Chinese photographer and poet, Ren Hang, has died at the age of 29. His searing images, a carnival of milky limbs and botanical beauty, were celebrated and censored in equal measure.
Ren Hang was arrested several times for his explicit photographs and experienced censorship throughout his career in his home country of China. His pictures were a celebration of brazen exposure told through a language of graphic lines and block coloring. His subjects, always nude, were friends and more recently fans. A self-taught photographer, Ren Hang once said he shoots with “no plans.”
Alexander Öberg, of Galleri Tryffelgrisen, a longtime collaborator of Hang, told TIME: “We are shocked and incredibly sad about Ren’s death. He was such a lovely person. We still cannot believe it is true. We can only speculate about what led him to end his life at the young age of 29.” Öberg said Ren Hang was a “lovely person and an incredibly creative artist who had so much more to share with the world.” Tryffelgrisen had collaborated with Hang for several years and exhibited him before he became widely known. Öberg added that he always knew Ren Hang as a “kind, humble and somewhat shy person.”
Ren Hang was born in Jilin, China, in 1987 and began taking pictures in 2008. He was drawn to photography while studying marketing; his college work didn’t interest him but he realized taking pictures did. Hang once said he simply “shot what he saw,” which began with his roommate’s naked body. Nudity continued to be a source of inspiration for Hang, whose visionary, artfully-constructed scenes bled the surreal with the provocative.
His work, though celebrated across the world, was a subject of controversy in his homeland. Outdoor nudity and pornographic images have been banned in the People’s Republic of China since 1949 and Hang was arrested several times, though he was unsure “what the legal reason was.” Despite this, Ren Hang has always maintained that his work was not “taboo” or seeking to “push boundaries,” adding: “I just do what I do.” Hang was championed by Ai Weiwei, who he also collaborated with, and was held up as a leading light of Chinese contemporary photography.
Ren Hang suffered from cyclical depression, something he documented through his poetry, under the title My Depression. He published seven photo books included Ren Hang, Nude, Republic and Son And Bitch before Taschen’s recent retrospective, edited by Dian Hanson. Ren Hang has been exhibited around the world and received the Outset/ Unseen Exhibition Fund in 2016. Ren Hang was living in Beijing at the time of his death.
Ren Hang’s work can be viewed here.
Kim Bubello, who edited this photo essay, is a freelance photo editor at TIME.