In August of this year, London-based photographer Arnaud Lin was travelling around remote areas of China with a family friend, Jean Leviol. When the pair reached Qinghai – a large, sparsely populated Chinese province with strong Tibetan and Mongol cultural traditions – Arnaud was struck by the graphic qualities of the landscape, and the diversity of the region’s peoples. Jean had visited the area 20 years prior, and explained to Arnaud the dramatic differences the area had undergone in the wake of economic development, a factor which only furthered Arnaud’s fascination with it, and so he set out to document the area, resulting in a series titled Visions of Qinghai.
Although now based in London, Arnaud grew up between Paris and Beijing, his mother French and father Chinese. It was during his studies on Central Saint Martins’ graphic communication design course that Arnaud first took to photography, and he hasn’t stopped shooting since. “Shooting film allowed me to understand how photography works as a technical and scientific process,” he tells us. “During that time, I experienced the frustration of failing to get the results I wanted, but, also, how fulfilling it is to capture a feeling within a frame. This awareness of being able to learn from myself is what motivated me to carry on. I’ve experimented a lot with various creative media, but photography is one that stuck with me.”
On what it is that made photography stick with him, Arnaud explains: “I guess the relative immediacy, physical simplicity, and the fact that it challenges my perception of the world makes it a medium that I naturally gravitate towards.” His mixed cultural heritage is also a contributing factor, as someone for whom it has been “a struggle for me to find my place in the world,” photography is a means of making an environment his own, a way to “find some sense of belonging.”
The images in Visions of Qinghai reflect this want, they feel exploratory and honest in their depiction of the region’s vast and distinctive scenery. “My goal as a photographer was to observe and capture the scenes and the moments that I thought depict the essence of the region,” Arnaud explains of his intentions. “I also hope to have captured the diversity of the region and how the people are stuck in between modernity and traditions.”
Arnaud further explains this point: “Qinghai harbours many ethnicities: Hans, China’s ethnic majority that has a growing influence on the whole Tibetan region (the government favours the ‘colonisation’ of the region by Hans), but also Tibetans, Mongols, and Huis, a Muslim minority. The government is building modern townships from scratch in the area where an unusual melting pot of people, cultures, and occupations is forced to coexist in a setting of Chinese communist propaganda. Muslim business owners and formerly nomadic yak herders live side by side with Tibetan monks and Han Chinese police officers, and all are confronted with the fast-paced, larger-than-life, Chinese economic development. Even in such secluded areas, the government has provided top-notch network and brand new expressways to connect cities together. Lots of children are growing in these townships that have a higher birthrate than big cities in China. This youth is the epitome of what Qinghai really is: diverse, transitioning, always in between modernity and tradition.”
Visions of Qinghai captures this melting pot, where children are depicted wearing Gucci tracksuits and Yeezys, while others play in traditional robes. It’s a strange juxtaposing life, but one that Arnaud documents in a sensitive way, mirroring the region’s contrasts through a combination of calm, dreamy colour photographs and harsher, more dramatic black and white images. “I personally don’t think I have a signature aesthetic, and don’t strive to progress towards one as I like to constantly experiment and change,” Arnaud says, concluding that, “if there was a constant in my work, I would say that I try to capture temporary human reality.”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.