Amidst the hustle and bustle of Shenzhen, one of China’s busiest ports, Mang Mang crafts sharp studio portraits embodying many facets of her own psyche. For Mang, an image can’t be too stylized for intimacy. She is unafraid to cut, re-arrange, blur, and distort otherwise straightforward photographs of herself to represent a concept better. Unlike the material excess of Sherman—an undeniable inspiration—Mang’s prop choices are minimal and singular. Innocuous household items morph into emotionally charged fetishes, and their relative harmlessness becomes a point of contention.
While often turning the camera on herself, Mang is open to photographing others. As for the male figure she occasionally presents, “He was my fiancé, but we separated in the end.” Born Zhao Bing Bin, “Mang” means “blind,” a choice to “remind myself not only to rely on my eyes but to use the heart to see the world.” As a born-and-raised local of Shenzhen, Mang has only recently returned after spending most of her teens in Shanghai. The following interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by an assistant of Mang's.
What brought you to Shen Zhen? Does the city lifestyle affect your creative process?
I was born in Shenzhen and left my hometown when I was 13. I would never imagine I’d return after 15 years and get used to life here. I still go back to Shanghai frequently. The creative environment doesn’t have much change compared to Shanghai. I still haven't got a studio. All I have is a clean white wall. But I have a whole new and fresh city. I believe the change in this city can bring me many inspirations. I may find a better scene since everything is unknown.
If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
I would live in Iceland. Without a reason, it is just an instinct.
To me, your work conveys themes of identity, travel, and sometimes violence. What spurs or instigates a photographic series for you? What concepts do you like to play with?
Personally, I think my work is hidden with strong "love," this love can come from the viewer to interpret. Even if my work is filled with violence, gore, psychosis, metamorphosis, and beauty, they all connect to "love." Most of the time, when I get inspiration, something touches my heart, such as a movie, a person, a story, a sentence, an action, or a dream. These things give me an embryo, an initial prototype. Before shooting, I wouldn't do much planning or setting. I do my creative work through experiments and attempts. I love the joy of the unknown.
Your work seems aesthetically clean, with lots of open space, sharp edges, and distinct color choices. Does this imagery reflect your lifestyle?
This question embarrasses me. Except for some pieces, I do specifically need a clean, open, sharp composition and viewpoint. Some work is limited by the shooting conditions; it can't compare to the effect in my mind. I can only work in a limited environment to get close to my idea. If I had more funding, assistance, and every resource I need, I think I’d spend time on a larger photographic series. Anyway, this situation doesn't bother me. Perhaps it is a way God will guide me to wisdom. You are right; it does reflect my lifestyle.
Can you talk about the clothing choices and fashion you present in your photographs?
Most of the time, when I shoot, I hope I wear no clothes. Meanwhile, I am a conservative Chinese person, which bothers me. Sometimes during shooting, I feel the presence of clothes makes the work not pure enough. It can't reach the power I want to present. Yet, I can't completely get rid of some of the ideological shackles, which makes for a weird scene. Eventually, I found it to be appropriate. It is a unique visual language that belongs to me. Some commentators think that my work could be more exposed or should have more visual impact, which might be more international. But I believe my works should not be explicit for exposure’s sake. I think my work should go beyond surface-level impact.
Are you influenced most by literature, cinema, music, art, or life?
I can put it this way... I receive outside influence, but I’m not influenced by the outside. My work, personality, and even my emotion can be changed by a movie, a song, a painting, a novel, or anything else. But I filter and process them in my own unique way; this chemical change in me is quite special and makes me interesting.
What is the oddest or most surprising feedback you’ve received from your work?
Disgust, nausea, horror, empty-hearted, stimulating, crying, sick, uncomfortable, etc. These weird words are my favorite comments."