China’s Leading Photographer Yin Chao Shoots to the Top

From Marie Claire China April 2014 (Photo by Yin Chao)

A steady trickle of clicks sets the beat of the photo shoot. Yin Chao is behind the camera, ushering and urging the model. His directions are minimal, muttered in a thick, northern Chinese accent. “Yes, good…that doesn’t work…head lower…a little to the side… don’t move.” Model and photographer engage in a ritualistic dance. Yin and his assistants seem to act as one organism, their movements coordinated, one assistant adjusting the lighting as required, another anticipating Yin’s need to have the camera to hand, another standing ready to show the photographer what’s on the computer screen.

Their coordination shows that an experienced artist is at work. Yin is, after all, one of China’s most sought-after fashion photographers, creating images that are emotional and vivid, yet other-worldly. His singular vision is much admired and has brought commissions from the likes of Vogue, GQ, Numéro and Calvin Klein. Whatever the genre or mood of the photo shoot – whether the salient aspect of the resulting pictures is beauty, fashion, glamour or celebrity – Yin’s aim is always the same. He must “capture the soul”, he says.

A self-portrait during a deep meditation (Photo by Yin Chao)

Yin is a Buddhist and his religion frames his view of photography. “Beautiful things are beautiful, but as a fashion photographer, you realise it’s all an illusion,” he says. “You can, however, use photography as a medium and tool to express your opinion about society.” Yin acknowledges that this power to express his opinion brings with it responsibility to wield it for the good of society. His current project, for example, is an exhibition of his own pictures of the traditional dress of mainland China’s ethnic groups. His aim is to inspire admiration of the country’s cultures and to elebrate diversity. “Through my photographs, I hope people can not only experience beauty within but also gain philosophical inspiration,” he says.​

Yin’s career path has been a winding one. He first trained to be a motor mechanic, but he spent his spare time playing the drums in a band and dabbling in painting. He thought music was his calling, but he found it difficult to make a living. It was, he says, “difficult to connect dreams to reality”.

From a shoot for Men’s Uno China, July 2014 issue (Photo by Yin Chao)

By chance, Yin landed work as a photographer’s assistant in his home province, Hebei. “The first time I picked up a camera was at that job 15 years ago,” he says. At the beginning, it was just a job, rather than a vocation. “I didn’t have a concept about what photography was.” Within two years he came to appreciate the potential of a camera in his hands. He realised that photography was both a medium for expressing his ideas and emotions, and a means of making a living.

The budding photographer’s family was initially nonplussed. Yin’s roots were not only humble, but also embedded in a China of yore where it was risky to let creativity bloom openly. “All of this meant that my parents held conservative views and couldn’t help me to nurture my creative instincts,” he says. Yet Yin may have creativity in his genes. His father, as a young man, dabbled in music and painting.​

A self-portrait (Photo by Yin Chao)

Nonetheless, Yin junior set out to make a career as a photographer. After spending two years in Hebei, he packed his bags and moved to Beijing. For many Chinese, Beijing lies at the end of the yellow brick road. Yin went there in search of an environment more conducive to creativity than Hebei. He found a job as a television lighting assistant. “My move to Beijing was very formative to my career evelopment,” he says. “By day, I worked at my full-time job at the television station. By night, I studied fashion, art and photography magazines and books.”

Yin’s career would benefit from the rigorous technical training he received and the creative inspirations he encountered. “The difference between me and so many other photographers is that I never studied the craft in school. Everything has been about following my instinct,” he says. “The voice inside me is always asking questions, trying to find out what I should do next. And, truth be told, I’ve never really had a teacher,” he says.​

Another two years passed and Yin sent samples of his photography to several publications. An editor at FHM liked what he saw, and Yin’s career as a photographer was launched. The timing was fortuitous.

In Schön magazine, June 2013 (Photo by Yin Chao)

His career and China’s economy took off together, and the trajectory of both has since been similarly spectacular. Yin’s pictures have documented the economic spectacle, portraying supermodels such as Liu Wen and celebrities such as Li Bingbing, and appearing in the high-fashion glossies which at once illustrate and whet the country’s appetite for material things.

Now, at the age of 34, Yin is at the forefront of Chinese photography. He finds it hard to pick his favourite photo shoot, “I like a lot of the shoots I’ve done, but many of them don’t capture exactly what I had in my mind,” he says, his sentiments reflecting the exacting standards he sets himself in trying to match what his photographs show with what his imagination proposes. “The best shoot is always the next one to come. I still have so many projects and expectations for what is to come, and this motivates me to put more energy into my work.” 

A landscape inspired by traditional Chinese imagery (Photo by Yin Chao)

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