The images in Yuan’s latest book are gentle and dream-like, but looking closer, something's not quite right
The project began in 2016, when Shanghai-based photographer Xiaopeng Yuan was commissioned to shoot a campaign for a Chinese kidswear brand. Turning up to set, Yuan found western children in a makeshift suburban-American set — but he was not surprised. In many Asian countries, including China, Japan, and South Korea, it is common to see caucasian models in advertising local clothing brands, in magazine editorials, and even on television adverts.
“The image of whiteness reflects a perfect lifestyle,” explains Yuan, who attributes this to the historically western-centric fashion industry. Attracted to the strangeness of this phenomenon, Yuan began to make personal images on the commission, using the pseudo-Western sets to stage photographs, now presented in his latest photobook, Campaign Child.
The resulting scenes are gentle and dream-like, but also faintly disturbing. A small bird is trapped under a sheet of cling film; butterflies swarm over a still life of fruit and kitchen appliances; and a burning candle balances inside a glass of water that is impaled into a cake. The images are beautiful, but there is an underlying feeling that something bad is about to happen — like watching a tea-cup sway on the edge of a table.
“The mixture between feelings of anxiety and childishness is the point that attracts me”
“”The mixture between feelings of anxiety and childishness is the point that attracts me,” says Yuan, who despite being a publisher (Yuan co-founded Same Paper in 2013) decided to publish the project with Loose Joints. The book is designed and edited by Sarah Piegay Espenon — one half of the Marseille-based publishing house — who wanted the book feel as strange as possible, but through as lean of an edit as they could. “The book is intentionally meant to feel a bit broken, punctured or off-kilter, and so the sequence reflects that too. You have little bursts of images or moments of deliberate repetition,” she says.
The design is similarly deliberate in its inconsistencies. “Everything in the book has an appearance of normality, but something isn’t quite right,” says Espenon. The image on the front cover slips off the top bleed, and regardless of whether there is a photograph there, every page is printed with the same varnished rectangle — almost as if it is incomplete. “We wanted to decompose the normal protocol of how one would subconsciously consume images,” says Espenon, explaining how the edit, sequence and overall design is intended to reflect the “feeling of emptiness behind consumerism in China” — the backdrop of which is the twisted fantasy we see in Campaign Child.