[slidepress gallery=’zhechen_bees’]

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls 

EPF 2011 Finalist

Zhe Chen


play this essay

They left their lives in the very wounds they had created for themselves.
– Virgil (Roman poet, 70BC – 19BC)

To jeopardize existence for existence itself: ‘Bees’ records a marginalized group of people in China, who, faced with chaos, violence, alienation and irredeemable loss in life, feel propelled to leave physical traces and markings on their bodies, in order to preserve and corroborate a pure and sensitive mind from within.

In 2010, having ‘The Bearable’ (a photo series documenting my own self-inflictions over the past 4 years) as my passport, I had the opportunity to develop a close relationship with some of these obstinate souls – the bees. During the process of exchanging secrets with them, I crossed paths with certain possibilities that were formerly untouched but towards which I had struggled greatly in my personal life. I’m struck by the unyielding actions and reactions that the bees carry on with while encountering sudden and acute emotional fluxes, and moved by the recurrent effort they make to recover themselves afterwards. No matter how different our lives seem to be, we undoubtedly share common psychological experiences.

I hope my photographs inquire upon society’s prejudice and preconception towards this community, and not become illustrations or pictorial evidence for the topic at hand: every subject is an individual, not just ‘one of them’ – his or her life cannot be predicted or dictated by any constructed social code or notion. Depression plants the seed of introspection. The bees take it in; They reason it, embrace it and explore it, forming an isolated universe in their own minds. These self-sustained universes contain every reason that explains the ‘abnormality’ that no one who lacks in common experiences could decode. I hope a first glance of my work conveys the idea of secrecy and sentiments, under which lies information awaiting exposure and recognition: like an index page pointing towards all the unanswered questions.


Brought up in Beijing, Zhe Chen is a photographer currently living in Los Angeles. In the past 4 years, Zhe has been documenting her self-inflicted activities while creating a series of projects focusing on body modification, human hair, post-traumatic stress disorder, identity confusion and memory. Zhe holds a BFA in Photography & Imaging from Art Center College of Design.

Related links


39 thoughts on “zhe chen – bees”

  1. “在我看來,這句話應該改寫為’來解除自己頭上的劍’,直到我們死亡。只有這樣,你才能重生。”–張洹




  2. I must admit that this is powerful stuff. I felt moved and uncomfortable but couldn’t stop looking. I read the statement, I went back and watched the slideshow again. This is certainly something I can feel. I have a tendency to like things that are on an edge. Well done.

  3. “I hope my photographs inquire upon society’s prejudice and preconception towards this community, and not become illustrations or pictorial evidence for the topic at hand:”

    …..Unfortunately i find these doing the opposite of what you hoped, in both cases.

    Some of the pictures are nice.

    curious about the mix of formats.

    know many many people who slice and dice. Male and female. I do not find this does anything for my understanding of the many causes of the need.


  4. Stuff like ” body modification, human hair, post-traumatic stress disorder, identity confusion and memory” are a rich source of imagery that can creep and meander within a subtle visual language. Eventually the sting places itself firmly in one’s consciousness and a gravity of pain plays intermittently with the audience’s mind.
    There is a lot more than meets the eye here especially some the work on Zhe Chen’s site some of which reminds me of the work of Chen Lingyang and sensibility of Cui Xiuwen’s video “Underground”. Yea I do have a lot of time for this work and find it a lot more inviting than the directness of Benjamin’s offering.

  5. Zhe… a silent scream.. so very loud inside, but silent.. probably makes no sense at all, but this is what your images, some more than others, tell me..

  6. The psychotic photographing the psychotic. Why would this even be considered for the EPF award? It seems antithetical to the concept. What is this photographer emerging toward? Baffling, Harvey.

  7. If I read the artist’s statement correctly, I agree with John Gladdy that the photos have the opposite effect, at least on me. I see a sickness and a tragic loss of connection within the subjects. I see a tragedy without answers, but one that still manages to lift up humanity and hope.

    I understand Jim’s comment, although psychotic is the wrong word, and dismissing this work is the wrong response. There may be a sickness coming through from both sides of the lens, but the images and the stories they tell stand on their own.


    at what point have you ever understood my aesthetic or my intent for the EPF? antithetical to what concept? we march to a different drummer my friend when it comes to photography…somewhere way back in the comment section of Burn are several explanations to you on my motivations…do i really have to say it all again? i think not…no point…you might try reading the comment i just wrote to Paul under dialogue “light my fire..” i doubt if it helps you to understand because your mind is made up from the get go that if an essay is not from photojournalism aka 25-50 years ago , then it is just not worthy…and i love the old work, and i refer to the old work, but is there no way for you to see a new day at all?? and remember these are finalists..9 photographers here will not get a grant…this a sampling of the best of several genres of work being done by young photographers today…were you ever young?

    cheers, david

  9. David, thank you so much for not only giving us a forum to share our work and views, but especially for always standing up for the young and the growing. I’m reminded of a line from a film by Tarkovsky: “Weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible, when he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant, but when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.”

