Zhang Hai’er was among the earliest photographers to develop a distinct, independent approach to documentary photography in the late 1980s and early 1990s in China. In searching for new documentary subjects, he turned his lens toward the city, photographing the changing urban landscape and lifestyles. His portraits of prostitutes, socialites and ordinary women in the Bad Girls series go beyond the objective, neutral stance of conventional documentary photography. Half-undressed women, mostly in an indoor studio or domestic setting, stare provocatively at the camera, engaging the viewer and exposing the presence of the photographer.
In Bad Girls, Zhang enumerates the many iterations of the self-fashioning and self- exposition of identities by telescoping into the one subject of womanhood and femininity. There is always a performative dimension in Zhang’s photographs, be it the theatrical presentation of his subjects or the directorial presence of the photographer. This performativity is evident from the beginning of his practice, when he experimented with “selfies” in which he intruded with his face or hand. Zhang chooses to emphasise the subjective perceptions so that one could detect the involvement of the photographer, sometimes achieving a bizarre effect.
Works from the series (four of them the very original prints) were exhibited in Les Rencontres internationales de la photographie d’Arles in 1988, a much-historicized moment of the first-ever Chinese participation in this international photography festival. Each of these vintage gelatin silver prints was hand-printed by the artist and most of them are unique copies.