Photos : Ren Hang for Antidote Magazine : The Freedom Issue winter 2016-2017
Nothing seemed to predestine Ren Hang to be the photographer for this new issue of Antidote. His work, executed one day after another to the flashes of his traditional film camera, mostly comprises nudes, often raw, and candidly presented intertwined bodies. For The Freedom Issue, this 29-year-old Chinese photographer has attempted fashion photography – with the boldness for which he is known.
He was born in 1987 in Changchun, a city in northeast China, to a father who worked on the railways and a mother who worked in a printing works. He studied communications at university but the subject gave him little satisfaction. Fulfillment only came in 2008, at the age of 21, when he turned his attention to photography. The courses? “I only took one as I didn’t need any others”, he says. He might not be garrulous but he has the merit of being direct.
Directness is the characteristic that has made his pictures famous, which he takes using a traditional camera. Without the benefit of a lighting umbrella or a team ready to spring up at the sight of the slightest wrinkle, and yet less of any form of post-production, Ren Hang’s photography is genuine, sometimes blunt, but sublimely realist. The bodies he shoots are nudes – of friends or amateur models he finds on Instagram. “When I know them, I can get them to go much further. And, as I improvise throughout the whole session, it’s much easier when we all know one another”, he explains. They’re all young. Not because age is important but because “young models are simply much more relaxed with the idea of being naked, especially in China”.
This is a delicate subject in the People’s Republic, where nudity remains taboo and is often associated with pornography. “In some ways China is very conservative, and in others it’s very controversial. But since the 1970s, China has increasingly come round to accepting the representation of sex in general”.
Nonetheless, the Middle Kingdom doesn’t seem particularly ready to give Ren Hang’s work its due recognition. Access to his site is often blocked, exhibitions of his photographs are forbidden, and photographic sessions for which he hasn’t asked authorization are interrupted by the authorities. Regarding this censorship, “I’m used to it”, he declares. And, unlike his friend Ai Weiwei, who offered to include his photographs in his own exhibition “Fuck Off 2”, Ren Hang does not “challenge the politicians”. And nor anybody else either. “I don’t try to get a message across, I don’t give my works names, I don’t date them. I don’t want to instill them with any vocabulary. I don’t like to explain my photos or work as a whole”.
What do his parents think of it? “I don’t know. I haven’t talked about it to them. They know what I do but I don’t want to discuss it with them. I never ask people what they think of my photos or what they feel. I don’t care, in fact”.
With dozens of exhibitions to his name, from Beijing to Pantin, Ren Hang is a contributor to the revitalization of the contemporary photographic scene in China and the impact it is making internationally. But photography is not the only thing he does. He regularly publishes poems he was written himself on his internet site. “They’re nothing to do with my photographs. They tackle many themes, all the things that make up my daily life, everything I see. I take inspiration from everything”, he says.
As he is also inspired by freedom, this issue’s theme, we asked him about how he sees this often very subjective concept. His view is extreme.
Do you feel you are free?
Absolutely not. Nobody does, in my opinion. If you are happy with your lot, then you’re free. I have plenty of unfulfilled desires, I need pride, I need glory, and they’re difficult to come by. To achieve a comfortable life is really very complicated.
What would be a comfortable life for you?
You’re not free as long as you don’t have the choice to get up at 12 or if you can’t eat when you want. I say that as a joke but there is a serious side to it. For example, you’re not free when you want to smoke but you don’t have any cigarettes on you. Or when you have a cigarette but no lighter. Or when you have a lighter but it doesn’t work. For me, freedom is like magic. You want something and immediately it happens. I always feel uneasy, or at least most of the time.
What do you feel uneasy about? Is it in a city or some place in particular?
It just happens like that, in a flash. Sometimes for a minute or less. I don’t think the feeling lasts very long.
« Freedom is the ability to do whatever you want when you want. »
Are you comfortable when you are photographing?
Not always. If it’s a commission, I continue photographing even if I’m not at ease, I make an effort. But when I’m doing my own stuff, I stop because no one is obliging me to continue. I go back home, I go and eat something, I go out with friends. And if the model is uncomfortable, we also stop.
Do you take photographs mostly for your own benefit or for others?
I don’t give a damn. I’m always pleased when I see great photos I’ve taken but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re already part of the past. The past has already gone by and we don’t know what the future will bring. When I was a child, I was full of dreams. Today I don’t have any.
What were your dreams about?
I was a kid like all the others and my dreams were not large. I wanted a pen, or a CD by a particular singer. That all changed when I grew up. When you have money, you can buy things but that’s completely different. I can buy a CD but if I do I’m not making a dream come true. Today, if you call yourself free, you have to show it. Freedom is the ability to do whatever you want when you want.
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