Prove your humanity

Voltaire once stated, “Illusion is the first of all pleasures.” Negative Nancy often states, “Friendship is an illusion.” The term “illusion” appears to be a hotly debated one throughout time. Philosophers and pessimists aside, along came Zhu Lanqing, a young Dragon photographer whose work explores the relationship people establish with their online entourage.  One key question meanders the mind… Is this real or is it all an illusion? 

“Dictionary definitions of illusion usually state that an illusion is a sensory perception that causes a false or distorted impression or a misrepresentation of a ‘real’ sensory stimulus.” Google, my BFF.

The Vogue-gone-rogue vagabond 

With zero per cent inspiration and 100 per cent perspiration, people struck by writer’s block tend to wander the wastelands covered in cabin-feverish cravings for success, all the while  waiting for that one drop of enlightenment to fall down from the very much overcast skies. A delusional train-of-thought in itself, until… Slash and Bowie appear before the eyes like the gods of sensationally Vogue-gone-rogue vagabonds they are, showering the wanderer with resources to drain from. Yes, I tend to get slightly carried away and have  for the past month been putting “November Rain” Slash on a (p)leather-clad pedestal as high as his (once shoplifted) vintage token top hat.

Now, on an interesting side note  for those interested, these two masters of modishly rocking mayhem share some 1980s history: Bowie dated Slash’s mother, aka an episode where big hair, bleached hair and big shoulders crossed paths. However ludicrous they at times may be deemed, for writers like “the wanderer”, artists like “the gods” and photographers like Zhu, one truth often is entirely real…  Inspiration is all about the fantastical beasts of this universe (copyright shout-out to J.K. Rowling, as you do).


” The ‘Strangers in a picture’ body of work is a dramatic and extreme expression of this phenomenon, i.e. people creating wide online networks of ‘friends’, compressing the time and distance amongst us all.” Zhu Lanqing.

A real illusion or a delusional reality?

That is the question today’s photographer asked herself in her thirsty quest for more knowledge about and understanding of social relationships anno 2017. Zhu’s is a young voice that investigates themes that are of great interest to Beijing correspondente-du-jour, Italiana Chiara Sassu of lifestyle blog Chiara’s Coffeetable: Friendship, unfamiliarity and exploration. Among  the many different stories of actors, fashion designers, musicians and so on, Zhu’s grabbed Sassu by the lapels. The 21-year-old is a photographer who investigates the relationship people establish with their social media “friends”, capturing that one moment where they cease to be strangers as they become part of a virtual network.”Strangers in a picture” they may very well be, but illusions they most definitely are not. Take it away, Sassu!


“This is a very unusual interview. I’ve never met Zhu before, yet I feel a connection. She was first brought to my attention some two years ago, when I bought my copy of Vogue Italia and realised it was all about China. Pure joy.” Chiara Sassu.


Sassu: At what point did you know that photography had become more than just a hobby to you?

Zhu: “I fell in love with taking pictures when I was in middle school and I realized this would be my future right away. I couldn’t do anything else or be anything else if not a photographer. I chose photography as my university major. Nevertheless, even when I was somehow getting closer to living my childhood dream, at the same time I was still miles away form actually achieving it. I was struggling to strike a balance between the style of photography I had in mind and the one that would help pay my bills. I was confused and no longer had any idea about what kind of photographer I really wanted to be! It took me some time to find out the true meaning of photography — it has to be about passion, not work. On the other hand, ‘work’ and ‘interest’ mean different things to different people, so I guess there is no univocal answer here…”



“It took me some time to find out the true meaning of photography — it has to be about passion, not work.” Zhu Lanqing.

Sassu: Has your photography style changed over the years?

Zhu: “Yes. Every time I have a new picture coming out, people can spot the differences. I think this is because I was working whilst studying, and kept exploring different fields of my interest at the same time. One’s style does not change overnight, this evolution is related to personal knowledge and experience. Yet there is a whole world out there, one waiting for you to dig into, and I’m ready to jump out and take it all in! I’m sure this too will at some point impact my work.”


Sassu: Why do you think that it is important for people to “meet strangers”? 

Zhu: “Well, actually I don’t think ‘meeting strangers’ in itself is very important. It is rather an unavoidable phenomenon in today’s society. This body of work is a dramatic and extreme expression of this phenomenon, compressing the units of time and distance among people. I was curious to learn more about how people would act when faced with perfect strangers is unusual situations. It’s very obscure and weird, yet intimate, all at the same time.”

为什么你觉得大家去认识陌生人这件事儿很重要?其实我并非觉得“meeting strangers”是很重要的,我觉得它其实是现代社会中我们无法避免的一件事情,不管你喜不喜欢。这组作品,其实好像是把一个其实是很日常的行为戏剧化或极端化了,它压缩了我们与陌生人之间的距离,压缩了正常的时间。所以那时我好奇的是,在一个非正常的情况下,我们面对陌生人时会呈现出什么样的状态,那种状态可能就是非常暧昧的,一种又亲密又陌生的怪异感觉。


Sassu: How did you go from taking pictures to creating handmade books? 

Zhu: “I’ve always loved reading… Books, magazines, the whole shebang. Even though I’m very busy right now, I still try to make time for it. To be honest, I had no idea of how to set up such an exhibition when I started on creating the first book. The only way I could think of, in terms of how to present my work, was to bundle each and every one picture in a book. It’s just a very convenient way to fully express yourself. Since it’s completely hand-made, I don’t even have to worry about printing and having to spend more time and energy on the creative process. A book is fun and personal and it takes you back to your childhood.”



Sassu: Is there another photographer that inspires you or influences your work?

Zhu: “There are quite a few: Mary Ellen Mark, Bernard Faucon, Jeff Wall, Tomoko Yoneda, Qing Ye and He Zi among the others.”

哪些摄影师曾给你带来灵感或者是影响到你的创作?很多摄影师都会从不同的方面影响到我,比如Mary Ellen Mark , Bernard Faucon , Jeff Wall , 米田知子, 清野贺子等等。


Sassu: What do you think is next in line for you — professionally speaking?

Zhu: ” I am now learning how to follow an actual working schedule — this has proven tricky for me in the past. I’m not particularly good with deadlines… My priority has always been to be creative and I have so many projects lined up… I hope to be able to turn one of these into a book. One day!”



Obscure, intimate, quirky, weird… These are key words that attract the eye and spark the interest. Combined with the actual visualization of Zhu’s thoughts on our social media-minded mass-likings, the lines between reality and illusion (aka the online reality) have blurred. As “The Waste Land” poet T.S. Eliot once declared, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”, so is it really that weird that many prefer to cling to the illusion? In all of its quirkiest, obscurest and funniest ways, friendship in general is a good thing. A happy thing. Besides, we could all use a little stardust to make us shine now and again.

Images: Copyright@Zhu Lanqing.

For more life, love and games in Beijing, visit Chiara’s Coffeetable

Elsbeth van Paridon
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