By Dana Lauria,
Feb. 24 marks the two-year anniversary of renowned photographer Ren Hang’s death. It upsets me how the day I discovered this innovative artist was also the day that he took his own life. Over social media, a large community of photographers publicly mourned the loss of Hang, who was not only a fellow artist, but a peer whose work has greatly inspired their own art.
I distinctly remember the reaction to Hang’s death by photographer Sandy Kim, whose raw and unapologetic nude photographs are reminiscent of Hang’s own work. She posted a few of Hang’s poems onto Instagram that were generated from Chinese to English via Google Translate. His poems were honest and matter-of-fact. He spoke of how “longing and panic coexist.” Then, Kim posted a photograph taken by Hang in which two nude bodies completely entangle one another. It wasn’t a “normal” entanglement, or a “normal” photograph. The image doesn’t capture the subjects’ faces or entire bodies, but their limbs together created an odd and visually striking shape. Viewing his poetry and photography, I pictured Hang as an old man. I was surprised to find out that he was only 29 years old.
Hang’s stylistic conventions were clearly achieved by using a point-and-shoot camera and its built-in flash, which uniquely textured the bodies in frame. This is a style I see often repeated, but nobody seems to master it quite as well as Hang did. It is the content of his photographs that Hang is widely known for. He fantastically dabbled in fashion photography, but in his personal work, fashion and status were never a reliance. Like the photograph mentioned earlier, his work often involves nudity and contorted figures. Much of it also dangles in obscurity. A few of Hang’s photographs depict models urinating in flower bouquets or in drinking glasses and eating noodles off someone’s pelvis. Outlandish animals such as octopuses, snakes, and peacocks are often attached to his models in unexpected or uncomfortable ways. Beyond these absurdities, Hang’s images normalize the human body, acne, and pubic hair. His images also ambiguate gender and sexuality. At times, it is difficult or even impossible to tell if Hang’s models are male or female.
Nature is prominent in Hang’s work, and there is something exciting about a modern-day photographer blending humanity back into the earth. I especially admire the images of Hang’s models night swimming while surrounded by lily pads, but my favorite photograph is simply of a woman sitting on the ground with her back faced toward the camera. In this photograph, there are green plants encasing the right and front side of the woman, and her back is elegantly curved in an angle which mimics a plant’s stem. These are simple photographs, and yet I can feel the life emanating from them.
The content of Hang’s work has gotten him arrested on multiple occasions in China, his home country, due to strict censorship laws. In an interview, Hang said, “Sometimes I’m told on the day of the show that I can’t show a [certain] photo. When an image is considered ‘porn’ and I can’t bring it out, I just exhibit a frame. Sometimes the police come on the third day of the show and call it off.”
Although many of Hang’s images may be “grotesque,” I think his intentions were always done with integrity and love for his models, who were his friends. Hang said he wasn’t trying to make a political statement; he just did what he wanted to do. What he wanted to do was capture his friends in their most authentic states. He said clothes often get in the way of a person. There is sensuality and a vulnerability to Hang’s photography, and it was channeled through the close relationships he had with his models. The risks they took by creating these photographs are something to be marveled at.
There are many ways to access Hang’s work online. Unfortunately, the website in which he used to store his poetry and photography throughout the years is no longer available. Luckily, his Instagram account, “@renhangrenhang,” is still standing. Instagram’s policies, however, were an obstacle that forced Hang to censor many of his images. A more permanent, yet more expensive, option is to purchase Hang’s self-titled photography book published by Taschen. For anyone who is intrigued by Hang’s work and does not mind the uncensored content – and there’s a lot of it – this book is an absolute must.
Despite Hang’s harrowing battle with depression, he managed to create works of art that unintentionally pushed boundaries and beautifully communicated his personal values. It is of course very unfortunate to have lost a beautiful mind with such an original perspective on human life. The legacy he has left behind is one that will be remembered for a very long time. It is possible that Hang was one of the most influential photographers of our generation.