here? Like our big direction is to going forward, this is just an example, not necessarily promoting civilization, it could be something else. So like if they are going this direction, and I want to go that direction, I won’t be able to go, cuz my power is not enough, so I would do something else on top of promoting civilization, to promote this or that.

[laugh] This is pretty complicated. [laugh]

If one day they change their big direction, then maybe I contributed a little bit as well.

I just won’t realize it. For example, like one day, this stuff could normally just be published in bookstores, like Xinhua Bookstore, so it’s not illegal at all, I think, maybe, in like 100 years 200 years or 1,000 years later, maybe there’s a little bit…

A little bit of a contribution.

But this is not what I could decide on or the problem to think about, I let it be like that.

Can you talk about the book that is about to be published in Norway? What’s the content?

It’s the same content, still pornographic, nudes. This, everyone thinks of erotica in different ways, some people think it’s just, fuck [laughs]

You mean it’s erotica?

I don’t like the word erotica (Qing Se). I prefer ‘pornographic’ (Se Qing), I think it’s more direct. Se Qing doesn’t need to be that content, this could be Se Qing too.

Why?

I don’t need to try to make it classy by calling it erotica. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with low class.

So about the book again.

Oh, I totally forgot about the whole publishing thing. [laughs] I don’t know because we just signed the contract, they are still selecting the photos.

What’s the format of the book?

I still don’t know what the exact size, but it will be larger than my previous book. Because there were more limitations in making the very first one, but probably less than for this one.

I just published two new books myself, probably getting them this weekend.

Ah, really? Also printed by your friend?

New friend, that first friend’s factory went out of business, but it wasn’t because of me.

I was just thinking if it was you!

Yea, the new friend printed some for me, one is big. [One model has] more clothes on more has less, it’s here, let me show you the cover. The one in Oslo will be really expensive, it sells for 200 Euro per book.

200 Euro?

Isn’t it expensive?

How big is it? Like this?

30 x 30. It’s a bit expensive right? They also have a simpler package/design, compared to the hardcover, which sells for 85 Euro.

How do you find the people you shoot? Are they all your friends?

Yeah, 70% of them are friends, but now there’re more and more people who come to me, because I ask online if people want to be shot by me, and contact me.

On Douban?

Weibo, Douban, blogs, anywhere there’s visibility.

So people would come to you to be your model.

Yeah.

So where do all the young artists and scene people hang out in Beijing?

I just hang out at home.

You don’t go out.

Rarely, I get nervous when there’re too many people, like I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know… especially when I don’t know them

Oh…

So do you pay rent by selling books?

No, I sell my work.

You sell it on Taobao? Where do you sell it?

My work? Of course not. [Laughs] Some is represented by galleries, some…

Like the galleries would represent my work for a while after like a show, some work is like, I just sell it to people, sometimes people bought them. But most of the buyers are foreigners, rarely Chinese.

On participation in a group exhibition at the East Asia Museum in Stockholm.

Can you choose to include any photos you like for Stockholm?

No. Because it’s in a museum, there’re more restrictions. No tits showing, can’t reveal too much.

No sex.

You can’t be too sexually suggestive.

But the title of the exhibition is Secret Love

The title, it’s a gimmick, but the content needs to align with their restrictions. I felt strange as well. Why not in Sweden? And then the curator told me that because they are an official institution, my photos might be more suitable at a more liberal and free exhibition house or gallery.

If it’s a cultural institution, it should have more leeway in what it can show.

I thought so too, but apparently no. [The curator] said he wants to do it like that too, but they hold meetings about it couple times and eventually they decided to be more conservative.

Okay.

Yeah, so if you go see the exhibition, there’re probably nothing special about the photos.

I’ll probably go see it.

I can’t remember what’s in it, we’ve been talking about this exhibition for 3 years, planning it.

So 2 years of negotiating, and now it’s finally out.

When he came back to China this year, we met up and he mentioned an exhibition to me, and I was like you’re doing another exhibition? I said the one we talked about before didn’t go through either, and then he said this is still the same one.

