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Der Greif X MPB: Behind the Image with Yao Yuan


On December 22nd Yao Yuan took part in a live Instagram event called "Der Greif X MPB: Behind the Image". Yuan was selected for our Guest Room exhibition titled "Happy accidents: embracing mistakes" curated by Simon Baker and Aden Vincendau. Yuan is a non-binary visual artist from Sichuan, China. Their practice engages with bodies, spaces, and rituals. Their investigations through the photographic medium explore the queering of storytelling and dramaturgy, rethinking the binary framework of dominant norms, particularly those related to gender and sexuality. The focus of Yuan’s work touches on topics of non-normative narratives surrounding motherhood, nature, queer representation, and intimacy.

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Der Greif: Can you tell us what this scholarship means to you?

Yao Yuan: I truly resonate with the theme of the Guest Room I applied for, “Happy accidents: embracing mistakes”. I'm happy about the recognition of this resonance, and I thank the curators, Der Greif, and MPB for awarding me this scholarship. It felt a bit like a holiday gift. I happened to have recently purchased some gears, something that I consider as an end-of-year reward.

Der Greif: What kind of gear do you work with?

Yao Yuan: I use different sorts of film cameras, but I also have a simple digital camera for more practical uses.

Der Greif: What is the story behind the first camera you ever used?

Yao Yuan: I discovered a film point-and-shoot my mother had borrowed from work. I was immediately interested in it and took it everywhere with me. I still have this habit of carrying a point-and-shoot with me most of the time. It does feel like a different thing than if I just snap a photo with an iPhone. What changes is the surprise effect that comes with shooting on film. It reminds me of this Taiwanese coming-of-age film I love. It is called “Yi Yi”, and it’s directed by Edward Yang. There is a character in the movie who is a little boy about 10 years old named Yang Yang. The story about him is that he brings his father's camera to all the places, and when the photos are developed, we mostly see pictures of the back of people's heads. When asked why he took such photos, he says that it’s because he wanted to show people what they cannot see.

Der Greif: What do you look for/value in your gear today?

Yao Yuan: Similar to compatibility with people, I sometimes feel a certain affinity with certain gear. I enjoy when equipment becomes the extension of vision, allowing me to improvise and capture the more intangible stuff. They usually are not very technical, so I can focus on what's important around me, but it can really be something very simple like how it grips in my hand.

Der Greif: Where do you stand on used gear?

Yao Yuan: All the film cameras I ever owned were pre-owned. I used to live in Shinjuku in Tokyo, which is full of secondhand camera shops. I went to those shops often and got my gears there.

Der Greif: Can you tell us the story behind your winning Guest Room image?

Yao Yuan: It is from my series “1 2 3 2 1”, which is also a photobook I self-published in 2023. The winning image wrapped up the first part of the project in a chronological sense. As it was a 3-year-long project, I was half of the time in Japan and the other half in China, following my friend Nagakura Nami's first pregnancy. "1 2 3 2 1" is a 304-page photo novel that juxtaposes images created during and after Nami's pregnancy and the birth of her child, between 2017 and 2019, in parallel with images taken from my personal life and journeys between Japan and China. The series contemplates ancient allegories and world-making(s) within the contemporary condition through a queer intimate vision. We took this image in 2018 at Fuji where Nami is from, and had many versions of the same image with different focus and chose this one, where she is out of focus.

Der Greif: Can you expand on the themes that your photography explores?

Yao Yuan: I am generally interested in queerness in a broader sense, that is to say not only in the context of gender and sexuality. I like the notion that queer’ refers to "what is not," and "what is not yet here." So that includes ways of living and thinking outside current norms and values, things that are not considered stereotypically good, and asking why is that, and creating from that stance. Visually, it can incorporate different ways of seeing and feeling, which I think is connected to the theme for this Guest Room.

Der Greif: Who are some photographers that inspire your work?

Yao Yuan: I’m inspired by many Japanese photographers from the past, many associated with the “Provoke Era”, also known as a group inspired by Provoke Magazine and founded by photographers Takuma Nakahira and Yutaka Takanashi. There are many photographers I admire but the ones that always come to my mind are Hosoe Eikoh and Masahisa Fukase. I like the emotional and spiritual depth of their images that depict the solitary human experience. Other than that, Terayama Shuji is a frequent reference for my more theatrical works, although he was seen as a film director for the most part.

Der Greif: What are you working on right now?

Yao Yuan: I have been spending a lot of time dealing with the administration and distribution since the self-publishing of "1 2 3 2 1". I am trying to slowly build an archive that incorporates different endeavors of mine, including recent work rooted in my thinking towards queerness. I hope it can become an interconnected whole body of work, but this will take some more time.

Der Greif: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in photography?

Yao Yuan: Considering that I don’t have a photography background, I found in the beginning that what hindered growth the most was the propensity to please. Often, when one feels a certain pretense in the work, which I think is a very uncomfortable feeling in itself, one is not being true. It doesn't matter if it stems from our own work or from others. Capturing authenticity in the saturation of images in our time is a constant challenge, but it becomes sort of a dance over time. This probably applies to most creative endeavors: the dance between genuine expression and meeting expectations, externally or internally, between letting things happen and the urge to control.

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