“Do Something Different”: The Student Photography Association of CAFA in the Late 1980s

TEXT:Emily Zhou    DATE: 2022.5.12


In 2017, the main members of the Student Photography Association of CAFA gathered for the first time after 30 years. From left to right are Sun Zhenjie, Liu Qinghe, Bi Jianfeng, Niu Chu (deceased), Chen Shuxia, Hong Hao and Wang Youshen. (Photo taken by [Australia] Chen Shuxia and provided by Wang Youshen)

In August 1987, an avant-garde “manifesto” together with a series of representative photographic works from the Student Photography Association of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (abbr. CAFA) were published on the newly-launched China Photo Press. Soon after it was published, not only the content of the manifesto but also the photographs’ formats, even the graphic layout and the proportion of the page occupied in the newspaper, triggered widespread controversy. For a time, readers kept sending letters to the editorial board to express their opinions and criticisms. In the manifesto, Our Words, this group of young students from CAFA announced: “We do not want to repeat other people’s creative modes, nor are we satisfied with the instant pleasure of photographing. Instead, we take our features as the starting points, fully exploring our advantages, and utilizing our strengths to locate the most unique expressive method for ourselves. Meanwhile, we also address to observe the objective reality from our unique perspective, and express our rich emotions through our combination.”[1] The photographic works published at the same time presented the idea of “non-repetition” practically—this group of experimental works showed a dramatically different appearance with the mainstream “objective documentary” style photographs at that time in China, which were full of imagination and endowed with the characteristic of surrealism and formalism.


Our Words: Selected Works of the Student Photography Association of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China Photo Press, August 13, 1987, 39×27cm (Photo courtesy of Wang Youshen)

Geng Hai, who participated in the founding of China Photo Press, recalled that in the July of that year, he accepted the invitation from Wen Danqing, who was working together with Geng Hai in the China Photographers Association, to visit the group of young students from the Student Photography Association of CAFA at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. As Genghai recalled, it was not a pleasant meeting; instead, a dispute was triggered in their conversation. The one side, namely, the students from CAFA, believed that the works from the photographers with the traditional photographic education background were too “orthodox”, while the other side did not fully agree with the “conceptual idea”, “feelings” and “imagination” addressed in the works created by the young. In the end, neither side successfully persuaded the other. However, though the conversation was ended up with an altercation, the story could still be carried forward due to the new tendency of art photographs at the time in China that the China Photographers Association advocated to distinguish with the news documentary photography. In this context, Geng Hai persisted to recommend and select some photographs from the Student Photography Association of CAFA to China Photo Press, but in addition to the works, the members of the Association were also required to write a few articles to elaborate their opinions. In this case, members Wang Hu's My View of Photography, Wang Youshen's Art Diversification and the Role of Artists in Photography Activities, Zhou Jing's Feelings in My Practice, and Our Works Are Waiting for the Test of Society in response to readers' controversy, have been published successively.


Our Words: Selected Works of the Student Photography Association of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China Photo Press, August 13, Page 3 (Photo courtesy of Wang Youshen)

It seems that the Student Photography Association of CAFA did not take initiative to make the “manifesto” that later caused an uproar within the photography field at that time in China; it was produced under the pressure and requirements from the editorial board of China Photo Press instead. In another sense, whether it was the request to publish in the China Photo Press or the criticism that followed, it provided the young photographers from CAFA with the opportunity and motivation to clarify their creative ideas, study the relationship between photography and painting, and face up to the current situation and development of “photography” as an artistic creation in China. Furthermore, their personal practice and artistic thoughts were also known to the public through the exhibitions and publications of their works at that time, which brought a fresh and avant-garde trend to the Chinese photography circle in the late 1980s.