I was like omg. He said this time he is finally going to make it happen, it was supposed to be last year, like last year in fall, and then it got pushed another year later. So I wasn’t hoping for anything, like never mind, because it was good just knowing him, he is a very interesting person.

Actually, in all the exhibitions I had overseas, I haven’t had one that I could control everything. When I first started doing international exhibition, everybody was telling me I’d have a lot more freedom with my exhibitions overseas. But it’s totally different from what I thought when I went abroad and did it.

It depends on what the exhibition is about?

Actually the more official the institution is, the more restrictions there will be.

You have your own website, right?

It’s blocked.

Again?

Yeah.

You should host it overseas, even if it can’t be accessed in China.

I’m about to do something like this. I’ve got the domain name, and then the content, I plan not to update, but change the whole webpage from time to time. They can’t catch me. I will post one collection this time, and next time a whole new collection.

Because, I just think it should be seen in China.

There’s like trillions of websites around the world, how could they find you and block you?

Because if the click through rate is too high, they told me, they check it for me, they said there were over 10 thousands click throughs the day it was launched, for my new website.

Oh, really?

Yeah, I think it was probably because of the nudity.

So do you use VPN?

What?

So you can access Facebook

Oh that, no.

No? You don’t use VPN? Then there is a lot of stuff you can’t see.

It doesn’t matter for me. I’m just living in my own world.

You don’ t care because you’re used to it.

I’ve seen enough overseas. I was in Russia a while ago, I was watching TV, my English is very bad, and I think they were speaking English, maybe.

Anyway, all they talked about was bad news from China. People say you can go overseas to see the truth, but based on what I saw, I don’t care for what they were talking about, it was not the truth. It was twisted.

It’s a different angle you’re seeing, but that different angle doesn’t mean it’s the truth.

That angle is an aggressive angle as well. Chinese people put forth the positive things about China, but foreigners are aggressive in showing the negative side. Unless there’s a…

Balance?

Yeah, unless there’s a neutral standard. So I think none of the things that I’m seeing is the real truth. So why do you still want to see it? See what you can see, if not forget about it.

I have Facebook too; there are always people who are trying to friend me. I just don’t bother. I registered it when it was not blocked.

Oh, it wasn’t blocked before?

There was a period of time when it was not blocked. You could go wherever you wanted.

It was only later it was blocked?

I think around 1 or 2 years ago. I don’t know what the point of blocking Facebook is.

Because it lets people organize.

Everybody follows.

They can’t control Facebook, they can’t ask them to delete messages.

I know, but Weibo, yes.

They can control Weibo.

Because Weibo is China’s own; it’s in the system.

Yeah, so they can control it. Like there’re certain things you can’t post, that’s why.

This really is not so good.

Yeah.

Right? [laugh]

I don’t know, I think the trouble is that, I don’t think it matters. Some people want to do something, they want to go marching on the street, they want to do things that you think it’s bad, they will find their own ways doing it. You want to stop it, you just can’t, it doesn’t work like this.

Yeah, repressing wouldn’t work I don’t think.

Oh, when I went to Rome, on the first day, I got off the plane, it was…

People demonstrating?

Yea, people blocked the whole street; I was surrounded in the middle. I went because of an exhibition there. I went with a group of artists but when we got there, each of us had their own plan for what they wanted to do. And then I was like let’s just split.

Yeah, yeah.

I said I wouldn’t die. My English isn’t that bad. And then I said I need to buy a phone card, I need to call my mom, tell him that I arrived. I was on the plane and I was like Oh, shoot, I forgot to buy the phone card that only calls China, what should I do. They were like there’s no way you could get one; I said of course I could buy one myself, you don’t believe me?

And then you bought it.

I did, am I so cool?

Cool cool.

I felt like I was glowing after I walked out the telephone shop.

[laugh]

I was like I could get my own phone card by myself! I bought the wrong one at first though, I was looking at the receipt, and I said I want ‘only for China’.

And then they understood? That’s great.

