In an age where self-portraits have become throwaway images, it’s so refreshing to see photographers get extra creative with it. With restrictions due to the pandemic still ongoing, I’m sure a lot of photographers are still contemplating how to approach self-portraiture. If that sounds like you, the works of Shanghai-based Ziqian Liu will be among the most impressive examples guaranteed to inspire you.
All of Liu’s works are self-portraits, but the collection that particularly caught my attention was her “Reflection” series. It’s a good introduction to the way she uses her chosen visual elements to set the mood and tell her stories.
The quiet journey to self-discovery
As with many photographers, Liu’s photography journey was sparked by emotional release and self-expression. After getting her first camera while on a post-graduation trip with her friends, she discovered that photography calms her mind, apart from being a way for her to both record and create on her own.
“At first, it was just to record the changes of my body and mind at different stages. Later, I added plants by accident while shooting, and felt that the interaction between the body and the plants was very beautiful. At that time, it was still at the visual level. But after a long time of taking care of plants and photographing them, I found the beauty of the balance between man and nature. Since then, I have made my photography’s theme clear, which cannot be separated from the body and plants. However, compared with nature, the body is both a prop and a contrast.”
Working with self-portraits also allows her to be by herself and slow down amid the noise of today’s fast-paced life. I find that this desire coincides with her belief on the deeper purpose we can draw out of self-portraiture: It’s a way for us to create visual records of the changes in ourselves at a given time.
“It is very rare to have the opportunity to be alone, to leave time for everything around us, to observe the changes. In the space we are most familiar with, our emotions can be fully released. Only through dialogue with ourselves can we understand the most authentic self-deep inside. So, it was only when I was alone that I was able to capture what was completely inside me.”
A peaceful coexistence between humans and nature
By combining her body, plants and mirror images, she sees herself “constantly exploring the balanced state of peaceful coexistence between humans and nature.” However, the most striking quality of her visual style lies in the quiet mood, which she described as created with a sense of rigor and order.
As with the rest of her projects, however, “Reflection” wasn’t born out of a specific source of inspiration. According to Liu, her process tends to be raw and unplanned, anchored on observation and reorganizing the information in her head. I think that’s where the authenticity and deeply personal nature of her style comes from.
Still, she requires creative elements to be present as part of her visual style. Visually, the mirror is there to represent a fused image, where rearranges familiar spaces and objects in the simplest way. There also needs to be symmetry and perfect order, no matter how everything is arranged and the message being communicated in each body of work.
“In my works, the images in the mirror represent the idealized world I hope for. The integration with the outside just reminds me to respect and recognize the imbalance in the real world, but also to adhere to my own inner order and principles.”
Self-portraits for telling stories beyond the self
I especially love Liu’s self-portraits because they go beyond the self. Her work features her form as the subject, but at the same time, it can be anyone. It’s easy for viewers to imagine themselves caught in the same emotions or stories she portrays in each photo.
“For me, I usually hide my face in my works. I think once the face appears in the image, no matter whether the facial features are beautiful or not, the attention of the viewer may first be on the face, it is easy to ignore the other elements in the work. Expressing emotions through the face can be very precise and direct, but I would probably prefer to do it indirectly.”
“Body parts and plants are not as ‘tagged’ as faces. The main character can be anyone, and each viewer will have a different view of the work due to their different experiences, allowing the viewer to participate in the work, I think it’s a very interesting thing.”
All photos by Ziqian Liu. Used with permission.