Photos of Their Youth

In addition, as in Shen’s case, parents and families still greatly influence the lives of young people. In fact, such examples could be found everywhere among the 30 young subjects of Tian He’s project. “Family background exerts an obvious and even lifelong influence on children, and as the post-80s generation grow older, parents intervene more and more in issues such as marriage, having a child and where they settle down,” said Tian. “Dissatisfaction with life in an unfamiliar city coupled with strong intervention from parents makes these young people feel displaced between what they want and what they have,” Tian added.

No Boundary for Dreams

Among the characters in the Photos of Their Youth series are graduate interns, unlicensed taxi drivers, airbrush painters, owners of online stores, returnees that have just finished their overseas studies, students who are fighting for places at foreign universities and young people from Hong Kong on internships in Beijing. “I chose them as my subjects because they all had their own dreams,” Tian He said.

After photographing a young man from Hong Kong on a one-month internship in Beijing, Tian He learned more about the similarities and differences between young people in China’s mainland and Hong Kong. The young interns from Hong Kong liked the inclusive and friendly atmosphere in Beijing, which didn’t make them feel like outsiders. They also said they appreciated the introverted nature of their peers in the mainland. However, before coming they had little understanding of modern Beijing. They even had the impression that trains in the mainland were still like the old, green ones they saw in movies. So when they first boarded a Beijing-Tianjin inter-city express train, they were surprised at its high speed.

Lu Yuxin, who was born in 1991, is a student in marketing and economics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She told Tian He that she felt grateful for the chance to travel to Beijing. “Before, I was always in a passive position, listening to my parents’ choices,” she said. On this point, it seems that all Chinese families share this characteristic.

It was not always easy for Tian He to get what he wanted for his photography project. At first, he invited friends as samples for his program. As his mission attracted more and more attention, some netizens volunteered to be Tian’s models. “However, there were some people who just wanted to share their stories and make friends with me but not appear in the photos,” said Tian. “Therefore, I often went to meetings with potential subjects but came away empty-handed.”

Tian He listed himself as the 23rd subject of Photos of Their Youth. In the picture, he sits in the center of a mess of luggage, an old television and a large box filled with various objects. These are the belongings Tian has accumulated over the years since coming to Beijing. Reflecting on his days in the capital, Tian said he felt he had spent much time dragging his possessions from one place to another. In the next picture, we see an empty room with only a bed, a table and a dusty floor, the scene after his departure.

“Photos of Their Youth exposes not only the lives of others, but also my own life. The ideal is seemingly inaccessible while reality is often boring. But in this materialistic era, we have to be pragmatic – find a stable job and save money,” Tian said. “As time goes by, we may see our wages rise, yet we feel less happy. Why?” The sad fact is that dreams have been shattered. “It’s the same for me,” said Tian, “I no longer have a concrete dream; I just want to finish Photos of Their Youth no matter how long it takes, because that is something I am happy doing.”


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