Photograph and Creation: From “Club of Photography” to “Student Photography Association”


“The Invitation to the Second Photography Exhibition of CAFA Students in 1986”, CAFA Exhibition Hall (Photo courtesy of Wang Youshen)


“The Application Form for Membership of Beijing Photographers Association”, 1987 (Photo courtesy of Wang Youshen)

Following some archives kept by member Wang Youshen, for instance, “The Invitation to the Second Photography Exhibition of CAFA Students in 1986” and “The Application Form for Membership of Beijing Photographers Association” in 1987, it can be found that, from the members’ photography exhibition organized in the corridor in 1985 to the “Second Photography Exhibition of CAFA Students” held in CAFA exhibition hall, the group still followed the previous name “CAFA Photography Club”. By the time of 1987, the “CAFA Photography Club” was officially renamed the “CAFA Student Photography Association”. Wang Youshen served as the president of the Association, and its members included Bi Jianfeng, Chen Shuxia, Hong Hao, Liu Qinghe, Niu Chu, Sun Zhenjie, Wang Hu, and others. When talking about the name change from the “club” to “student photography association”, Wang Youshen emphasized that, first of all, the Association was composed of students and was research-based—it was not established and run for fun. In response to the branding-new nature of the Association, the members had successively taken a series of research and practices regarding the techniques and features of photography. Secondly, through the following exhibition and publication opportunities, for the first time, the members of the association were able to step out of the Academy, and meet and communicate in-depth with emerging and cutting-edge photographers both at home and abroad.王友身1987【法国阿尔热国际摄影节】中央美术学院摄影协会.jpg

Preparing for “France Arles International Photography Festival”, 1987(Photo courtesy of Wang Youshen)


 “First National Photographic Novel Exhibition” held in the National Art Museum of China, 1987(Photo courtesy of Wang Youshen)

Apart from the collective announcement in the China Photo Press, from 1987 to 1988, the association members successively participated in the “First National Photographic Novel Exhibition” held in the National Art Museum of China, “Black and White Soul—Capital College Students Photography Art Exhibition“, “France Arles International Photography Festival”, etc. Meanwhile, their works have been selected on the covers and inside pages of mainstream photography publications in China such as Chinese Photographers, Modern Photography and Popular Photography many times during this period.

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Wang Youshen, “Models in the Studio”, Chinese Photographers, the first issue of 1988 (Photo courtesy of Wen Danqing)

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Bi Jianfeng, “Corridor”, Chinese Photographers, the second issue, 1989 (Photo courtesy of Wen Danqing)

When examining specifically at the photographic works by the members of the Association at this stage, it is not difficult to see their various attempts at the technical level and expressive methods. It is worth noting that as far as the members of the Association concerned, they regarded “photography” as one of the ways for them to observe the world and express their self-concept, just as how they understood and utilized other artistic languages such as painting. In this sense, their exploration regarding “photography” such as exposure, darkroom technique, positive and negative film stacking, etc., still served the artists’ thoughts and expressions. Moreover, the directions and approaches of various attempts were inseparable to their respective professional backgrounds to a great extent. For example, the members from the department of “Comic Strips and New Year Paintings” at CAFA preferred repetitive and continuous images. What they try to reproduce through the camera were not the description of the objective world or the capture of social scenery, but the unique perspective and path of the creator to perceive the world. It is precisely because of the fundamental difference in focus and starting point that the creations of members of the Association in the late 1980s presented a completely different characteristics from traditional photography and mainstream photography.

For instance, at this stage, Wang Hu, who was praised by Wang Youshen to be the member with the best darkroom techniques in the Association, has experimented with the trajectory of light under long-time exposure, the conversion, overlay, and magnification of positive and negative films, as well as multiple groups of portrait experiments. With his continuous in-depth research on photography techniques, he has unconsciously touched on the visual trajectory of time, the game between positive and negative spaces, and the dissolution of the meaning of images in repetition.王虎《行走的光》系列.png

Wang Hu, Moving Light series (Photo courtesy of Wang Hu)

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Wang Hu, Classmates: Mexican Flower Hat (Photo courtesy of Wang Hu)

《风景·三张负片的圆明园》 .pngWang Hu, Landscape: The Old Summer Palace in Three Negatives (Photo courtesy of Wang Hu)

Historical Background: “Do Something Different”

What has made this group of young artists take the camera and start to explore another expressive language then? Tracing back to the history of China around the 1980s, there are some historical events that were worth noting.

