Turning her lens to contemporary Chinese society, London-based photographer Weishan Hu strives to examine the differences between generations, aesthetics and taste. Within her portfolio you’ll find commissions for publications such as Sicky Mag, Punkt magazine, Nylon Japan and various fashion campaigns – whereby her subjects are lavishly clothed, adorned with various props and placed in front of traditional backdrops and printed screens. Her pictures are diverse, full of narratives and demonstrative of a new kind of aestheticism that sees her vision shine into the world with full force.
Although a complete natural behind the camera, Weishan admits how photography wasn’t always her first choice as a career. “To be honest, during the first year of college I had always felt that I would become a fashion designer in the future,” she tells It’s Nice That. “But I soon came to the realisation that I actually prefer making interactions and creating narratives with interesting characters, instead of spending hours at the studio sewing clothes.” Shortly after choosing the field of photography as her path, Weishan began capturing the people around her and curating low-budget editorial shoots with her friends.
When coining her inspirations, Weishan explains how she draws from her past experiences: “I had some very beautiful and dreamy childhood memories of growing up during the post-economic reform era in China,” she says. “During that period of time, the country had undergone massive changes in which local culture and fashion were constantly bombarded with the western ones, and people always held an open, curious and inclusive attitude towards new things.”
This kind of reflective approach can be seen in her recent project for Punkt magazine, a series of photographs that looks at the categorisation of cultures, specifically within a Chinese context. “The contrasting meaning of ‘雅’ and ‘俗’ in the context of Chinese culture is very similar to Avant-garde and Kitsch discussed by Clement Greenberg – both sets of conceptions tend to be understood and examined through the theory of relativity,” she says. “However, I feel that such a way of categorising cultures, tastes and styles is quite outdated, especially in a postmodern Chinese society where aestheticism can be so diverse and dynamic.”
For the project, Weishan photographed Liu Min – a young artist whose work often explores this crossover with kitsch and postmodernity – and a group of Chinese women in their 50’s who practice square dancing, “a grass-root activity adorned by a retired population”. It’s an extraordinary series that sees staged poses and fashion blend with tradition in a completely new manner. She adds: “I wish to highlight the influences that these two generations of individuals have on each other, and at the same time encourage viewers to perceive beauty and style with a more inclusive attitude. Eventually “雅” and “俗” might be able to exist harmoniously.”
Disputably, this project received some backlash after its publication. Users took to Weibo, the Chinese microblogging website, to highlight controversy about the series, stating that the photos “portray China in a stereotypical, old-fashioned and even ugly manner,” while others “felt offended by some of the fashion elements features – such as the facekini mask with Chinese Opera prints,” says Weishan. “I guess some Chinese audiences are more used to seeing fashion editorials that depict Chinese identity and culture in a more poetic and modernist approach, such as photos that capture the urban metropolis or the idyllic representation of nature.” By using photography as a language to speak to her audience, Weishan aims to break this representation with utmost appreciation, channelling a different and postmodern view of a culture that isn’t quite so linear as it may seem.