    I feel the passage says something about ‘Bees’, too. There is frailty here, yes, but great strength, too. It’s not ‘the psychotic documenting the psychotic’. I’ve known and loved people far from crazy who felt they had no outlet to express their pain except physically. The worst part is that others view the cutting and the digging as a sign of irascible disturbance rather than an opportunity to help. I know I’ve been guilty of that thought. What I think is critical to note, but what the essay does not suggest, is that cutting happens across economic and cultural borders. I do not think this is a failing, per say, because not every essay actually has to cross those borders to call them up like a flame in the mind.

    Personally, I would experiment more with the sequence. The image of the fire is undeniably powerful, but I feel it is out of order. In my view there is a strong narrative here but it can be pushed further.

  10. Zhe Chen

    Congratulations on being a finalist, and thankyou for this provocative series.

    My gut reaction here was not positive. However working through it a number of times, re-reading your statement, and viewing your site has given me pause to reconsider.
    Jails and mental institutions are full of people who cut and burn themselves. Most people would agree that this is not a healthy thing to do.
    Your description “faced with chaos, violence, alienation and irredeemable loss in life, feel propelled to leave physical traces and markings on their bodies, in order to preserve and corroborate a pure and sensitive mind from within.” struck a chord. Less physical self-destructive behavior is common. Alcohol, drugs, food, foolish risk taking, could all fit into the description. Self mutilation, and self inflicted pain is perhaps just a more obvious one. This series forces me to confront my own self destructive behaviors and examine what motivates me to do them. At the same time it gives me a small window towards understanding you and your subjects, as well as towards my own son Brian, who is autistic and has some un-fortunate self-injurious behaviors.
    With regard to the work itself. It seems to me that many of the images must have strong personal references for you as I am at a loss to understand what their significance is. I must agree with John and Andy here. The power of this series is really just in the catologue of wounds and the blood. The first three images, and a few of the others are lovely and formal, delightfully so, but add little to my understanding of what you are trying to say, aside from the isolation theme. I find “The Bearable” on your site much more successful.

    Jim, thanks for always calling it as you see it. David, thanks for always pushing us forward.

    Cheers all.

  11. this really resonates with me.. there are so many forms of self harm and so many self-medicating their pain.. it’s many times romanticized yet not here.

    this to me lets the shame fall away.. and opens up the reality of self harm while hinting at the subconscious urges which result in such conscious actions.

    superb work.. brave may not be the right word – so i’ll say it seems shot *rightfully* without shame

    congratulations n good luck zhe

  12. Well my opinion is biased…You all know by now my love and obsession with FRIDA KAHLO, and my preferences to work that MIRRORS ONESELF…i find this type of work very brave and totally unpretentious…It makes me wanna see more work, and makes me wanna meet/befriend the artist…JUKKA was an example from last years epf…And i managed to befriend him and that made my world, bigger and better…
    thank u ZHE…i hope we will meet someday..u got the courage, the strength, the passion..
    Big big congratulations and thank you for widening my horizons and CATERING in my beloved photo philosophy which i name: MIRROR photography
    (thats why i also loved Patricia’s and Thomas Bregulla’s work also)..

  13. Lets quit reading so much into the artists statement (esp when the artist’s second language is English) and any sort of socio-political intent they may feel they need to have (and go an about for the sake of getting a grant when it really doesn’t matter) and instead just celebrate the work as it stands.

    And I celebrate this work, mostly for it’s intimacy apart from anything else. And that’s what DAH keeps pushing for. To me it’s what sets a work apart from the rest, no matter the subject.

  14. Great stuff. Fantastic color sense. Some photos I find mysterious, suspect they have some cultural significance I don’t understand, but that’s okay. It’s enough to understand that something’s there. And to perhaps have the curiosity piqued to ask further questions.

    As to the actual cutting, that’s something I’ve come across in one of my current projects. Kinda makes me curious about how kids in radically different cultures end up acting out the same behaviors. And how the authorities deal with it. Yet thankfully, there are no captions…

  15. Way to go Zhe, a sort of new documentary stuff that works very well for me. Not feel especially connected to the text though.