In early 1979, the catalogue Mourning from the People commemorating the “1976 Tiananmen Incident” was officially published and gained the government’s favor. This group of “amateur photographers” who consciously or unconsciously photographed the scenes of the Incident at the time gathered together through the process of shooting, collecting, compiling, and publishing, and began to re-examine the relationship between photography, art, and their self-pursuit. Subsequently, the “The April Photo Society” was established, and in April of the same year, the first exhibition “Nature-Society-Human” was organized. In the Preface of the exhibition, Wang Zhiping clearly pointed out that as an art category, photography should develop its own language: “rather than the ‘significance of subjective matter’, or whether it meets the official ideological requirements, the beauty of photography lies in the compliance with the natural rhythm, searching from the social reality and the human’s emotions and thoughts…”[3]


Cover of Mourning from the People, 1979 (Photo courtesy of Wen Danqing)

Judging from the theme and works of this exhibition, in terms of form, it emphasized the purity and independence of the unique language and form of photography; in terms of content, it advocated concerning the natural world, social life, and human emotions. In addition, it disagreed to regard photography as a political propaganda tool. By doing so, this pioneering photography exhibition has caused a great sensation both in the photography circle and at the social public level. This unofficial photography exhibition was even allowed to be presented at the National Art Museum of China in 1981, gaining mainstream recognition from a salon exhibition. Regarding the influence of the following two editions of “Nature-Society-Human”, some scholars believe that as the "common memory" has gradually faded away, it was difficult to resonate with the public as the first edition did. Some hold the view that the overemphasis on the formal language and picture effects of photography has weakened the natural expression of emotions [4]. But in any case,  “The April Photo Society” and the series of “Nature-Society-Human” exhibitions have dramatically influenced the birth and development of “New Wave Photography” in China in the 1980s. At that time, diversified experiments and positive attempts were practiced by different groups in different cities around the country. Among them, “documentary photography”, as one of the trends, or a counter-trend to the excessive emphasis on form and visual language, was brought up once again, and gradually gained a dominant position in the mid-to-late 1980s.《两个四月》.png

“Two Aprils: 40th Anniversary Exhibition of The April Photo Society”, Inter Art Center & Gallery, 2019 (Photo courtesy of Wen Danqing

When discussing that the documentary photography was able to stand out from diversified trends at this stage, Wu Hung holds the view that, “similar to the American documentary photography movement of the 1930s, Chinese documentary photography of the 1980s-1990s was closely related to the contemporary social and political environment; the subject, style, and technique were all in service of photographers who dedicated themselves to the cause of social reform. ”[5] During this period, the individual fate and the specific scene in China that were not concerned in the official mainstream news reports were fully explored in documentary photography works, which shares a similar perspective with the movement of “Scar Art” in the late 1970s. Emotions, consciousness, and destiny of humans were re-acquainted through freeze-framing these anonymous people and their unacknowledged lives. Meanwhile, the search for the roots of national culture, and the disappearance of the homeland and memory in the process of urbanization also constituted the primary themes at that time.

Almost in the same period, the “ '85 New Wave” occurred in the field of art has provoked the widespread of Western modern philosophy, literary and artistic concepts, and new materials and art forms were explored and practiced by different artists successively. The awakening of individual consciousness and the reconsideration of traditional art constituted an active cultural and ideological atmosphere during this period. Within the art academy field, teachers and students at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing were evidently influenced by such fresh and surging thoughts and atmosphere that were taking place at the moment.

