Lili Fang Elegantly Challenges Traditional Rules of Photography

When she’s not pulling all-nighters as a doctor, Lili Fang can be found camera-in-hand. With countless photoshoots, campaigns and a magazine cover tucked under her belt, Liz Fang gave us the inside look on how she gracefully uses art as a way to practice social responsibility, capture the essence of her subjects, and turn the lens on herself in defiance. Indulge below and make sure to follow Lili on her socials.

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Introduce yourself.

I’m Lili Fang. I’m 27 years old and I’m a fashion photographer and full-time physician.

How did your early life segway into your creative endeavors?

I was always creative but when I was younger I was mostly into painting, drawing, and more illustration-type mediums. My dad had a film camera and took family photos, but I didn’t get into photography until high school when digital cameras became more accessible. In college, I started getting really frustrated with illustrations because it took too long to create a single piece.That’s kind of how I turned toward photography. Initially, it was for the instant gratification, but slowly I started developing the skills to turn it into more of an art.

You were a medical student at the same time you were putting out photographic projects. How did you decide on two opposite ends of the professional spectrum?

Each was an escape from the other. On one end, I wanted a steady job and was pretty good at science. I also loved meeting people from every walk of life and getting to know their life story. On the other end, photography was a break from the monotony and rigorous structure of medicine. In photography, you can be free and there are no rules or expectations.

On Instagram, you compared your nervousness the night before a shoot to taking finals again. What about it makes you nervous and how do you combat that?

I’ve been doing photography for several years and every night before a shoot, I have nightmares about it. Always . It’s like those pre-test nightmares you get where you dream  that you missed the exam or the numbers are mixed up. In my pre-shoot dreams, my model goes missing or the clothes are all wrong. I think that’s  my mind’s way of dealing with stress. I try to be as meticulous as possible and keep minute-to-minute itineraries for myself, even though they never pan out. Makeup takes longer, people show up late, it happens. That’s the natural course of photoshoots. But I’m a perfectionist, and I want to succeed for myself and my team. I don’t want to let them down.

It’s no secret that social media is such a trivial part of promoting artistic work these days. When you take social media breaks, what exactly do you feel that you need to take a break from?

Social media is awful, but it’s literally how I get jobs. I take breaks to get away from the constant competition. I mentioned earlier that I loved the lack of expectations in art. However, once you’re on Instagram, you naturally compare yourself, your style, what kind of jobs you get, your Insta story, the way you look, to other people. For photographers, it’s not only about their art, but about their lifestyle and brand. Taking a break from social media is removing myself from those expectations of what kind of person – or photographer – you have to be to succeed. I’ve been taking a lot of breaks lately. I used to post much more regularly, but these days, the algorithm sucks, no one gets any engagement anymore and you can’t have conversations with your followers the way you used to. That pressure to conquer the algorithm makes for bad art because you are seeing what other people are doing and trying to copy that. We end up doing things for Instagram and not for art itself. Taking a step back helps me create things that are meaningful and not just pretty to look at.

Speaking of pretty to look at, let’s break down the composition of your portraits. What do you envision as you set up a shot?

I approach all my portraits like paintings. I study the lighting and colors of classical paintings and try to recreate that. When planning, I focus on creating harmony and cohesiveness in the image with color. I generally use bright backgrounds because the black-and-white portrait has already been done a million times. My lighting is very simple. I use natural light and a single strobe to create shadow and texture. The rest is really the chemistry between photographer and model. All of the people that I work with are gorgeous and it’s my job is to bring out their essence and make that visible to the audience.

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Talk a bit about the #ThisIsWhatAsianLooksLike project. As a collective initiative, what has been done to break stereotypes associated with Asian Americans?

That was a super fun project that I did with my friend (DJ King Marie (@djkingmarie)). She identifies as Filipino and has a diverse cast of Asian creative friends. Her idea was to show the spectrum of Asians for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The face of Asia in American media is Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but those aren’t the largest populations in Asia. We wanted to be part of the movement of showcasing ALL Asians. I was really happy with the reception for those photos because people would tell me that they don’t often see themselves in editorial spreads, but seeing that it’s even a possibility is inspiring. I didn’t have that growing up. It helps to have those role models, especially in the creative industry.

