Lets meet up with.. Yuan Yuan

Yuan Yuan studied film and she specializes on conceptual film, which combines filming, photography and contemporary art. After graduation, she got involved with the LGBT movement in China. In recent years she has focused mainly on creating documentaries about HIV-AIDS, fake marriages between lesbian women and gay men, polyamorous relationships and the Chinese SM Queen. What is most important for her is to pass her skills on to others and to use her camera as an tool to empower others.
 
How did you come up with the idea for your series ‘At this moment, I want to be’? Does this series reflect a personal experience for you?
 
The idea for this series derived from my own life. I have been involved with the LGBT movement and I also work for the ‘Pink Space’, a sexuality research center in China, which mostly focuses on discrimination. I heard about the Pride Photo Award contest from Queer Comrades. At that time, they were working on the project ‘Queer University’, which is a video training scheme for people working in LGBT organizations. So, my first idea was to have the students of ‘Queer University’ participate in Pride Photo Award and put together a work for the contest. I thought that I would like to create a series not as an individual but in relation to other people. I featured in one of the photos and all the others are students. What is important for my work is to pass my skills on to other people and this is what I tried to do with this series. I wanted to give the opportunity to all those who took part in the project to think about their body and gender, to understand it in a better way and express their own views.
 
Your photos juxtapose peoples’ identity card pictures with visualizations of the gender they currently wish to adopt. You chose identity card photos because this represents the fact that society or the state determines one’s gender and regards it as fixed, even though one’s gender identity can change. Is it safe for you to critique this (Is there a risk of being prosecuted for expressing such criticism)?
 
The identity card is a powerful expression of state power in China. You need it almost everywhere in the country and this is exactly the reason I used it. I wanted to stress the distance between state power and individual expression, and also show the confrontation between the two. I had also tried to express my opinion about related social issues before by creating on-line campaigns that spread through Chinese social media. My photos were up for a couple of hours and were then deleted by the platform moderators. However, in this series, although identity cards are a very powerful expression of state power, the fact that no image of a Chinese leader or traditionally respected figure was used in the project, made the exposure of the series quite safe. It is not a problem that men are depicted as women or the opposite. However, an idea we have – to expand the project into a broader movement where more people will be involved – could become a problem.
 
At this moment, I want to be © Yuan Yuan
 
Your work underlines the association between state power and the way individuals define themselves. This is true for people all over the world. You invite people to make their own collages in the style of you project. Did this prompt you to participate in an international contest like Pride Photo Award?
 
Yes, I wanted to talk about a broader issue that is not present only in China: the definition of gender, especially the definition of female gender that is formed within a male dominated society. I wanted to address that global aspect of gender definition. I wanted to show that for every individual there are different definitions of gender and different classifications. I want to push for a new conception of gender, which is more grounded in individual expressions than it is in state power, current social norms, or cultural values.
 
Do you consider your art work as an activist intervention in relation to gender stereotypes and discrimination? If yes, how it is to be a woman, an artist and an activist in China these days?
 
Well, I don’t really define myself as an artist or an activist. I stand somewhere in the middle. For me, the interesting thing is to look at how there can be more relationships and play between activism and art. For me, the point is not how I as an artist define the world or what thoughts I put into my work. It is how we can get different people to participate in these art works, how they can find more ways to express themselves, how we can help in making their voices heard, and connect the different worlds that exist in society. What I care most about is how to use photography and the camera as tools of power. It’s important to talk about subjectivity. Who is filming, who is behind the camera. There is a big difference when someone comes in and films something and when people are the subjects and film or photograph themselves. I saw this very much while working on a documentary for women with HIV. Normally all the reports and films that are made about HIV in China focus on cruelty, death and all these dark and heavy topics. What I did in my project was to work with nine families from the countryside, where most of the women had kids and they were living with HIV. I showed them how to use the camera. They took thousands of pictures and none of them featured death.
 
What does it mean to you to receive a Special Mention? How has it affected your professional life?
 
It was a really good feeling. When I work on documentaries it takes two or three years until it’s done while the idea for this series took much less time. The award really validated my idea and what I was doing. Also, it encouraged me to think of ways to transform this series into a movement and to spread this idea of combining different images in one image. For me the whole issue was not that my work would be included in an exhibition, which is of course very nice, but that this award was an impetus to make something broader where many people will be able to participate.

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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