Chinese photographer River Zhang says he likes being alone. Having studied in four universities between China and the UK, Zhang’s daily routine consists of getting up on time, making breakfast, eating it, and either attending class or creating art. He says that “this state of loneliness” is something he values, as it introduced him to thoughts about loneliness and thereafter his photographic works on the subject of loneliness.
Zhang, who graduated from the University of Creative Art in the UK earlier this year, created the photography series Dialogue with Memory as his graduation project. The series explores his loneliness of being an only child. To complete the project, Zhang’s father helped him scan over 400 photos from their family albums. Zhang says, “Among those photos, some I can remember vividly, others I have no memory of at all. I believe all these memories are from my confusion as an only child. So I ended up working with the photos that I remember the most.”
To create the series, Zhang selected the photos that he liked the most, pixelated them, and printed them out. From afar, viewers can make out the content of the image. However, viewing at a closer distance, the colored photos turn into abstract collages of colorful blocks. In order to give context to the contents of each photo, Zhang filled certain squares with Chinese text, each standing alone in the middle of certain blocks. Zhang intentionally used photos that might outwardly show harmony and happiness, but to him, they represent painful memories – this contrast is invisible to the viewer, and that is why he used mosaics to conceal the superficial harmony and happiness. The blocks also represent another aspect of his childhood, which is that they’re similar to the paper he worked with for writing practice around the time when these photos were taken. Zhang’s carefully composed text not only serves as a form of self-expression but as a form of catharsis. These works were created in the context of China’s family planning policy and ideas of Confucianism, topics that, to him, have direct connections to the notion of loneliness.
Zhang says: “In Confucianism, which has existed in Chinese society for 2500 years, loneliness isn’t something to be openly discussed. The five cardinal relationships in Confucianism tell us that everyone has close relations to those around them, so those who feel lonely are incomplete humans. However, under the family planning policy in the past, it feels impossible – every family only has one child, which is a lonely thing, but we cannot talk about it.”
Over the year that Zhang spent examining the theme of loneliness, all of his works, including landscape photos are interconnected with his examination of loneliness. He says all the people who he’s met along the way have all helped him to transition his creative approach. “I’m lucky – in every stage of my life, there are important people that come and show me a different viewpoint of the world.”