Lijie Zhang – The Innocent

Lijie Zhang

The Innocent

If you believe that there are people who are different from us, then the value of their existence is often represented in some other way.

We began this project two years ago with an interview to Guo Haiping, one of the few people who have dedicated their career to researching and promoting the artistic work of individuals with mental disorders. In the Nanjing Natural Art Center, which he established, we saw many unforgettable scenes. These paintings were by made by special artists from different countries, with different illnesses and different styles, yet it was the sincere and shocking value of these paintings that impressed people the most. I clearly remember a painting by a psychopath named Zhang Yubao in dark grey, in its center there was a mass of dark clouds entangling a person’s upper body, leaving only two legs struggling to escape for the viewer to see. Later, Guo Haiping told me that it was a treasure he had discovered while he “lurked” around the mental hospital for 3 months.

After contacting the group of people involved in the project, I become deeply attracted to their artistic world and conceived the idea of photographing them. I have photographed SARS sequela patients and rare disease groups, so when I came across this group of the disabled, I comprehensively had to consider what kind of position and perspective to represent them with, as well as what kind of technology and techniques would be most suitable for this project.

On April 2nd, 2012, the annual World Autism Day was held. The Beijing Association for Rehabilitation of Autistic Children cooperated with the Intermediate Fine Arts Gallery to hold an art exhibition titled “Photo of the Innocent”. This exhibition featured paintings created by children with Autism. My “normal” colleagues and I were thoroughly overwhelmed by more than 100 paintings on exhibition from over 30 children. We became familiar with just a few of the gifted artists at the exhibition, and soon began our interviews and photography project.

We always want to re-interpret this kind of art, or at least make the work of artists like them more relatable to our own, less inhibited realities, thus less comfortable to understand. However, disease isolates them from the impetuousness and temptations of the outside world, and thereby allows them to remain true to their nature. In the brushstrokes of these special artists we do not see the “obstacles”. On the contrary, we see the life of thriving vitality displayed honestly and frankly, with an emotional strength that washes over the observer. Their honest radiance entirely comes from within. This is something that cannot be accomplished by any form of training or education.

Having been deeply touched by the profoundly self-identifying art, the photographs were executed smoothly. The tearfully openhearted parents conducted themselves politely and carefully in conversation. The often curious and sometimes stereotypical behavior of the children was unforgettable.

It is an unfortunate fact that society often uses the artistic creations of the mentally disabled as a means for only charity, frequently failing to really understand and appreciate the inherent artistic value of their works. Consequently their talent is often overlooked, buried or even stifled.

Only extraordinary ability in art tends to attract attention. As more people pay attention to autistic children, more opportunities will begin to arise for them. When facing the works of these gifted artists, people cannot avoid thinking and searching for motives and desires buried down within the deepest reaches of their hearts. For the onlookers, it is also a means for introspection and self-redemption.

A year has passed. Without them I never would have had a project like this to photograph, and I feel very lucky and satisfied to have the chance to be brought closer to innocence and myself.




Lijie Zhang, born in 1981 is a photojournalist based in Beijing, China.

She is currently working on a number of long-term projects, which include “The Innocent: mentally disordered artists”, “The Rare: rare diseases in Mainland China”, “Sequelae of SARS”, and many more.

Her work has been featured worldwide including New York Times-Lens, Newsweek, and CHINA DAILY. Additionally, she is involved in multiple exhibitions in New York, Guangzhou Photo Biennial, LianZhou International Photo Festival, and PingYao International Photography Festival.


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Lijie Zhang


23 Responses to “Lijie Zhang – The Innocent”

  • A fascinating project lijie.

    Your project holds a special interest for me as I am the parent of an autistic adult son who lives at home. Unlike these individuals, he does not paint or draw.

    I absolutely love the way you have chosen to photograph these people. The overlay of each individuals artwork directly onto them, their own environment, utterly wonderful.

    The artwork presented here is indeed amazing. This is not surprising. It is a window into a place very unlike the place where “typical” people reside. I find it interesting that you draw some conclusions as to how the artwork relates to the personalities. A great many famous artists, musicians, and extra-ordinary achievers of all sorts were and are part of the spectrum of autism. Temple Grandin, probably one of the best known autistic persons in the world, quipped in a “TED” talk that if it weren’t for the autistics people among us, we’d still all be living in caves. Autistic people have unique points of view, unique ways of thinking and creating.

