These Photos Offer An Intimate Look At Being A Young Woman In China (NSFW)

Photographer Luo Yang was born and raised in Liaoning, a coastal province in northeast China. She had what she describes as a fairly traditional upbringing in a modern Chinese household and as a result, always felt she was trying to strike a balance between her inner self – the Luo she was exploring how to be – and the influences and expectations of the outside world. "It was a real time of learning to grow in struggles," she remembers. 
 
As she grew older, she found an outlet for some of that frustration in photography, and started to take pictures of herself and other girls just like her. That was in 2008, and she thinks that a big part of her was definitely processing her own teenage feelings through the girls she was photographing at the time. "I had been wanting to make a raw and authentic record of my own adolescence," she explains, "and human emotions are all connected, so I see myself in all of the girls in these photographs." That tenderness of shared experience radiates from Yang’s work, helped along by her sensitive, open visual style and the fact that all the girls are captured in their natural habitats and private spaces.
 
Yang began her creative journey by focusing her lens on women born mostly in the 1980s. Now in her mid 30s and working between Shanghai and Beijing, she’s been making pictures of women for well over a decade, collecting them into different projects, including the long-term ongoing series GIRLS and her latest, Youth, which focuses more on people born in the '90s and '00s. GIRLS in particular, she says, takes on the mammoth task of "recording the lives and changes" – both subtle and significant – "of a whole generation."
 
Here, she shares some of her standout images from across the years and shows us what it’s like to grow up as a girl in modern China. 

Photographed by Luo Yang.
Yang first picked up a camera in her early teens and started shooting her friends as they hung out together at each other's homes. As time went on, more and more people began to contact her after they’d seen her work online, wanting to be photographed by her too. Now, it continues to be a mix, she says. "Sometimes the girls in my pictures are people I know, or friends’ recommendations, and other times they are simply random strangers I see or bump into on the street."
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Photographed by Luo Yang.
Before each shoot, Yang meets each subject at their house. In bedrooms and bathrooms, in kitchens and on rooftops, she gets to know the girls she photographs, wanting them to feel comfortable with her presence, and very often she keeps in touch with them afterwards too. "Shooting offers me an opportunity to be friends with new people," she says, "and some have even become lifelong friends!" In a way, she has created a network of women across the country who have grown up together through her images, and that space of comfort which she looks to create for everyone results in pictures like this. Her subject lies languidly and at ease in front of her, staring directly into the lens.
Photographed by Luo Yang.
Beyond wanting to reflect her own experience, Yang hopes that the audience will be able to look at her pictures and see elements of their experiences reflected back, too. Every image she takes is remarkably satisfying to look at – we can often see colours complementing others in her pictures, and shadows and light working together in alluring ways across bodies and faces – but she says this visual style isn’t so much planned as waited for; she searches for "authentic moments" to reveal themselves – quiet moments of reflection that we can all connect to.
Photographed by Luo Yang.
Self-expression in a country like China – where the use of social media is heavily monitored – can be tricky and it’s a subject that has increasingly found its way into Yang’s work as the years have gone on – phones and laptops crop up more in her later pictures. "It has changed my life and work," she says, "especially because posting my photos on the internet was how they became gradually known by people. And this gave me the encouragement to keep on shooting." Yang believes that social media has changed the lives of almost everyone, not just in China, and she thinks that’s ultimately a positive thing for creativity: "The more we are able to see, the more active our creation might be."
Photographed by Luo Yang.
What it means to move through Chinese society as a girl or woman, Yang says, is complicated by the country's traditional social structures. "There has always been restrictions and limitations of traditions for women in east Asian countries, and I too experienced a struggling adolescence because of that." Taking pictures of these girls being wholly themselves, even just for a moment in the privacy of their own homes, has become sacred to her. "In all these years shooting, I’ve been sticking to focusing on things that I realise are precious even just in the action itself. I’ve seen such valuable qualities and courage from so many girls."
Photographed by Luo Yang.
She does think Chinese society has changed quite drastically in the past decade, though, which makes her earlier pictures a sort of time capsule for the last of those particularly stringent social rules keeping girls from realising their true potential. "Girls are more open and independent now, and they are dealing with less restrictions from society, but there are still some deeply rooted traditions that are hard to change, and those will still take time," she says.
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Photographed by Luo Yang.
Why take these pictures? Why continue to do so for more than half of her life? Yang says that a lot still needs to change about the way femininity and girlhood in its endless iterations is represented. What sort of femininity is acceptable? What are the characteristics that make someone a 'girl' or 'girly' or 'womanly' according to Chinese society? "I think women’s nature needs to be respected more," Yang says thoughtfully, "there shouldn’t be so many definitions or fixed stereotypes to put upon women, and instead we all should ask for more care and equality."
Photographed by Luo Yang.
With every new encounter, Yang has learned to seek out what makes a person unique and her photographs aim to illuminate all the beautiful nuances of individual bodies and personal styles. "I like to shoot girls that are real, natural and stay true to themselves," she says. This photograph – of a young girl named Xu Ladi – encapsulates that ethos. Standing topless on her rooftop, Xu contorts her body and looks back at the camera with a steady gaze, hand on hip and squinting in the morning light. Her tattoo means carpe diem, or 'seize the day'.
Photographed by Luo Yang.
Often, nothing too remarkable occurs during the course of a shoot – little moments unfold that show the slow passing of time in a person’s day-to-day life – but other times, a life story stays with her or she becomes particularly intrigued in keeping up with a person. Wang Yanyun – pictured here – is one of those people. Wang is a model and artist involved in various cultural activities. She’s become a good friend of Yang's and the two catch up from time to time. Yang takes photos of Wang every couple of years as a way to record the changes in Wang’s life. This particular photograph was taken in 2016 and shows Wang’s hair being cut by her boyfriend at the time. In 2017, she took photos of Wang when she got pregnant. "Wang and her boyfriend broke up not long after that," she says.
Photographed by Luo Yang.
There are painful moments in Yang’s photographs too – important reminders that difficult experiences are unfolding in women’s lives here just as they are across the globe  – and she doesn’t shy away from showing us those in gentle and genuine ways. The young girl in this photograph is Zhuo Yan, and Yang explains she got the scars we see in this picture from an ex-boyfriend in high school, back in 2011. "Unhappy with the break-up, the boy brought a lighter and oil to her house and lit her on fire," she says. "Zhou suffered severe burn injuries all over her body, and the boy and his family were subsequently responsible for paying all of the related costs of Zhou's recovery." Zhou received assistance and donations from charity groups too, which helped her have dozens of surgeries to slowly repair her appearance to what we see in the photograph. The image is soft and tonal, revealing the beauty of Zhuo’s skin just as she is. It’s a peaceful picture too, as she rests her head on her arms.
Photographed by Luo Yang.
Very occasionally – in images like this one – other people will appear in Yang’s photographs, although the girls always remain the central focus. These pictures reveal the nuances of the girls’ individual relationships with the people they love and are surrounded by, and they’re important to her because they help to show the "shared emotions of human beings and women". This photograph, in which a woman named Wang Ling stands before her partner, captures so much emotional and female strength. That sort of strength, coupled with endearing and human vulnerability, emanates from all of Yang’s portraits.
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Photographed by Luo Yang.
When asked about what she’d like her audience to take away from looking at her work, Yang says she’d like nothing more than for people to go out into the world with "comfort and courage", which is a sentiment as lovely as her eye for detail. For as long as it takes to capture girlhood naturally and truthfully and at its most beautiful, she’ll continue to chronicle the changing experiences of teenagers and young women as they grow up in her home country.
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