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Chen Shuxia, Combing Hair, Chinese Photographers, Issue 2, 1989 (Photo courtesy of Wen Danqing)

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Hong Hao, Zoom in, Chinese Photographers, Issue 5, 1989 (Photo courtesy of Wen Danqing)

In the memories of Bi Jianfeng, Chen Shuxia, Hong Hao, Wang Hu, and other members of the Student Photography Association[6], since the Middle School Affiliated to the Central Academy of Fine Arts (now Experiment School Affiliated to the Central Academy of Fine Arts ), in order to cultivate students' solid technical foundation, the social realism painting addressed by the “Soviet School” was still featured by basic training at the time in CAFA, which requires students’ accuracy in painting to the greatest extent. When starting their freshman year at the CAFA, they found that realistic training was continued to be emphasized, while their creativity was gradually being worn away in the day-to-day rational training. This made them feel confused about their artistic pursuit and individual expressions. At this time, the fresh atmosphere of the “'85 New Wave” has entered the Academy. While students actively respond to free thoughts with rich community activities, in the Department of Folk Fine Art, Department of Mural Paintings, and other departments that emphasize experimentation and expansion of media and materials, many teachers also consciously began to arrange some new courses, such as the photography courses offered by Ling Fei, which greatly broadened the students' horizons and concepts. Besides, although the camera was still a “luxury” at that time, the students of the CAFA were not unfamiliar with it. When the students went to the rural areas to sketch and collect creative materials, photography had already been involved in their learning and creation to a large extent.

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Hong Hao, Zoom In 1, 1987 (Photo courtesy of Hong Hao)

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Hong Hao, Floating, 1988 (Photo provided by Hong Hao)

As Hong Hao said, photography was “unregulated” in the art field at that time, so he was able to make unconventional practices with it. Moreover, unlike the training and evaluation standards of painting received at that time, the immediacy brought by photography could preserve the passion and creativity of the creator to the greatest extent. At this stage, Hong Hao’s photographic creation concerned with “the shape of mind” and “questioning the truth”. He intentionally magnified some of the details to make the images grotesque, which inspired the artist to perceive an objective real world that is completely different from the so-called reality that is relied on the perception and visual experience of the human brain. In this new world captured by the camera, due to the accidental factors that may occur at the moment of pressing the shutter, the outline and selection of the real world based on people's subjective consciousness disappear. The contingency creates fairness herein—the camera treats everything it has captured and may capture equally. A surreal image constitutes Hong Hao's creation at this stage. By focusing on partial details or the contingency brought about by pressing the shutter, he discovered a “real realm” beyond the consciousness of the human brain through the camera lens.

In a word, whether the development of photography and art in social level at the time in China, or within the art academy, the desire and expectation for creative freedom of Student Photography Association members, which both suggested the arrival of a new era. Regarding traditional documentary photography, the challenges confronted by the “documentary” method were far more than distancing itself from the news reports used for propaganda. But more importantly, the practitioners should realize that the objective reality containing the common memory is increasingly fading away due to the huge changes of our society brought up by the repaid development of urbanization. Under this circumstance, how could photographers use the language of the camera to respond to such an every-changing world? How should they locate and express themselves when confronting and immersing in all those changes? A brand-new way of expression is keenly expected.

“Conceptual” and “Persistence”: The Professional Barriers and Challenges of the Times

The members from the Student Photography Association of CAFA did their art practices basically from 1986 to 1988. As the members successively graduated from CAFA, some chose to take a job, while others became independent artists. In this case, their activities and recognition as a group gradually disappeared. However, when tracing back to the history of “conceptual photography” in China at the beginning of the new millennium, the scholars gradually realized the importance of this group. “In the mid-1980s, there were several young students at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and they are well-known artists nowadays. They initiated a student photography association, and they were practicing conceptual photography at the time. If we would like to trace the origin of conceptual photography in China, this group cannot be ignored at least in the past 30 years.” [8]

Bi Jianfeng's photography works (Photo courtesy of Bi Jianfeng)

Today, the creation of the CAFA Student Photography Association is considered to be “conceptual” and the opposite of the “objective documentary”. However, whether to define their creation at that time as "conceptual photography”, the members seemed not to have such a clear idea, but just felt, as they said, “the photography circle at the time was single and dull, which may hinder the diversified development of photography art”[9], thus expecting to make a connection with the photography circle through their own creations. Until now, among the members, some are continuing to create works with photography, while others have already left the realm of photography. As far as the members’ respective choices and subsequent development are concerned, the controversy in terms of conceptual photography is still worth discussing.

