Wang Lu’s exploration of identity embodies many shapes and forms

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com

Based in Tokyo, Chinese photographer Wang Lu employs a chameleon-like approach to the medium, exploring subjects ranging from personal history to migration and cultural identity

Blue-hued and dark, Wang Lu’s recent project Now here, Now there is full of images turned strange in post-production. Figures are rendered faceless, buildings appear spectral, and inverted pictures of trees loom against black skies. Together they have a disorienting feel, as if guiding us through unknown terrain.

The project began in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic restricted the Tokyo-based photographer from going home to China. “I was curious to see how it had changed, so I decided to use a digital map to visualise ‘going home’ in another way. I sketched out a way using Baidu Maps – a Chinese app similar to Google Maps – and then combined it with old photographs I had taken in my hometown,” she explains. In response to the pandemic, Wang added images of hand-washing, as well as digital interventions, such as redacted texts, to introduce further layers. 

The 33-year-old grew up in Taiyuan, in the Shanxi Province of China. She left for Beijing at 18, and at 27 moved to Tokyo, Japan, where she still resides. “I’ve been living a life in which my external environment is constantly changing, and that ongoing movement has probably brought me a different idea of intimacy and home,” she says. 

These experiences have found their way into her work, she adds, which “has always been about identities” in one way or another. The curator, editor and researcher Yumi Goto, who nominated Wang for Ones to Watch, echoes this sentiment: “The relationship between herself and her works gives us a strong sense of her identity, and she draws us into the world of her stories skilfully, using both real and fictional descriptions and visual expressions.”

While Now here, Now there was prompted by the pandemic, Wang says it was more about travelling back to her past. In another ongoing project, Frozen are the Winds of Time, memory takes centre stage. Employing a more straightforward documentary approach, the project responds to her father’s incurable brain damage, which he was diagnosed with when Wang was 12 years old. 

Before the pandemic, she visited him every year, photographing her family each time. Her father often doesn’t remember her, she says, as if crystallised in his own experience of time – a strange paradox against the backdrop of a rapidly developing city.

Wang is now working on Home – an ongoing series photographing Chinese residents in Japan in their personal spaces. “It’s a project about how place affects personal identity, including autobiographical memory, local attachment, and the relationship between migration and cultural identity,” she explains. 

Once again this project offers a shift in visual style; it is shot with a large format camera. When asked about her chameleon-like approach to photography, she says: “Honestly, I don’t have a stable creative style – for me, the expression of an artwork has to be attached to the work itself.” In other words, she refuses to categorise herself as an artist with a specific style, instead opting to play with the medium and stretch its boundaries, finding ever-new ways to tell stories through images.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London