    Thanks for bringing this to us.

    I’m somehow not surprised at the lack of comments. I think people are stunned, and don’t know what to make of this. Perhaps not having to be the first commenter will encourage more feedback.


  • I like those pictures very much. One of my sons has the Asperger syndrome, which is also a kind of autism.
    He likes reading very much – and writes me snippets of stories he invents to me every now and then.
    Your pictures reference that quite good.
    thank you for showing your pictures.

  • Great project Lijie. Well done.

  • Let me say right off the top, that I LOVE Lijie’s entire body of work and her continued exploration and support of the community of people with whom she has worked, documented and showcased. What struck me about her efforts to photograph people who have often been marginalized by society but so often reduced to photographic cliches of either helplessness or objects of pity. Moreover, rather than just document or call attention to the plight of another, she spins all the cliche’s and sentimentality usually associated with such subject matter and reveals the incandescent power that her subjects possess as creative, fertile human beings. This is true of her entire body of work.

    The Innocent project is a remarkable example of that both as documentary photography but also as counter point to the way most documentary photography is used. Working with both the language of cinema (the concept of this project reminds me of parts of Oshima’s extraordinary film ‘The Man Who left his will on Film”) as well as the art that these subjects have created themselves, it acts as a powerful reminder of not only the intensive force of art-making to begin with, how it inhabits and defintes and creates all of us in its makeing, but reminds viewers that these people are more than the some of their outward and socially-/medically-defined selves. But there is also a deeper sophistication at play here as well, that reminds viewers of the relationship of photographer to subject, of viewer as voyeur, as the role that is inescapable, the interlocking, between watcher and viewed. It is a netting, a webbing, an enveloping relationship that though often denied is one in which each of us has a responsibility. That Lijie has harnessed these young artists and wrapped them, and our own eyes, in their art, is both a powerful reminder of our necessary connection to one another but the importance of each of us to reimagine how we see, not only these specific artists and young adults, but see ourselves and our reimaginging.

    the photographs are raptorously gorgeous and I love how much their art adds to the collision and abstraction of their portraits. Which is this, portraiture of the artists, a showcasing of the art, a magic-lantern staging of the expression of their internal dreams and expressions, are all of that at once….

    And still, at the center of this project, the photographer has vanished and remained behind only in the concept and at the fore, the powerful art, the powerful, vibrant creative artists and not one scinta of pitty or sorrow or cliche.

    A foundationally humane and revelatory work. Inspired, inspiring and form-titling.

    Congratulations Lijie, I am so happy to see this body of work and for these young artist to showcase their own electric lives.!


  • Congratulations Lijie!

    This is one of the best stories I’ve seen here in a long time. Solid research on a difficult subject, a novel approach, precise and informative text and the imagery is spectacular. In fact it’s the kind of work where the photographer is so efficient that she becomes invisible. I don’t think about her at all being so immersed in the artists and their stories, but at the same time I appreciate immensely her incredible work.

    I second all the above comments and especially Gordon’s: “The overlay of each individuals artwork directly onto them, their own environment, utterly wonderful.”

    Thank you so much for this!

  • As i keep looking at this essay (i’ve now gone through it 6 times), more and more layers come bubbling forth, and each of the individual subjects growth in my head…i wish to listen to them and spend time with them. How each portrait is as remarkable as their individual art, that it is impossible for me to choose any of the portraits singularly just as its impossible to isolate anothers life from the pitch…and now i’ve had an opportunity to read all of the captions as well….

    towering work, and another example of the limitless possibility for photogrpahy and people to transcend our narrow conception of selves adn of others…..


  • Amazing work Lije Zhang. Love how you transformed their surroundings with their artwork. A very nice touch.
    I guess we will see more and more of this type of work in the future coming from China as the country opens up more and more.
    Seeing your essay remind me of the work of Adolf Wolfli:

  • Congratulations to Lijie! And congratulations to BURN for finding and publishing this essay.

    This project reaches the very highest standards, from original conception, depth of awareness and access, sensitivity and rapport, to technical execution and finally to stunning artistic visual impact.
    It is hard to adequately express my admiration for what Lijie has done.
    I just hope she will continue to bring this level of concern, understanding, and artistry to further projects in the future.

