Annie Lai thoughtfully photographs young Chinese women in an exploration of emotional and physical home
Through sensitive portraiture of women living in London, Annie presents their nuanced position as “not outsiders, yet not assimilated enough to be fully embraced by society”.
- Lucy Bourton
- 18 May 2021
Born in New Zealand, raised in China and now based in London, the consideration of where and what feels like home can often be felt in Annie Lai’s photographs. It’s palpable across her output, in an approach she describes as “intimate, feminine and nuanced with a touch of authenticity.” These descriptions are felt most in her series In Between, an ongoing exploration of home and identity, driven by Annie’s personal experiences of losing “home”.
Beginning in 2018, In Between developed “through a personal crisis of loss of home in China because my mum moved abroad,” Annie tells It’s Nice That. As a teen, the photographer had moved to a few cities, yet always felt “my childhood home was a precious motif to me where I always felt my root was,” she describes. Separated from home, not only by distance but now on an emotional level, led to a feeling of “deep insecurity about the idea of belonging and cultural identity”. This feeling drove Annie to find, and photograph, other young Chinese women “who share a similar experience and emotional struggle with me”.
As you’ll see across Annie’s portraits within In Between, there is an intimate warmth in her approach to photography. Although often close in proximity, no portrait ever feels intrusive. Emotion is also multifaceted in the way she directs subjects. In one portrait, as a viewer, you might feel strength in the subject, in others, you may experience comfort or deep thought. To reach this nuanced level of portraiture, Annie meets her subjects prior to any shoot “to get familiarised first,” she says. “It’s important for them to trust me enough to enter their homes and be photographed there. I don’t treat it as a formal photoshoot but more of being a guest welcomed into someone’s home.”
Annie’s sensitivity towards photography may also stem from how she was first introduced to it; via her mother’s own fondness for the practice. “She loved taking family pictures,” says Annie, “we had piles of albums in my childhood home with my every moment documented as a child and teen.” In turn, she now looks at her medium as more of a tool of understanding – a way to gain deeper insight into the swarm of emotion in each individual. “It’s a very genuine interaction with a lot of chatting and chilling in between shots,” she adds of shoot days while making In Between. “I quite often return again after a while, the dynamic shifts subtly and it also reflects in the photographs too. The conversations are different for everyone, including basic topics of everyday life, hobbies and hometown etc, or dive deeper to something more abstract.”
The result of this thoughtful approach is a body of work that presents young, Chinese women in their “nuanced inexplicable position – not outsiders, yet not assimilated enough to be fully embraced by society,” explains Annie. “It’s important to feel worthy and validated, especially with the current climax of political correctness. I want to document and represent this community.” With this level of personal investment in the series, as well as the responsibility of representing her subjects thoughtfully and truthfully, In Between “holds an extremely important space for me,” says Annie, even feeling “like it progresses and grows with my life.”
Although starting as a meditative method “to seek a response to my uncertainty and confusion”, Annie’s perception of the project has expanded. As she describes, the portraits almost act “as a bridge for me to emphathise and resonate with others,” she says. With this in mind, In Between will continue to grow, moving along with the rhythm of Annie’s own life, thoughts and sense of home. Most of all, however, she hopes the current body of work offers “a sense of comfort and community, especially for immigrants, ‘temporary residents’ in new countries, and anyone living in flux.”
Annie Lai: In Between, XiaoQiao (Copyright © Annie Lai, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.