  16. CONGRATS!!!!!!!
    looks like you made the transition
    from cutting
    keep going!!!!!!!!

  17. As the artist sought, I did get a strong feeling for the sensitive souls within the bodies of the conflicted subjects in this disturbing, well-photographed essay. I did not get the feeling that those souls were all necessarily pure, but most definitely they are sensitive.

    You showed me a piece of China I never imagined even existed – the essay does not explain how they have been marginalized but I don’t think it needs to. You can’t tell us everything about China in 25 images but you certainly have told me something that I didn’t, something that I will not forget anytime soon.


    And I like Wendy’s statement:

    “looks like you made the transition
    from cutting

  18. i took metaphor mostly from these images rather than anything specific. Deep metaphor for pain; loneliness; stuck like a caged animal; needing to be recognized; self disgust, and so many others i’m sure (unfortunately). as many as we are individuals though responding in an all so recognizable way.

  19. Dear Zhe Chen…

    You’ve managed to convey with your essay a wail for those who cannot utter the mental pain they are suffering leading a life of secrecy, something I really wasn’t wholly aware of. Of course one hears stories/rumours and perhaps some film touches lightly over it, but I’ve never been confronted with it like this. I’m left wanting more and would love to hear more about your subjects, as this does seem in some way their way of confessing their secret. This way we could all to learn from their affliction and perhaps notice warning signs in those close to us as friends or family. I wouldn’t want to let someone close to me suffer in a universe of their own such desperation when I’m sure a person with enough empathy and time to listen can not cure or anything close but at least let them know they aren’t so lonely as their trauma leads them to believe. It’s so easy to snap a way and say “get on with life and move on because there is always someone worse than you,” as some don’t have that lucky star which never lets you give up…

  20. Congratulations Zhe, your images come from a world that is very far away from mine. So i must say Thanks for the travel!

  21. burning*michelle


    what is wrong with you?

    Jim Powers re: Zhe Chen Bees:
    “The psychotic photographing the psychotic. Why would this even be considered for the EPF award? It seems antithetical to the concept. What is this photographer emerging toward? Baffling, Harvey.”

    how dare you personally attack zhe chen? criticize the work, criticize the story, criticize burn all you want – i’m a proponent of free speech – but this type of remark is actually an assault on someone’s personality and character.

    an emerging photographer by any definition, she is an artist working to heal herself through the power of her visual voice. how dare you try and silence that with your abusive cruelty? because thats what it is – abusive – this is bullying behavior and you have crossed a line and gone far, far, far beyond the bounds of your usual negativity and cynicism.

    where is your humanity?

  22. The photography shows mastery of the technicalities of the medium; they look, at first glance, easy but the continuity of tone and colour belies this. The subject matter is intriguing and drags you in for-sure.

    Congratulations Zhe.


  23. “how dare you personally attack zhe chen? criticize the work, criticize the story, criticize burn all you want – i’m a proponent of free speech – but this type of remark is actually an assault on someone’s personality and character.”

    I’m always troubled when someone says, “I’m a proponent of free speech, but…”

    Hacking yourself up is not within the realm of “normal” behavior, whether you are a photographer or not. Perhaps her stuff is somehow therapeutic for her, but it remains hard for me to see how someone dealing with their psychosis by photographing others with the same psychosis would seek funding for her “therapy” from an emerging photographer grant. It’s not like there is a shortage of photographers seeking funding for their projects. She certainly has the “right” to shoot anything she likes. My comment was more a question to DAH (to which he responded), though.

  24. In reality, Jim, it’s not at all abnormal for young people, women especially, to cut or otherwise hurt themselves. I remember when I was in junior high; there was a phase in which a lot of people were burning themselves with cigarettes and mainly it was the girls and they were the ones who went to the furthest extremes. I don’t think cutting is significantly different. And now looking back, I realize that those who went furthest were girls with terrible family lives. It later came out that one of them was sexually abused by her step father. I doubt self-inflicted pain such as cutting is any more psychologically abnormal than terrible home lives, and even sexual abuse, is sociologically abnormal. It’s a hellish world for many.

    Funny how connections sometimes flow. I once did a little story about a girl who cut herself. The final result was technically terrible, though now, with such great advances in my video skills and compression technology, I’m thinking of recapturing it and re-editing. Anyway, several years later that girl became my principal gateway into the world of meth and, in reaction to the “bees” story, I went back and reviewed our interviews for the parts where she talked about cutting. Interesting stuff. From cutting, which seems to be a behavior most indulged in by younger women (I’m guessing), she went to piercing and tattoos. She describes the pain from those activities as “relaxing.” Takes her mind off all her problems in the fucked up world in which she suffers far worse emotional pain than any physical pain caused by a little cut.

