Photographer Dai Xianjing Brilliantly Captures Metropolitan Loneliness

“[My works are] a depiction of the uncertainty that clouds our minds. We’re ultimately self-dependent, unaccompanied, and lonely beings”

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11:59 PM HKT, Tue May 31, 2022 4 mins read

Photosensitive is a RADII column that focuses on Chinese photographers who are documenting modern trends, youth, and society in China. This month’s personality is Dai Xianjing (aka Amos Dai), a Beijing-based photographer and filmmaker whose work captures the loneliness and distance we all feel in the modern era.

Dai Xianjing never wanted to only be a professional photographer. She still doesn’t, and probably never will be.

“I think photography is my way of observing, or a convenient way of capturing snapshots of life,” she muses. “It’s more like a unit of my entire creative process.”

With a bachelor’s degree in film production, Dai initially deemed photography easy. She wanted to do more complicated things that would combine her writing, editing, photography, and videography skills.

“Photography is an art of the time. I think it’s more thought-provoking and poetic than videography,” says Dai, for whom different mediums carry their own meaning. “With text, you can create more possibilities through fiction whereas visuals capture reality.”

Her wide breadth of knowledge makes her the quintessential multimedia content creator.

Dai recently released Women at Home, a three-episode documentary featuring women in China living alone. She’s now juggling part two of the documentary and a nonfiction book on the series.

Her photography focuses on women, urban culture, and natural landscapes, with a core intention to explore relationships between people, cities, and nature.

Dai equally enjoys editing with photographing. The task, which requires the same attention to detail as a horologist, sees her spending long hours in front of her computer, making lighting and color corrections to her pictures. Dai says she grew up fascinated by colors and wanted to study painting. Instead, she ended up experimenting with colors in photography.

A Prolific Photographer

Dai was born in Nanjing, the capital of the Chinese coastal province of Jiangsu, in 1988. She defines herself as a “visual animal”; rich, visual descriptions permeate even her writing.

Her first full-time job was as an editor for the ‘photo’ column at Shanghai-based award-winning lifestyle magazine The Outlook Magazine, which ceased publication in 2016. The experience enhanced her appreciation of aesthetics while introducing her to international photographers, propelling her to take photography more seriously.

dai xianjing the outlook magazine

The June 2015 edition of The Outlook Magazine features superheroes from American comic books. Image via Weibo

She had experimented with Lomography, film, and DSLR photography at college. It was only after Apple entered China in 2009 and released the iPhone 3GS, however, that Dai became a truly prolific photographer. Now, her tools of choice are her iPhone and digital camera.

“My creative path is inseparable from the iPhone,” admits Dai. “It’s handy and fast for capturing what I want, and it really fits my photography style and personality. It’s direct and straightforward.”

She adds:

“By keeping your phone GPS turned on, all your photos will automatically be documented on a global map. In this sense, iPhones are archives of our personal histories.”

Some of her muses include William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and Marcel Duchamp. The last of these three is famous for spouting one of her favorite quotes: “An ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”

Nonstop Documentation

A good picture, according to Dai, must either look good or capture an interesting or meaningful moment. She adds, “Photography is fractional, but it creates a bigger narrative when you put a series of photos together.”

So far, Dai’s oeuvre includes two long-term photo series: Trees Whisper and Women at Home.

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Regarding the first, she has been photographing trees in different regions and conditions since 2012. As a nature lover, Dai quickly falls in love with the various looks and temperaments of trees in each geolocation. She feels accepted and understood by the plant.

“Photographing trees is my spiritual therapy. I think trees carry religious meaning. They’re beautiful, they have attitudes, and they always grow upward. I feel like I can talk to them. It’s my way of self-healing.”

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Most of Dai’s photography revolves around nature and city scenes. Women at Home was her first portraiture project. Initially titled Thirties As Waves, the project began in 2016; her 28-year-old self had just gotten out of a two-year relationship and was new to living alone.

She began to document the intimate lives of female acquaintances in their own homes. As of today, Dai has photographed 44 solo-living women ranging from 31 to 73 years old.

A Theme of Loneliness

In an ideal world, Dai would be able to hit the road as and when she likes.

“I think traveling creates a rapid magnification of unfamiliarity and strangeness. And it’s just fascinating to seek one’s position and the connection with a new place and in a new situation.”

dai xianjing amos dai whatever new york

The travel enthusiast enjoys exploring new things, chatting with strangers, and documenting her experiences with photography.

After a 20-day trip to New York in the summer of 2016, Dai published her first photography book, Whatever New York, in 2018. Within two or three months, she had sold almost 500 copies. She hopes to create a series titled Placesplaces, or A Place of Nowhere, to document each place that she’s been.

Contrary to Dai’s personality, her photography is permeated by a sense of loneliness and distance, which, Dai admits, discloses “the other side” of her.

“We’re all finding our place in the universe,” muses Dai. “[My works are] a depiction of the uncertainty that clouds our minds. We’re ultimately self-dependent, unaccompanied, and lonely beings.”

Three of her favorite pictures from the aforementioned project make human beings seem fragile, insignificant, and ignorant in the context of the world.

dai xianjing amos dai whatever new york

While some photographs reveal a different kind of magic upon zooming in, Dai believes that the picture above works best in its entirety. Its subjects, which include a man wiping his mouth, a sunbather, and children entertaining themselves, are in their own respective worlds smack in the middle of Central Park.

“This is so New York to me. You can do whatever you want in certain circumstances,” says Dai.

dai xianjing amos dai whatever new york

The second picture depicts someone standing under a string of lights at a gallery. A band-aid is plastered on the person’s face.

“I like this one because this subject feels surreal and mysterious,” she explains. “With a gold watch and orange handbag, you don’t know what the person is waiting for, and you can’t even tell if it’s a he or she.”

dai xianjing amos dai whatever new york

Dai reckons that the third picture best reflects her signature style. It is golden hour at a crossing close to the Hudson River, and a businessman is waiting for a traffic light to change colors. His necktie is dramatically windblown, and he seems to be struggling to find a foothold in New York, the center of the world, as some see it.

Unable to travel freely due to China’s zero-Covid policy, Dai has adapted by changing her photography methods.

“Now, I seldom edit pictures before I post them online. I’ve essentially entered a ‘no filter’ life,” jokes Dai. “I used to pursue a certain visual expression, precision, standard, requirement, format, or style, but now I’m letting these go. I don’t care about them.”

Dai photographs less than when she first started years ago. However, that’s only because she’s in the process of improving and outgrowing herself. She wants to document life in the raw.

“Maybe it is only by getting rid of rules and forms that your creations can reach new heights and take on real and meaningful viewpoints,” shares Dai. “I think good works should have original opinions and ideas.”

All images courtesy of Dai Xianjing, unless otherwise stated

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