A Memoir of Love and Life

1 2 3 2 1, by photographer Yuan Yao Yuan, is a book-to-be that narrates the story of the pregnancy and giving birth of a friend of his in a play of metaphors that echoes his own life.

For longer than a pregnancy, Chinese photographer Yuan Yao Yuan created a collaborative project with a Japanese friend of his who was expecting a child. Travel after travel across Japan, they mapped the psychological journey that Nami, the mother-to-be, was going through. “I perceived motherhood as something magnificently dynamic and profound. A phenomenon that brings forth another dimension of love and strength”, Yuan Yao Yuan writes.

In essence, his series depicts Nami as a Goddess – she shines as much as the moonlight within mystical landscapes. A recurring motive, Mont Fuji, her birthplace, evokes an array of pictural references. When the volcano was named worldwide heritage by Unesco, the institution unsurprisingly called it a sacred place and an inspiration for the arts. Its perfect conic shape evokes the pure roundness of Nami’s belly, at times at the centre of the photograph, at times a pretext to emphasize something else.

The merging between Nami’s body and various elements of nature enhances the overall feeling of awe that spreads through the images. Yet, this nature takes on different dimensions – at times infinite like a horizon-less ocean, at times restrained like a plant in a pot. The only recurring element is Nami’s gaze, invariably oriented straight at the camera, piercing, pointing at what Yuan Yao Yuan reveals about the making of the series: “Seeing the world through a brand new lens of another human being […] also put everything into perspective. It has nurtured me and continues to shape my perception of the future to come.”

Because if Mont Fuji is the home of an elixir for immortality and of several gods in Shinto mythology, Yuan Yao Yuan’s inspiration lies somewhere else. “The backbone of the narrative is inspired by a mixture of 'Allegory of the Cave' and 'Iwato Biraki: The Story of Amaterasu', a commonly known Shinto myth in Japan. The story underlines compassion, justice, togetherness, and empowerment”, he further writes. With his photographs, Yuan Yao Yuan thus attempted to convey their shared experience – “the feeling that life was always present and love was around”.

Yuan Yao Yuan’s series,  1 2 3 2 1, responds to their complex emotions with a wide range of visual languages. Some images are blurred, evoking the evolution of an identity facing such drastic change as becoming a parent; some borrow from the language of fashion, praising the woman despite the fact that, as a single mother, she is isolated. Other images are metaphors, set ups, and observations of nature.


All photos © Yuan Yao, from the series 1 2 3 2 1


Yuan Yao Yuan (1988, China) is an artist and designer based in Belgium, primarily working with photography and moving images. His new book is in presale and can be supported here. Follow him on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb and the international photo editor at Le Monde.


This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

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