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What does accurate representation in the creative industries look like to you?

The biggest thing for me is eliminating the biases we have of people based on their name, the color of their skin, their culture, etc. In cinema, we need to stop reusing the popular character tropes that Hollywood has created. Switch these roles up to have lead characters of different backgrounds. As we’ve seen with Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, it will sell. People will consume it because America is a diverse country. More importantly, as we’re growing up, we need to be able to visualize ourselves in those roles. For us to be able to enjoy media portraying all different types of people without stereotypes is important. In the fashion and beauty world, this also means celebrating diversity, and not just to reach a quota.  Unfortunately, we live in a society that systematically discriminates against people of color. But I’m hoping one day we will appreciate all forms of beauty equally and recognize that every person, regardless of their identity, has something to contribute. They become the definition of beauty instead of having to embody a stereotype. I envision a world where we celebrate all faces.

On your website, you say you are “uninspired by traditional fashion photography” and “set out to redefine feminine beauty and challenge the rules of the fashion world.” How do you do that in your work?

By featuring women of all different backgrounds and identities. My partner is a transgender woman so highlighting the queer community is very important to me. They’re often marginalized and not included in mainstream conceptions of beauty. Since I have a voice through my photography, I try to promote queerness and queer beauty. Also, with my portraits, I try to photograph predominantly women of color. I want to give them a platform and show how beautiful someone can be even if they don’t meet the classic, fashion industry standard, of white eastern European beauty. I think that’s why many magazines are failing because they’re not keeping up with our new culture. Whereas magazines like Teen Vogue are thriving because they’re constantly updating their standard of beauty and incorporating new faces and voices. As artists, we have a big responsibility of controlling how the rest of the world sees our subjects, so we have to do it in a socially conscious way.

You were able to photograph the cover of Circus Magazine’s Issue 002 with Jean Deaux. How did it feel to have your work distributed in physical form?

It’s surreal. I’ve spent hours in a dark room editing those photos, getting bogged down with the details, and to see it in a product form feels different, almost like it wasn’t me that took those photos. I felt detached a little bit but it’s really cool to step back and finally enjoy what I made. I have to thank Bianca and everyone involved in the shoot for trusting me with the opportunity to do the cover. I’m glad when people are excited and say it’s eye-catching and new. It highlights a young up-and-coming artist.

Early in 2018, you turned your lens on yourself in an “act of defiance” against “cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” What did you learn from that experience?

Selfies are easy, but self-portraits are hard.It’s hard to look yourself in the face especially when the camera clearly captures every imperfection, flaw, and wrinkle. As a photographer, I never wanted to be in front of the camera, so for me, self-portraits are an incredibly intimate experience to learn more about yourself. I have always been so critical about how I look and sometimes I regret how self-conscious I was in high school. I think I looked super cute back then, braces and all. I never fit in, and I don’t fit in now and that’s okay. Self-portraits are an act of defiance because you’re going against what society wants you to feel. You’re defying this idea that you have to be beautiful in order to be loved and successful.

You captioned a series of New Year’s Resolutions back in Jan. 2018 that included things like take more selfies, create on your own terms and learn to make videos. Were you able to accomplish all that you’d hoped?

I did take more selfies. I think last year I posted four self-portraits on Instagram which is a success. In 2017 I was doing photoshoots multiple times per week and picking up any projects I could. It was great learning but exhausting. In 2018, I took it much slower and worked on more personal projects that I was emotionally invested in. I haven’t made as much progress with video unfortunately. I’ve tried shooting behind-the-scenes iPhone videos for my photoshoots, but, I don’t understand the flow and rhythm of video the way that I understand photography. It just means I need more practice. The more you do anything creatively, the better you’ll get. You gotta take 10,000 bad photos before you get a good one.


Written by: Andrea Carrillo

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