Controversial Photographer Ren Hang Lives on Through the Taschen Book of His Work (NSFW)

Controversial Photographer Ren Hang Lives on Through the Taschen Book of His Work (NSFW)EXPAND
Ren Hang/Courtesy Taschen

Ren Hang, the Chinese photographer whose vision and images were initially discovered via social media by a devoted and enthusiastic audience, would have been 30 on May 30. A keen advocate of chronicling not only erotic nudes but also his brutal struggles with depression, he often expressed the wish that he'd die early.

On Feb. 24, he leapt to his death from the 28th floor of a Beijing building.

Hang photographed his friends — both male and female, mostly nude, often expressionless — in a manner that felt almost confrontational, in much the same way that a blank canvas or prolonged silence can feel confrontational. Using simple point-and-shoot cameras — originally just to relieve his own boredom — Hang developed a compositional style that placed people in their most natural state in unusual and compromising positions. It was an approach that led to his work being championed by everyone from artist Ai Weiwei to musician Frank Ocean. The images also presented a realistic representation of the nude Chinese body as it truly exists. Speaking to Poncz Magazine in 2011, Hang stressed, “I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies. Or they do have sexual genitals but always keep them as some secret treasures. I want to say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all.”

Speaking recently by telephone about Hang, Taschen's Dian Hanson — who edited the volume of Hang's work that Taschen published earlier this year — remembers the first image of his that made an impression on her: “The one of the two torsos lying side by side with their big greasy dicks in the roses strewn across them." She adds, "I had been told about Ren by my interns and by the young freelancer who turned out to be the designer of the book. Both men and women alike were just, 'Have you seen this guy?' I thought it was interesting that a gay man and two women were telling me this, and I went and looked — and it really struck me. I just knew I had to see more.”

Controversial Photographer Ren Hang Lives on Through the Taschen Book of His Work (NSFW)EXPAND
Ren Hang/Courtesy Taschen

Hang's journey to prominence began on social media, despite the strictures and censorship that constantly plagued him. “He started in 2007; he had his own website. [Censors] would take it down, and he would just quietly put up another one. Then he got on Instagram and Facebook, and then his Weibo account. He said that everything came to him from social media. He got it on social media, because he’s a young man,” Hanson says. “When I asked him, 'Is it hard to self-publish your books in China?' he said, 'Let me turn that around: I self-publish because I’m in China.' He couldn’t publish what [Taschen] did in China. The publishers would have been censored.”

But Hang was well-known in his home country, despite reports to the contrary at the time of his death. “There’s been a lot of misinformation about him out there, saying he wasn’t able to have shows in China," Hanson says. She emphasizes that "[h]e had his first shows in China. He definitely did have shows in Beijing.” His response to censorship by the authorities was a poetic one: He would hang a blank frame to represent the image that could no longer be seen.

Some responses to his work were brutal in their tastelessness. “He’d come in and find particular photographs covered in spit,” she says. “Other than that, he wasn’t trying to confront the government. He was just trying to do what he did.”

Publishing his work continued to be a particularly thorny issue in China. “He couldn’t get a publisher who would risk printing the work in China,” Hanson says. "His very first book was actually financed by a man in Scandinavia who found him through social media and offered to pay to publish a book for him.”

Despite his multiplatform online presence, actually contacting Hang proved to be slightly tricky for Hanson: “I looked at his work on all these places. I tried for several months, going on a year, to get in touch with him, with no luck. I wasn’t able to get hold of him — and then, out of nowhere, his assistant contacted me. It was serendipitous.”

Was the censorship an attempt to stigmatize Ren Hang — or was it meant to stigmatize nudity itself? On this Hanson is vocally unequivocal. “Nudity is not illegal — but pornography is illegal, and in China, as in the U.S., there is no official definition of pornography, just to give the government leeway in choosing who they want to chase and prosecute. Ren just wanted to be left alone to do what he did. He wasn’t trying to bring down the government. He wasn’t trying to attack,” she explains. “If there was something that somebody found offensive, he would just try not to display that in China. He didn’t want to go to jail. With all of his depression and his shyness, that was the last thing he wanted to do.” Late last year, Hang sank deeper into the depression that would ultimately consume him.

Controversial Photographer Ren Hang Lives on Through the Taschen Book of His Work (NSFW)EXPAND
Ren Hang/Courtesy Taschen

Before his final bout with depression, Hang visited Hanson in Los Angeles before last autumn. “He was delightful. His English was better than I had been led to believe. He told me he taught himself English with Google Translate, which is pretty funny because his use of the internet for everything was kind of wonderful and refreshing.” The visit was a contrast in moods for Hanson, “He came with his friend Jiaqi and they were funny and seemingly upbeat — although Ren did say he was able to act that way with people and still be depressed. We printed out pictures from the book in big tabloid size, had him sign them — and he drew big penises on them. He was great fun. We got the first copies in December. He was very happy — happy with the book; happy with the design. We had been able to do this red star cutout on the cover. Jiaqi was on the cover. Everything seemed good at that point,” she says.

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A Swedish photographer took a portrait of Ren Hang the week before he died. “It’s a great portrait against black, and at the same time, you see the sadness in him,” she says wistfully, adding, “We’ll probably add that in the reprint of the book.”

The images are forever. They’re also flat. The memories of Ren Hang, however, remain vivid and vibrant and take on more dimension than the pages of a book ever could.

Hanson sighs as she says, “He never wanted to ascribe meaning to anything. It really bothered him when people would try to add symbolism and meaning [to his work]. He said, 'All that’s important is the moment.' I think that’s how I think of him: as a man who insistently lived in the moment and refused to plan a photo. Refused to plan for the future. Refused to look even a minute into the future. That’s how I remember him. He was an ephemeral creature.”

Controversial Photographer Ren Hang Lives on Through the Taschen Book of His Work (NSFW)EXPAND
Ren Hang/Courtesy Taschen

CORRECTION: This post has been amended to reflect that Hang's 30th birthday would have been on May 30, not March 30. We regret the error.


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