In 1988, Wang Youshen joined the Beijing Youth Daily after graduating. Although devoting himself to the newspaper industry, Wang Youshen never stops photography creation. On the contrary, he took the advantage of working in the media industry to continually “produce images”. Besides, In the context of the explosion of image information in the 1990s, through the metaphors and dislocations of images in different cultural contexts, Wang Youshen continued to observe and reflect on the language of images and photography. Hong Hao, who also insisted on expressing himself through photography after graduation, took care of the transformation of society and the arrival of the era of globalization. In the new millennium, the rethinking of self-worth in the new era hidden in Hong Hao’s photographs has been replaced by the intervention and criticisms of the consumption landscape. At this stage, Hong Hao utilized the scanner to take over the camera. In his viewpoint, the scanner acquires images in a very straightforward way through direct contact with what is captured. It has fundamentally reversed his previous perception and control of photographing. Thus, a new way to observe images, obtain images and produce images is developed in the new era.

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Wang Youshen, Washing·Time Difference, 2006-2008, Photograph, Water, Fiberglass,120×90cm(Photo Courtesy Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum)


Exhibition View of “Wang Youshen: Cultural Codes”  (Photo Courtesy Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum)

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Hong Hao, Please Come In, 1998 (Photo provided by Hong Hao)

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Hong Hao, My Objects I, 2001 (Photo provided by Hong Hao)

On the other hand, Chen Shuxia and Liu Qinghe, who stayed at CAFA for art pedagogy after graduating, chose to continue their self-expression respectively through oil paintings and ink art. It seems that they are far away from photography, but in their creations to this day, it is difficult to ignore the traces of experimental exploration between media and self-expression during the period of the Student Photography Association. In 1987, Chen Shuxia presented several groups of photographic works in the undergraduate degree show, featuring the question and pursuit of ego. Among these photographs, in Seeking for the Self, the artist used the methods of darkroom production, collage, and re-shoot to identify the “ego” with different angles and expressions in a mirror. In fact, seeking the self is a continuous motif in Chen Shuxia’s creation. In her oil paintings, her extremely delicate perception and experience of life and the self can evidently be observed. On different stages, such a continuous inquiry into “self” was deeply embedded in the fate and change of the times, which reflected either as the contradictions brought about by the experience and acceptance of different artistic trends, or the anxiety rooted in the technological progress and social development. For many years, Chen Shuxia has always been soberly observing the dramatic changes of the outside world and the ups and downs of the individual's destiny in her creations. The metaphor of observation can be traced back to the “eyes” collaged on hands, stones, and ruins in the photographs in her early years. 

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Liu Qinghe, Inner Heart, Film photography, darkroom production, 25.5×31cm, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Liu Qinghe)


Liu Qinghe’s film photography, darkroom production, 31×25.5cm, 1986  (Photo courtesy of Liu Qinghe)

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Chen Shuxia, Seeking for the Self, Photography, 31cm×25.5cm×4, 1987 (Photo courtesy of Chen Shuxia)

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Chen Shuxia, Eyes, Film Photography, Darkroom Production, 31×25.5 cm,1986 (Photo courtesy of Chen Shuxia)

Gu Zheng once discussed the essential difference between “conceptual photography” and "pure photography”. Regarding conceptual photography, the creator considers photography as the basis of his or her concept, and it is inevitable to more or less touch on the reflections and criticisms of the medium “photography” itself during the creative process. While the other merely regards photography as a tool for viewing and reflecting the outside world, which would not conclude the criticism of the medium itself. [10] As Gu Zheng pointed out, when pure photography practitioners still insist on industry standards and technical barriers, conceptual photographers have quickly adapted themselves to the increasingly convenient photography technology in the new era to express their own ideas.