  • I like everything about this. A few of the pictures spin my eyes but in a good way.

  • Bob, thanks for your always amazing, beautiful, and insightful comments. I’ve just read them out loud to my wife Martha.

    I’ve jut gone through this again, and yes, more and more bubbles forth at every viewing. I was sharing this with Martha and she commented on #11, Gu Wen’s portrait, how all the suns echoed her wonderful beaming smile, and how each smiling suns rays beamed in a different delightful way.

  • Lovely, lovely essay and the power of creativity. I haven’t had time to read all the information on each photo, I don’t want to race it. These people are a perfect example of how art doesn’t have to be about becoming famous, just doing it to feel good.


    CONGRATULATIONS TO LIJIE! She has been awarded one of the 2012 Human Rights and Education Magnum Foundation Award/Fellowship.!

    very excited to see that and well deserved! Here is a link to the page and the other 2012 Fellows:

  • Awesome news, congratulations Lijie

  • Complex and tense frames… Very interesting. The projections are so well incorporated into the scenes that it feels fresh, and not cliche… #6 is a particular favorite… Thanks, this was a bit of a mind-bender. Kudos on a very successful project!


    Sorry to burst the bubble, Bob, but the the 2012 Human Rights and Education Magnum awardee is not Lijie Zhang, whose family name is Zhang, but a male photographer named Liu Jie (family name Liu) who works for Xinhua:


    1) Lijie Zhang is one of the 2013 Human Rights and Education Magnum Foudnation winners. The page I linked to was the page that Magnum Foundation as but has not as yet updated. Sorry, I should have made that more explicit. But, sorry to burst your bubble Sidney, but Lijie is one of this years winners. I apologize for not waiting until the Magnum Announcement was updated on their page. My error due to my enthusiasm for her and her work.

    2) I know what is and isnt a family name in Chinese.

    all the best

  • and yes Liu Jie and Zhang Lijie are different, albeit both from china originally, photographers. I’m familiar with both of their work. I apologize if my link caused that confusion to viewers not familiar with either.

  • Glad to hear that Lijie Zhang is the awardee for 2013, which she certainly more than deserves.

    The bit about the Chinese family names was meant for people less familiar with such things than Bob is (you must admit it could be confusing to somebody not so familiar).


  • I am at a loss for words to describe what I have been feeling over these past hours as I look at these portraits over and over again, reread every word that Lijie has written of her subjects and their lives, look at all the galleries on her website…then find myself gravitating back to these remarkable color-filled Innocents pictured here. I can’t get enough of it.

    Lijie, I feel as though my mind is expanding into new shapes, my passion for color is exploding, my love of people is being fed, and my awe for you and your compassion, creativity, love and humanity has gone off the charts. I never knew photography could be used in this way. Yes, I have seen beautiful, colorful images before. Yes, I have seen essays that tell people’s stories in truthful, sensitive and respectful ways. But never have I experienced such an exceptional blend of fine art and documentary photography. I am literally blown away!

    Lijie, thank you so much for doing this work. It gives so much to those you have photographed and interviewed–especially the young people and their parents–but also benefits all who see these portraits and read these life stories. No one can see this essay without finding their attitudes begin to change towards persons who do not fit into our society’s ideas of how individuals “should” be, think and act. You so obviously see each person as a unique individual worthy of respect and appreciation that your attitude shines through your words and images. Art brings us together, doesn’t it? And the art you have created here reaches across different languages, cultures, mental abilities, psychological and physical conditions to allow us to celebrate our common humanity. How I would love to meet you one day!

  • Respectful, beautiful, thoughful

  • Thanks to my new effort to limit my time on the internet that has led me to restrict my visits to Burn to Saturdays only, I am very late getting to this essay.

    It seems that everything I might want to say has already been said. Pomara’s three word analysis somes up my own reaction perfectly.

    Congratulations, Lijie Zhang. You have moved me with this powerful piece of work.

  • Wow. Easily in the Top 10 here at Burn. So many reasons to like – fortunately the more wordier Mr Black has outlined most of them for me! Mostly it’s the fact that they aren’t portrayed as “victims” but as creators – and in a very creative way. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  • Lovely poetic work. Thanks for sharing this.


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