Poetry, Grace, and Nostalgia in Contemporary China

In his emotive and mysterious image of a girl amid nature, Jiehao Su explores the ambiguous but rich territory between documentary, personal narrative, and staged photography.

© Jiehao Su, from the series, Borderland

I took this image in Chongqing, China, a mountain city by the Yangtze River. It is from my series, Borderland, a personal body of work I began in 2012. In this series I revisit places that are familiar to me from my past. I spent years journeying through China, thinking about the meaning of ‘homeland’ and ‘home.’

My work overall is about self-identity, cultural memory and a sense of belonging, and my aim with this image in particular was to evoke a sense of beauty and poetic grace in everyday life, as well as to seek a connection between the current moment and the past. The young girl in a long dress standing on a stone picking leaves is a 22-year-old senior college student. I was looking for portrait models to photograph via the internet and she was one of the people who contacted me.

In our correspondence prior to our meeting, the girl told me that she liked nature, animals, and plants, so I wanted to take her portrait in a natural environment. It’s a staged moment. I was inspired by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, especially his painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. I wanted to create a similar kind of composition by having the girl being in the centre of the image, surrounded by leaves. Her long dress and posture not only connect her to the landscape but also to the foliage that is in front of her and in the foreground. The resulting image is that of a girl blending in with nature. I wanted to represent an atmosphere that is rooted in our everyday environment yet also goes beyond it - an atmosphere that is serene and peaceful. To me, mute colours provide a psychological hint to images in my memory. This also explains the colour orientation of the entire series, which errs towards a muted palette.

Borderland consists of a wide variety of images, including landscapes, daily details, still life images, and portraits. This specific photograph is more fictional and more intimate than the others. I was trying to find a balance between documentary and personal narrative.

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Jiehao Su is a Chinese photographer who lives and works in China. To see more work by Jiehao, visit his PHmuseum profile.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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