However, it seems inappropriate to take this point of view to discuss the creations from the Student Photography Association of CAFA. Instead of adapting to the advancement of photography technology and the arrival of the digital media era like most conceptual artists, most of the members showed their anxiety in the face of the “technical revolution”, and expressed their nostalgia and persistence of "manual washing" and "darkroom production”. In their previous creations, the conceptual nature was born in the unremitting exploration of photographic techniques. When a new era comes, digital cameras, computer software, and digital media can easily overcome the struggles and challenges in technical exploration to realize the final effect they pursued, they made their decision to either give up exploring self-expression with photography or continue to maintain the focus on “manual feature” in their creation. It is precisely such an insistence that allows them to consciously involve the discussion and criticism of photography itself in their creative process, and thus gradually touch on the technical ethics and the pure value of this medium. From this point of view, this student photography association seems to be in an in-between state—they do see photography as a way to express their ideas, but they have the same obsession with technical barriers. Perhaps, it boils down to the invisible shaping brought up by the training and standard emphasized by the Academy.

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Niu Chu, the original piece of  “The Invitation to the Second Photography Exhibition of CAFA Students”, Silk screen print, 1986 (Photo courtesy of Wang Youshen)

Today, everyone can take photographs. The popularity of digital photography and mobile phone shooting has made the threshold for photography easily approachable. Therefore, the technical barriers to photography are confronting unprecedented challenges in this era. It is no longer merely the contradictions around the notions of being “conceptual”, “traditional”, and “news documentary”, or the altercation between “commercial photography” and “art photography”. Instead, it is confronted with the era of information flood in which everyone is producing images at any time. Under such a circumstance, what should photography education emphasize? How could the new generation of photographers respond to the changing world? Perhaps as Yang Xiaoyan said, we are all interrogated by photography, as it keeps questioning “our responsibilities, our position, our emotions, and our attitudes toward history.”[11]


[1] Wang Youshen, Chen Shuxia, Bi Jianfeng, Sun Zhenjie, Niu Chu, Hong Hao, Wang Hu, Our Words, China Photo Press, August 1987.

[2] [6] [7] According to the speech contents from the guests, “Early Conceptual Photography Practice: Starting with Student Photography Association of Central Academy of Fine Arts”, Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum, April 16, 2022.

[3] The First Edition of  “Nature-Society-Human”, The Everlasting April, P88-89.

[4] Wu Hung, Between Past and Future: A Brief History of Contemporary Chinese Photography, SELECTED ARTWORKS FROM THE CAFA ART MUSEUM COLLECTION MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY, P188.

[5] Wu Hung, Between Past and Future: A Brief History of Contemporary Chinese Photography, SELECTED ARTWORKS FROM THE CAFA ART MUSEUM COLLECTION MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY, P190.

[8] Yang Xiaoyan, Imprints: An Interpretation of Thirty Years of Photography in China, 2007.

[9] Wang Hu, Wang Youshen, Chen Shuxia, Liu Qinghe, Our Works Are Waiting for the Test of Society, China Photo Press, April 28, 1988. The original piece was exhibited in the exhibition “The Photography Is Not What’s Important: Photography from the Central Academy of Fine Arts” in CAFAM.

[10] Gu Zheng, My View of Conceptual Photography and Photography in China, 2011.


Accessed on May 10, 2022.

[11] Yang Xiaoyan, Chinese Imprints—Thirty Years of Documentary Photography, 2010.


Accessed on May 10, 2022.


[1] Speeches and slides of guests in the symposium “Early Conceptual Photography Practice: Starting with Student Photography Association of Central Academy of Fine Arts”, Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum, April 16, 2022.

Text by Emily Weimeng Zhou and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO.

Courtesy of Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum and members of Student Photography Association of Central Academy of Fine Arts.