Curator He Yining: Introduce contemporary Chinese photography to West

He Yining: "I want to bring more and more excellent Chinese young people’s work to the world." Photo provided to

In March this year, 1986-born Chinese curator He Yining for the first time introduced 50 contemporary Chinese photobooks to the FORMAT International Photography Festival 15, a biennial and off year photography festival held in UK.

In order to show a panoramic picture of the development of Chinese contemporary photobooks, He selected 50 books from traditional artists’ handmade books, self-published works, as well as those jointly produced with independent publishers and galleries.

It was not the first time though that Chinese photobooks were shown on to the world stage. At last year’s Arles international photography festival, world famous photographer Martin Parr gave the audience a pre-look on part of his Chinese Photobook series which covers works during over a century from 1900 to 2014.

Coming later and covering a shorter time span as He’s exhibition appeared to be, the 50 works shown in FORMAT 15 were narrowed to contemporary Chinese photobooks all created by Chinese artists, while some collected by Martin Parr were by western artists who came to China during the colonial period.

Over the years, photobooks have emerged not only as a medium for artists to show their works to the world, but also as a reflection of the development of society. Although photobooks have become popular around the world, as Martin Parr once remarked, Chinese history of photography publishing “is a forgotten land that no one knew about.”

The 50 photobooks that He brought to FORMAT 15 ranged from 2009 to 2014, a period when Chinese society has witnessed many problems caused by urbanization and environmental pollution. For He, it was not only a periodic report on her study, but also an opportunity to show the outlook of contemporary China to the world.

To popularize contemporary Chinese photography both internationally and locally, He brought the photobooks back to China and is now on a home tour with the works in different parts of the country.

A curator with academic mind

“Being a curator is like being a ‘nanny’,” He said in an interview with, “You have to take everything into consideration, from doing research, writing papers, collecting works, to the end of the exhibition.”

For big exhibitions like the FORMAT 15 Contemporary Chinese 2009-2014, it takes about half a year, while a small one usually takes four months.

Having done exhibitions both in China and the UK, He felt that exhibitions in the UK were better organized and more formal than those in China.

“Usually, information about an exhibition would be released to the public about a year before so that you would have enough time to prepare,” she said, “And what impressed me most was that there were many teachers coming because it was a good opportunity for them to get to know about contemporary Chinese society, as they had never visited China before.”

So far, He has done nearly 10 exhibitions since last year. While being a curator is tempting and glamorous, there are still difficulties in preparing for an exhibition, especially for young people, He said.

Money, of course, is one of them. For the March exhibition in the UK, He invested part of her own savings. But luckily, He, who has previously worked in the media, also got much help from her friends especially from media in promoting her exhibition.

“For this, I am really grateful to everyone,” she said.

In China, opinion about curators is mixed, but for He, “a good curator should have a solid academic foundation, instead of simply gathering some artists and show their works to the public.”

“Doing exhibition for me is more like a way of proposing questions and echoing my research. Meanwhile, I want to bring more and more excellent Chinese young people’s work to the world,” He said.

Focus on writing

While being known as a curator, He uses most of her time on studying photography history and writing, which she said she would keep doing all her life.

In 2014, He began her blog project “Go East” aimed at introducing contemporary Chinese photography to foreigners on a weekly basis.

“In spite of the fact that western curators, critics and photography dealers are seemingly interested in Chinese photography, there are hardly any websites or blogs exploring the area,” she said. “Thanks to Paul Lowe, my MA course director of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, I‘ve been encouraged to start this project.”

Before studying Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, He studied English and American literature in China, which she said was very helpful for her to understand the art of photography from a different perspective, for example the relationship between words and photography which an upcoming exhibition next year in Tianjin will focus on.

In 2012, He began writing her book for which she talked with 20 photography experts and educators, which is aimed at introducing the English photography education to China.

The book consists of four parts, He said. The first part records the conversations between He and the experts; the second part presents the conversations with 22 graduates who studied photography in England; the third part talks about the history of English photography education; and the fourth part contains information, photos, and resources of photography education in England.

This book will be published this year, and she will continue to work on books introducing German and French photography education history in the following years.

During her study in the UK, she traveled around the continent and made a lot of friends. Those experiences have laid a good foundation for her both as a writer and a curator, and also make her feel more qualified to be called a “cultural ambassador”.

However, what makes He feel truly happy is when she is doing what she really wants to do instead of compliments from the outside world.

“When you have stepped into the area that you once dreamed of, there is someone who would commission you to do something. But I just want things to be simple, and do what I really want to do,” she said.

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