“You can never have a real friendship with foreigners here in New York,” Vivi, a Shanghai native living in New York says to me in a café in Manhattan’s Soho area. By “foreigner”, she refers to anybody who is not Chinese. Several weeks later, photographer Shen Wei tells me his thoughts on the exact same topic in his Wall Street apartment. “I find it much harder to have a deep conversation with a stranger in China, while in the US it’s much more possible to have deeper communications with someone you’ve just met.”
Born in Shanghai in 1977, Shen Wei grew up in the Shanghai of the 1980s and 1990s. “It was then a conservative China,” he recalls. “Individuality was not something important.” Over a decade ago, Shen Wei moved from Shanghai to the US to study photography and video art. Upon arriving in the US, Shen remembers how the relationships between people in American culture came as a shock to him, but they soon grew to become an inspiration for his work. He says relationships between people in America are much simpler and more straightforward. “I wanted to explore the ideas of identity and sexuality,” he says, “and to understand the complexity of emotion, desire, introspection and instinct.”
Shen Wei began to photograph portraits of strangers he met on the street, friends of friends, and random people he found online. He photographed people in their homes, some naked, some half-naked, while others are fully-clothed. He named the series Almost Naked to highlight the fact that these people are revealing their most intimate and vulnerable moments in front of the camera.
My sexuality is an important element which I enjoy exploring, but my work is also about human nature, desire, struggle and rebellion.
After the Almost Naked project, he wanted to take a personal journey to reconnect with his roots, to make sense of the China that existed in his memories but also with a China that is rapidly changing day and night. Shot in various Chinese provinces as well as Shanghai Chinese Sentiment is a mixture of poetic landscapes, nostalgic cityscapes and intimate portraits of people in their personal spaces.
I Miss You Already is Shen Wei’s most recent series, a series of self-portraits of himself in various settings: standing by a waterfall in the mountains, bending his body inside an isolated cave, gazing behind blooming flower trees, carefully posing like a Renaissance statue on top of a white table, leaning against the railing on a balcony of a New York apartment, mostly naked and alone. The photos carry a sense of theatrical mood, as if the man portrayed is wandering around, thinking and looking for something, reflecting on his or man’s relationships with nature.
For Shen the project is “a process of self-observation and self-discovery. It’s also a way to explore my sense of security through understanding the tension between freedom and boundaries”. His interest in such exploration, again, goes back to his past life in China. “I did not have many opportunities to be naked when growing up in Shanghai,” he says, “But now I can be naked as often as I want, it’s not only a free and relaxing feeling, but also liberating.”
Although most of the time he is the only figure in these pictures, Shen is occasionally accompanied by a second person: sometimes another man, sometimes a woman, and sometimes just a mysterious hand. He won’t reveal the nature of these relationships, nor even the relationship between his portrayal of himself and the ‘real’ person behind the camera. Insisting that it’s the mystery of these unknown elements makes the images intriguing. “It’s up to the viewers’ perceptions, it’s not for me to impose my narratives” says Shen. But he does confess to having complex relationships with both men and women, “They are both very important in my life, I cannot live without either of them; they bring me different experiences.”
While admitting sexuality has its notable role in his work, Shen thinks that’s not where the self-discovery in his work ends. “I am a sexual person,” he says, “and my sexuality is an important element which I enjoy exploring, but my work is also about human nature, desire, struggle and rebellion.”
Shen Wei lives in New York City with his dog Emma.