“I photograph purely for myself,” says Wenjun. From 2009 to 2011, the Chinese photographer documented her intimate circle of friends, many of whom are members of an underground post-punk band based in Beijing called Guaili, for which she was the lead vocalist.
As income inequality gap widens in China, stories by foreign photographers often focus on teenage migrant workers swarming into the country’s unregulated factories, the all-work-no-play kids in the competitive Chinese education system and the parvenu generation grabbing seats at costly American colleges.
But Wenjun’s candid images in her series What a Gas －inspired from her own experiences－offer a peek into the life of Chinese youth that is rarely seen in the media. They capture the playfulness, chaos and discontent of the adolescent experience shared across the world.
Growing up in China’s southwest province of Guangxi, Wenjun moved to Beijing for college and majored in information management. It is there that she met her band members and documented them intensively using a Canon Prima Mini given by her boyfriend, now husband, a professional photographer.
Wenjun dropped out of college to be fully immersed in Beijing’s underground rock scene. Without formal training in music nor photography, she says it was her idealism that kept her going.
Among the photographers whose work she studied online, Wenjun says Nan Goldin influenced her the most. “[Her photographs] are about real life lived by her and her friends. The emotion just feels so real,” she tells TIME.
Because of their common passion, Wenjun has established close ties with her band members, which means not only spending time together but also sharing income as a group. The degree of intimacy is easily seen in her images, which bring us with the disaffected kids to the forest or the lake in the middle of the night out of spontaneity.
The group eventually disbanded and her friends have all since moved on. Wenjun joined her husband in Shanghai and began a new career as a painter, but she continues to take candid pictures and occasionally helps her husband with commercial work.
Wenjun says that the images, now as she looks back at them, are very nostalgic. “The photos I’m taking now are very different from the ones in What a Gas,” she says. “People have moved on. I can’t go find these scenes when they don’t exist.”
Wenjun is a photographer, painter based in China.