Visualizing the Invisible: The Photographer who Illuminate People’s Mental Landscapes.
Amy Luo is a commercial and studio photographer, who obtained her Master’s degree in European Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh and went on to further her research at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. She has worked on feature film projects, documentaries, and news reports both in China and abroad since graduating. She received the Rita.K.Hillman Award of Excellence from the International Centre of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2015. Her work has since been exhibited and published internationally. It has also been cited with a number of awards including being placed as a finalist for Fine Art photography in the first edition of the Magnum Photography Awards in 2016. She works as a freelance photographer and filmmaker in both New York City and Shenzhen. She started out a number of public photography projects from 2018 to 2021 with the goal of depicting the lives of rural migrant workers in China, a largely marginalised community. Her photos have a great cinematic impact, reflecting the individuality of each subject and her personal narrative style and work. She hopes to document the plight of migrant workers in China and to call into question how these individuals have been handled. Her projects have attracted considerable interest and community interactions in China and abroad, and have been featured in a number of television programs, including an NHK World documentary in 2019.
This interview first appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
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How did you get into photography and when did you decide to choose it as a profession?
I left China when I was 20, after studying literature in Beijing. I studied TV production and cinema in Europe and returned to my country regularly working in film production and journalism. I chose photography as my main profession after I studied photography at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2015. Since then, I have continued to use photography as a way to verify my existence and to see myself, my identity, my relationships, and my evolution.
Who has had the greatest influence or source of inspiration on you as a person and as a creative?
I have spent several years investigating the manifold intersections of images and identity and gender, but my grasp of photography’s transformative power was formed while I was studying at the ICP. My tutor Frank Franca,who also loves European cinema, encouraged my interest in fashioning narratives within a single frame. My tableaux are often described as cinematic, reflecting one of the strongest influences in my personal work. I also took a workshop with Rick Sands, Gregory Crewdson’s director of photography, which was greatly inspiring. What many portrait photographers focus on is the person, and some of them tend to ignore the scene. Rick has the whole scene in mind and lights it like a film set.
What is your favourite aspect of your job? What are the most rewarding and satisfying aspects?
I am mostly drawn to marginal communities: in my previous projects, for instance, I photographed Chinese sex workers in Flushing, Queens, China’s migrant workers, trans communities in China and fishermen who are battered by their circumstances, among others. Because of the violence and misrepresentation that these groups face every day, the need for imagery that is marked by complexity and compassion remains urgent. I feel an acute responsibility to do my part in conveying their experience and recognizing our shared humanity.
Photography as an extension of the eye, and memory, to stop time, but also as a time machine. What do you want to tell and hope to communicate with your images? What is your artistic philosophy?
Ambiguity fascinates me. Some of my work is subjective, reflecting my interpretation of my subjects. Sometimes my portraits of other people are as much about myself and my own search for my roots. I am always thrilled to find new ways to weld fictitious narratives in my work that are still very much rooted in reality. I often look to use the combination of reality and fiction to create an interesting dynamic in my projects. Influenced by many European filmmakers, I am interested in cutting loose conventional visual frames and re-inventing visual language.
Do you prefer to work on photos or spontaneous shoots?
I like to work both ways and sometimes they can be combined. For example, in my earlier fine-art series, “Dreams,” the set was staged but what happened in front of my camera was spontaneous– I asked people to re-enact their dreams. I would light a location, then observe my subjects from a distance, firing my camera using a remote trigger as they acted out a scene from memory. I was interested in knowing how I could use photography to describe people’s inner, mental landscapes.
Your portfolio is full of intense and deep portrayals. What was the project that excited you most? Is there any of your work that you are particularly connected to you or that marked a significant moment in your personal life?
“20-07 198th St, Flushing” is one of my video installation projects. It started as a documentation of a massage parlour in Flushing, Queens, where a group of illegal Chinese immigrants work there daily. My project investigated the way in which these women inhabited this enclosed and shared space, which seems simultaneously public and private, mental and physical. As you can imagine, filming was challenging but exciting. It is a greatly inspiring and rewarding experience.
Can you share with us a meaningful story from the backstage of your photo shoot or project?
I see my fine- art series “Till We Meet Again” and “Secret Scriptures,” which I shot in 2018 in Tibet, as a kind of “collaboration” with my late grandfather. Each of my images has an association with a line or poem in the journal he kept during his own travels in Tibet. My grandfather was a poet and a literature teacher long fascinated by Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophy. When he was in his 40s, he suddenly left his family, went to Tibet, and spent four years there as a pilgrim and “wandering monk.” I was close to him when I was a small child, growing up in a village in southern China. But after my parents and I moved to a city, I had contact with him only on holidays. My family never talked about his time in Tibet, and I never got a chance to ask. After he died, I returned to his home for the funeral. I found a booklet of poems and observations he made of people and places he had seen then. I then decided to do a project in Tibet to honour his memory. I spent seven weeks travelling in Tibet, meeting people, and coping with my grief. Whenever I saw a scene that reminded me of my grandfather’s writings, I asked permission to make a photo. It was a wonderful experience, like recreating what he described by using real life characters and locations.
You have been working in photography and art for a long time. What role do you believe gender plays in contemporary photography? Is gender still relevant? Are women slowly influencing art and photography?
Gender has always been central to conversations about equality, and the power and influence that women hold on the world stage is irrefutable. It’s astounding to measure the progress we’ve made over the past, say, fifty years. But the struggle endures. Photography’s emergence as an essential medium in alternative practices, particularly conceptual art, corresponds with the growth of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. and Europe in the 1960s. Women artists interested in documenting themselves and their lived experience aligned easily with feminism. Photography offered flexible and limitless opportunities. At a time of great uncertainty and promise, I believe that gender is still very much relevant. There are as many photographic approaches in photography as there are gender expressions. It is great to see that artists of all genders around the world are defining ideas of gender identity on their own terms. While not all artists address feminist politics explicitly—they are each, in their own ways, concerned with how women are envisioned by art, culture, and memory. Their work underscores how photography has shaped feminism as much as how feminism has shaped photography. As the fight for gender equality continues, and as we’ve opened up our definitions of men, women, and folks in between, we’re moving toward a horizon where people are free from the gender binary.
What is the biggest challenge of being a photographer during the social media era? What are the limits and the benefits?
Social media is a great source of inspiration and ideas for photographers and artists. It is also a perfect way to get people engaged in your projects and get your work noticed. Moreover, the rise of “social photography,” pioneered by Flickr in 2005, has opened fascinating new possibilities for cultural research. But the photo-universe created by hundreds of millions of people can also make it harder for photography to instruct, interpret, and clarify opinion and information. I also think about the shifting and fluid nature of gender roles and identity in how we present ourselves online. The possibilities for constructing a visual, physical, and theoretical identity are overwhelming at the moment. Social media also allows us a level of control in our presentation of self that isn’t always possible in real life. But even as the Internet has opened new opportunities to project images of self-exploration and to connect with others, we still have to be vigilant.
Photos courtesy of Amy Luo