But there’s a problem about when I can start using it, I just couldn’t get them to understand my question.

Oh..

It was actually after 12 hours, he said 24.

And you called your mom?

I did. And then they went to buy cards too, they were like it’s so cheap, because it was like 1 for the 1st minute; and then 2 mao for the second minute.

That IS cheap, 1 Euro?

RMB, isn’t it so cheap?

Yeah, it’s cheap.

Yea, and I think I bought like 10 or something.

Does your mom worry about you a lot?

My mom? No.

Then why did you call her?

Just to let her know I’m OK, it’s not like I went to Shanghai.

We pretty much call each other every day.

So does she know that you didn’t graduate?

Of course I won’t let her know.

Woah.

She thinks I’m working every day. I said I got a job at a magazine, that I go to work every day.

Taking photos?

Oh no, just a normal office job, that’s what she wants for me.

I would say like, I can just go to work at 11 am it’s ok. So she calls me every day, and would be like are you off work? I would say yes, I’m off work.

[laugh]

And if some day I call her before 3 in the afternoon, she would be like, didn’t go to work today? I would say that it’s not busy today so I didn’t have to go. Truth is that I never went.

[laugh]

What if one day she comes here.

I don’t think it will be a big problem, like it’s ok if she knows, she won’t be mad.

But why don’t you tell her, I don’t think…

Because she will worry about me, I don’t want to explain to her over the phone everyday where my money came from, because I can’t explain how I make money. Like how are you paying for your rent… She might be worried about like how would I live my life if I run out of money tomorrow, what I would even be eating…

Oh, so she would be very worried.

Yeah, so I’d rather live this way.

Ok ok, got it.

So I skipped this part to avoid explaining to her.

She doesn’t understand how I sell a photograph; she said how could one photograph sell for thousands of yuan? Who would buy it? Like I can’t explain it.

So is it easy for you to apply for visa to go abroad?

I always have an invitation so it doesn’t matter. It’s always been for exhibitions. I haven’t gone abroad myself, like I’ve never had a travel visa. It’s just invitations.

I still need to do a lot of work even though I have the invitation. Like, it’s so frustrating the 1 or 2 days that you’re dealing with it. Tickets, checks, and stuff like that, insurance.

I’ve heard from friends that it’s very complicated.

I always see people fighting every time I go submitting my application.

Oh, at the embassy?

Yeah, when I was there for the visa. The girl there was like why are you not letting me go? My husband already sent the email, why won’t you guys just let me go? The girl was shouting. I thought to myself that this doesn’t make sense either. Her husband sent everything; they just said no, they wanted a hand-written letter, email wouldn’t do it, it couldn’t prove that the person is her husband. She was speaking half Chinese, half English. She was like our marriage certificate, all the proofs are here, why won’t you let me go. They were like I just need your husband…

Where to?

I forgot, something like…

Europe?

Yeah, to Europe. It’s so weird.

Yeah.

She said she already waited for 3 months, and she’s still there.

Then I felt very lucky. There was this person that I went to Europe with, was it Milan or Rome… He was kinda being stupid. I was fine. I wasn’t with them. He brought his work, and his work involves nudity, and he almost failed the visa application.

Why did he bring his work?

I don’t know. I was like, are you dumb? Why are you bringing your own work? I said I didn’t bring anything. You show your invitation and you just go.

Yeah, you don’t have to show your work.

Yeah. Well the person tried to ask me as well. He said what do you photograph, as a Chinese artist, what do you do? I said I just take some pretty pictures. [laughs] And then he asked if he could see it. I said I didn’t bring it. He said that it was too bad that he can’t see it. I was like yeah.

My friend brought a photo album. One of the photos shows nudity, and it wasn’t even his work. I was like aren’t you having a bad luck!

Haha, and then he didn’t get it?

He waited for 3 days, because they need to go back and have a meeting and discuss to see if this can go through.

But aren’t those people who get to decide foreigners?

They ARE foreigners.

Then why was there a problem? That’s weird. If the Chinese Public Security reviews it, it won’t go through for sure. But foreigners…

But they let him go eventually.

