When Li Yushi speaks about her work in public, the 29-year-old doesn’t beat around the bush.
“Basically, I’m a Chinese woman who takes photographs of naked Western men,” Li told an audience at a recent talk in London.
Originally from Hunan province in central China, the photographer has spent the past five years living in the U.K., where she has produced a series of award-winning projects that put the male body front and center.
For Li, snapping men in the nude is a way to flip traditional gender relations, stripping the male gaze of its power and placing female desire in the driving seat.
The approach sprang from Li’s research into how women are represented in visual media. Arriving in London to begin her master’s degree in photography in 2016, she was struck by how often erotic images drew connections between women and food.
“Many sexy photos of women I saw show them with food, and women are often described as beautiful and delicious,” Li tells Sixth Tone. “I wanted to make a work that put men in that role.”
So the student went on Tinder to search for willing participants. Out of 300 requests she sent, 15 men agreed to be photographed. She then visited each of them at their homes, shooting them as they cooked and ate in their kitchens.
Unlike the stereotypical images favored by adult magazines featuring women posing provocatively, Li’s series of portraits — which she titled “My Tinder Boys” — are intimate, the young men in her lens alluring, but also vulnerable.
There is 21-year-old Lucas, leaning on a counter deseeding a pomegranate, his behind illuminated by soft, natural light. Then there’s Tom, 20, who sits coyly at his dining table, scooping a bite from a strawberry cream cake.
According to Li, her goal wasn’t to simply reverse traditional gender roles; it was to explore alternative approaches to staging eroticism and intimacy from a heterosexual female perspective.
“In my work, I want to be in a position of control,” she says. “This is an attempt to objectify them and make them my desired objects.”
In her next project, “Your Reservation Is Confirmed,” Li took her exploration of the gaze a step further. Fascinated by how the internet allows people to fulfill their desires with just a few swipes and clicks, she decided to push the concept to its extreme.
“I rent my ‘ideal’ home through Airbnb, and book my ‘ideal’ men through a life modeling website to construct my ‘ideal’ images,” Li wrote in an article describing the project for Vogue Italia.
“Garden,” from the project “Your Reservation Is Confirmed.” Courtesy of Li Yushi
In these images, Li herself steps into her imagined world, fully clothed and staring right into the camera, while her nude male models gaze at her or into the distance. In contrast to the previous series, the men’s genitals are fully exposed.
“The female body is still very sexualized, so I don’t want to contribute to that,” says Li. “The fact the men are naked while I’m wearing clothes is also a way to show I have more power than they do.”
The two projects have won critical acclaim and have been exhibited in galleries across China and Europe. To Li’s surprise, however, they’ve also become entangled in discussions of race as well as gender.
Li recounts meeting several white men who proclaimed they preferred Asian women while shooting “My Tinder Boys,” sparking renewed discussion about the fetishized gaze some Western men project on Asian females. To Li, this fetish also springs from a retrograde and unrealistic idea of femininity, with Asian women considered “more beautiful, well-behaved, and reserved.”
“It’s very macho,” says Li. “He likes you because you’re more like a woman in the traditional sense.”
But Li has also drawn criticism for only featuring white men as objects of desire in her work. One male viewer sent her an email accusing the photographer of “advocating hatred toward Asian men.”
According to Li, the racial makeup of her models was a mere consequence of logistics: She didn’t find an Asian man willing to be photographed, while a shoot with a Black model was discarded because the photos were underexposed. Nevertheless, she found her critic’s sentiment galling.
“It’s very patriarchal,” she says. “It’s as if women are his property, and he’s mad because they’re being used by someone else.”
For Li, this kind of cultural suppression of female sexuality and societal double standard is precisely what she wants to rebel against.
“I just want to shoot different men and make it look like I have many boyfriends who seem disposable,” she says. “Whether the men are Chinese or Western, women can say, ‘this is what I desire.’ We can long for many different people, because that’s what men do, too.”
Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone from her apartment in London, Li discussed her artistic inspirations and how she went about creating her projects. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
“Skip,” from the project “Your Reservation Is Confirmed.” Photo edited with artist’s permission. Courtesy of Li Yushi
Sixth Tone: For the “My Tinder Boys” project, you said you originally reached out to around 300 men. How did you decide who to photograph?
Li Yushi: I swiped right based on my own preferences: men who are good-looking and kind. I relaxed my standards slightly from my normal dating habits. The main issue was whether the other party would agree to my requests, which was rare. Most people thought it was a scam, or that I was trying to tempt them. Other times, because I’d asked to photograph them nude, they’d reply: “Will you also be naked?” I wouldn’t respond to those messages.
If someone agreed to be photographed, I met them in public first to make sure there was nothing wrong with them before going to their apartments. A few people I met gave me an uncomfortable vibe, so I didn’t photograph them. But in general, I wasn’t particularly nervous. If you use Tinder, you may end up going to other people’s places anyway.
Sixth Tone: Why did you choose to photograph the men in their kitchens?
Li: The kitchen is traditionally considered a feminine space. Plus, I think eating can be quite erotic. In the U.K., I came across a magazine called “Readers’ Wives,” which let people submit sexy photos of their wives. Several of the images were taken in the kitchen. I thought that was interesting.
Sixth Tone: Your work aims to reverse the male gaze and depict men being looked at from a female perspective. How did you achieve this effect during your shoots?
Li: Generally, I chose poses that looked more natural. Sometimes, I had a general idea of what I wanted them to eat before I went, but other times I’d just see what they had at home. The men I chose also looked quite young and boyish. I wanted them to look a little vulnerable, but not overly feminine.
In ancient Greece, depicting men nude was common. Then, it seems that in the 18th and 19th centuries female nudity became the mainstream. Male nudity looked confident, upright, and authoritative, almost like they were showing off: “Look at me, look at how great I am.” But female nudes look more passive; their body positions are always a little demure.
So I wanted to photograph them in a more natural, genderless way — to show them just as human beings. I wanted to show a different side to masculinity.
“Brush,” from the project “Your Reservation Is Confirmed.” Courtesy of Li Yushi
Sixth Tone: Did you ever ask your models why they wanted to get involved in a project like this?
Li: I did. Most of them thought it was an interesting idea, or they wanted to get involved in art. But one guy told me he’d thought something else might happen, and that all these men (who’d agreed to be photographed) had similar expectations.
Sixth Tone: Were the men concerned about how they looked on camera?
Li: One man thought he looked a little too fat, but the others didn’t have much to say about their bodies. I think the reasons behind that are a bit complicated. For one thing, I’m not sure how much they really cared about the photos. It’s also possible they were too embarrassed to say they weren’t happy with their appearance.
For a long time, women were something to be looked at. But now in the West, men are gradually becoming more concerned with their appearances, too. What I find disappointing is that businesses are using these sentiments to sell their products. The message is often that, as a man in a new era, you should also be more concerned with how you look and buy this hair product or that jacket.
“The Death of Actaeon,” from the project “Paintings, Dreams and Love,” 2020. Courtesy of Li Yushi
Sixth Tone: What projects do you plan to work on next?
Li: Recently, I’ve been working on a video series called “I Hope You Like What You Have Seen.” Some people contacted me after seeing my work and said they wanted to be filmed by me. It’s interesting to see their desire to be seen. I’d video call them, and then watch them do things that are mundane but also a little bit strange. They couldn’t see me because I had turned off my camera.
Then, there’s “Painting, Dreams, and Love,” a series in which well-known paintings become inspirations for photos of men as erotic subjects. Compared with my previous work, these photos are less everyday, slightly more theatrical.
Editors: Dominic Morgan and Shi Yangkun.
(Header image: “The Nightmare,” from the project “Paintings, Dreams and Love,” 2019. Courtesy of Li Yushi)