Editor’s note: Some of the images below depict nudity.
Although China ended the persecution of homosexuality in 1997, activists say the stigma around being LGBTQ — and discussing it publicly — remains today.
In the past few years, Chinese Web censors have made headlines for repeatedly targeting depictions of homosexuality. In a 2018 survey by the U.N. and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, only 5% of LGBTQ people in China felt comfortable being out at work.
Italian-born photographer Raul Ariano is currently based between Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He says he traveled from Italy because he was fascinated by “Chinese people and their way of adapting themselves in the fast-paced change of their society.”
Over dinner during Ariano’s first weekend in mainland China, he says he was talking with a friend who called LGBTQ people “sick and dangerous.”
“I was shocked to hear that,” Ariano says.
So, over the course of five years, Ariano set out to photograph more than 30 LGBTQ participants across mainland China — eventually turning the project into a portrait series.
He says his goal was to “share stories of love, dignity and hope in a segment of society that tends to be hidden in China.”
Because many people avoid coming out to their parents and relatives for fear of being rejected, Ariano says he constantly faced difficulties finding willing participants. He almost gave up on the project several times.
But between commercial and editorial assignments, he reached out to the local community with the help of PFLAG China, an organization based in Guangzhou City.
Ariano photographed participants in their apartments, with natural lighting and different colors to show the intimacy between couples.
He says he was inspired by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 movie Happy Together. The movie is famous for his masterful explorations of colors and blurs and its distinctive style.
Ariano says getting access to such private spaces in people’s lives was the most challenging part of the project.
But the concept of home was compelling for him. He says it’s “the space where the couples share their time, their intimacy, and is a sort of shelter where they are protected and can be their real selves.”
Throughout the series, Ariano met LGBTQ people across mainland China. Some had the support of their families. Others had been forced to endure conversion therapy.
“But the most incredible thing I have felt was the strength and the determination of those people to live the life they want,” he says. “Whatever it takes.”
Raul Ariano is an Italian photographer based in Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Shuran Huang is NPR’s photo intern.