Oh.

They needed to have a meeting to discuss it. I was laughing hard when he told me that. My friend could only speak 3 words of English. One is Goodbye, like Bye Bye, one is Hello, and the last one is Shit. He said he learnt the word Shit from a homeless person. When he was abroad, he was going to take a photo of the homeless guy, and the guy said Shit to him.

And he remembered the word.

He remembered the word, said that “Shit” is for cussing at people.

Did you tell your mom you have a boyfriend?

No. She won’t accept it.

What about your dad?

No. My dad is even more like that than my mom. Maybe my mom would be ok with it, but for my dad, it’s impossible. My dad is very conservative.

So why did you want to go to Communication University of China in Beijing? Instead of studying photography?

Not that I want to. I got in and I didn’t really have a choice.

So where did you want to go?

I wanted to go to the one in my city, Changchun Art Institute, no, Jiin Art Institute. Because some of my friends were studying there. I told my mom that I really want to go there because of my friends.

Also in advertising?

Photography. But my score on the entrance exam wasn’t high enough and I couldn’t get in. So I came here.

This school is pretty good too.

Yeah, it’s pretty good.

Should be a better school than the one in Jilin.

It is. Just because my friends were there, I didn’t care it was good or not. I just wanted to be with my friends. But thank god that I didn’t go.

I think there’s always an opportunity for everything to happen in Beijing.

If I stayed at home, now I really don’t know what I will be like now.

You probably won’t have that many exhibitions, or these books.

I’d probably be working right now.

We’ve been talking for a long time…

Oh, yeah it’s ok. We finished the interview anyway. [laughs]


With a couple of years of distance it turns out that the significance of Ren Hang’s work is not simply his photographs but the perception of them, today and increasingly in the future.

More than having anything to do with the style of the photography itself, Chinese photography is shaped by people’s existing perception of China. Against that backdrop meaning is created around of these images — and photographers choose what to photograph, understanding how an image will be seen.

At the foundation of this is the fact of China being seen as a repressive society; Chinese as repressed. From here, two main directions have emerged in photography.

There’s the “urban youth” style represented by Ren Hang and 223. The subjects are inner city adolescents, in Beijing or Shanghai, smoking, drinking, going to parties, taking off their clothes; photos that could have been shot anywhere from New York to London and Berlin. These types of images are quick to gain traction and are a great subject for magazines. They’re great for advertising and branding, and we see that in the commission that both photographers are getting. But do they mean anything?

A second prevalent style of photography is an often melancholic (semi-)documentary style. The focus of these visual stories is to communicate hardships in rapidly modernizing Chinese society: the plight of migrant workers, changing social norms as a result of economic development, etc.

After our interview I heard that Ren was sometimes criticised for not being socially engaged. He didn’t really care about art history (when he went to Rome, he went to vintage clothing stores instead of museums); there was no social concern in his work. While the social documentarians’ work has depth and meaning, Hang’s work was seen as shallow and empty.

But there is another perspective to take — that with the documentary style’s singular focus on problems, they essentially show the people they depict as victims; of its government, of a global economy, large corporations, of a ruthless consumer society, etc. Rather than change perceptions it reinforces them.

It is the second order effect of Ren Hang’s work that gives it meaning. It is precisely that these photographs could have been shot in New York, London, or Berlin, that makes them significant, not in the sense of developing photography as an art form, but in the sense of photographs being a medium of communication.

Once the novelty and the sense of exotic mystery wears off, we realize that the people in these photographs, who are made to represent this large nation suddenly emerging onto the global stages in business, science and technology, and the arts, are just like us, the viewers in New York, London and Berlin. And that is a significant insight in a world where we are constantly being bombarded with propaganda about the awfulness of the country from societies that are feeling threatened by its emergence.

A photography superficial on its surface, but deep down a proxy of communicating shared values and experiences — sex, youth, social norms, and the need for adventure and to be one’s self. Just like everyone else. There’s nothing to be afraid of.