Ren Hang, Chinese photographer and pioneer of modern photography, died February 24 at the age of 29.
In a world of inevitable censorship, Hang was a formidable breath of fresh air. His incredibly bold, sexually explicit and often protested photography aimed to give an honest depiction of youth and sexuality. Hang described his work best, once stating in an interview with Design Boom, “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.”
However, by simply doing what he did, and in representing sexuality in such an honest, fluid and sometimes extreme way, Hang became an important voice on the topic of fetishism and gender inclusivity within the art world.
Despite his deep affection for, and strong sense of loyalty to, his home China, the feeling wasn’t necessarily mutual. “My photos, especially the ones of naked bodies, are forbidden to be shown in Chinese galleries,” Hang told Vice in a 2013 interview. “Only occasionally can the ones that aren't explicit be shown, but I still face many difficulties even with them. For example, one of my shows was canceled by the Chinese government on ‘suspicion of sex’ and, another time, a visitor spat at one of my photos. And those are just a couple of examples of the problems I've had. None of China's press will publish my books and I've been arrested while shooting photos outside before. True, I'm restricted here, but the more I'm limited by my country, the more I want my country to take me in and accept me for who I am and what I do.”
Hang continued, despite said obstacles, to tirelessly create simultaneously visually and intellectually stimulating work and eventually became globally renowned for his seemingly effortless, limit-pushing photographs. Taschen, the renowned publisher of books focusing on art and architecture, states that in his short career Hang’s work has been featured in over twenty solo exhibitions and seventy group shows — a mind-blowing amount for such a young artist. “I’ve wanted a book that explores sexuality in China for years, and Ren Hang exceeds all my hopes,” stated Dian Hanson of Taschen. “His playful photos of young friends, male and female, open a fascinating window on sexual freedom in an otherwise conservative society.”
Like many great artists before him, Hang’s work will live on and continue to break down stereotypes, shedding new light on otherwise “taboo” subject matter for years to come. May he rest in peace.