Sex and love in China

Chinese photographer Zhang Hai’er’s sensuous images challenge outdated norms of female sexuality

Zhang’s images are raw and influential. An upcoming collection presents some of his most defining shots from the past 30 years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 October, 2018, 6:02pm

One of China’s most important photographers, Zhang Hai’er, who is best known for his artistic erotic images, is refreshingly honest.

“While other artists’ creations are based on their inspired spirits or wits, I am merely driven by hormones. My work is a substitute for my desire,” Zhang is quoted as saying in Zhang Hai’er: Les filles, an upcoming collection of his work from 1988 to the present.

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Zhang’s shots – of everyone from his wife and female friends to prostitutes and unknown women – are unabashedly sensual and challenge outdated expectations of female sexuality in China.

Born in Guangzhou in 1957, Zhang belongs to the avant-garde generation of Chinese photographers which emerged in the 1980s. After studying stage and set design in Shanghai, he graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1988.

Zhang was among the first Chinese photographers to have his work presented at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, a summer photography festival in Arles, France, in 1988. The following year, he started working for photographic agency Agence Vu in Paris.His pictures have a bare-bones, unpretentious agency feel.

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He has also had solo exhibitions across China – Guangzhou in 1988, Beijing in 1994 and Shanghai in 2017, for instance – adn has exhibited in European cities such as Heidelberg, Germany and Lausanne, Switzerland.

Karen Smith, author of Zhang Hai’er: Les filles, says his style is “brooding, shadowy, secretive, raw, and unapologetically intimate”.

“In a career that begins to take shape in the mid-1980s, it is Zhang’s portraits of women that have awarded him the greater part of his reputation. Acclaim yes, but also notoriety and, on occasion, censure.

“We might further conclude, then, that the preferential treatment accorded his photographs of women says more about the interests of a viewing public than about Zhang Hai’er,” writes Smith. “After all, as art historian Edwin Mullins once noted, ‘Nothing in the world [of art] has held men’s passions and longings in as much thrall as women’.”