    The funny thing about the connections–as I was playing back the video, there’s a part where she sings a song by Third Eye Blind called “Semi sweet kind of life.” My daughter walked by and commented on me playing the video again and said, oh wow, you know that song’s about meth don’t you. I looked up the lyrics and sure nuff. Makes one wonder anew about any connection between song lyrics and behavior. As I often hear the Velvet Underground blasting from her room, it’s a little scary. Of course when I was the same age the Velvets were blasting from my room and I never became a heroin addict… at least not yet.

    Anyway Jim, it would be nice if some anti-social behaviors really were abnormal. I’d like to think that it were abnormal for people to have a total lack of empathy for anyone different from themselves, but I suspect those lacking empathy for their fellow humans are no more abnormal than young women who find some kind of solace from inflicting pain on themselves. Unfortunately though, the former cause a lot more pain for society as a whole than the latter.

  25. MW..

    very well put…well written analysis…


    well photography is very well established in a wide variety of psychiatric institutions as a form of therapy…you can get your doctorate in phototherapy in Norway i believe…will do some homework on this…you should as well…in any case, if a young photographer is indeed using photography as a tool for a combo of therapy and communication of this affliction to others, then i think this photography is totally in line for applying for a photography grant…why not?

    the point Jim is never what you have to say….i often agree with what you have to say…it is simply the way you say it…yes yes we already all know crotchety but honest Texas newspaper guy…fine…i like this image and have continuously supported this image of you….but you are often gratuitously hurtful and in this case to a young woman who is already probably hurting…

    i do not think you have any children Jim…but if you had a daughter , i am sure you would have used your freedom of speech in a way that expressed exactly what you wanted , but also in a way that would not have suggested that Zhe’s freedom of speech should not be honored….

  26. @Jim

    It’s “The Emerging Photographers Grant”, right? Not “The ends to which the photography from the emerging photographer is used grant”.

  27. This is one of the most disturbing photo essays I’ve seen for a long time, I think maybe ever.

    Intriguing, shocking, captivating, reviling, morbid, fascinating, upsetting, and full of despair.

    I am not sure I can comment with sufficient authority more than I have done already.

    Wonderful work.

  28. @Jim

    I am not sure what your role is here. Are you sure anymore? I’ve been away for quite a while, and when I return I find the same grumpy old guy provoking people, but now with a cynicism and spitefulness that I haven’t seen before. Are you deliberately playing devil’s advocate, or are you quite simply an old man become bitter on life, and determined to ruin somebody, ANYBODY’s day?

    I’d like to think David keeps you around because you do regularly make insightful and cogent comments, but I wonder if the collateral damage you cause with your more harmful statements make it worthwhile you being allowed to contribute here. Nobody likes a censor, least of all DAH, I would suggest, but here you make a strong case for yourself being censored.

    I think someone who hides behind clever language in order to insult people in the way you do is often encouraged and even revered in the tabloid world, but I think it is a actually a poor way of expressing oneself. If you’ve got something to say, say it in plain english, so everyone knows what you really mean. I think you need to have a good chat with yourself, you obviously have a few issues.

    There, that’s that off my chest. Feel free to come back on that, but I won’t be entering into a debate with you. I think a lot of people will agree with me, and I don’t have to justify my comments as much of the evidence is here on Burn.

  29. Andrew Jim gave up entering into debates long ago, heck come to think of it maybe he never did debate …….. he just gets us to react as you ahve here……… win win for Jim we are left looking like shags on a rock.

  30. Strong subject, strong, meaning visceral, photography with an altogether richer color palette than most of the essays we are often confronted with on BURN. An essay I might as well not find myself drawn towards, but actually am, and how!, by the sheer artistry behind it.

  31. And one day Zhe, I hope you can look back at your photographs (however many you must take) from a new realm, a new place of bee-ing, a place where you have taken others along with you.

  32. Hello Zhe – I really want to scream when I look at these pictures. I think they document a very painful and traumatizing experience for many people and I really appreciate you reflecting on a personal experience and humanizing it. In many cases people who have experiences like this are often portrayed as freaks or weirdoes, but here there is emotion, sensitivity and pain.

    Congratulations on the EPF nomination and big hug ==> L.

  33. Pingback: Photo links « BOJAN'S BLOG

  34. Give it up burn, vice with poetry, give me a break.
    Two old photographers tit tating, Harvey and his i’m younger than you Powers rebuke, you don’t understand my aesthetic crusade.
    A subject ridiculously saturated with imagery, a main vain in the underlying cause is one based in obsession with the image. so yea lets do some more centerfolds with some kinky shots in between, cryptic.
    Go read some sugar ape, reading burn drains my hope.

Comments are closed.