Jingyu Lin The photographer exploring her heritage through unexpected stories

Cover Image - Jingyu Lin
WordsGem Fletcher

When you’re lost in the deep scroll, work like Jingyu Lin’s stops you in your tracks. Her pictures offer a port in the storm of visual sameness: charming, unexpected photographs told through her textural take on minimalism. While her visual language may offer an entry point to her world, it’s crafting unique stories that reflect her experiences growing up Asian-American that drives the New York photographer. She talks to Gem Fletcher about nostalgic candy, the year of the wood dragon and why she thinks fashion can be a powerful storytelling tool.

“I was in Chinatown with a friend, and we were eating botan rice candies,” recalls photographer Jingyu Lin. “I was staring at the box, reflecting on how I’ve been eating these chewy citrus-flavored candies since I was a child. My grandma would always give them to me and each box comes with collectible stickers.” At this moment, Lin paused, recognizing the potency of these humble candies as meaning-makers. Each delicately-wrapped delight imprinted with memories became the catalyst for “Grannie Candies,” a playful and unexpected beauty story entrenched in nostalgia for the Asian candies Lin grew up with.

Grannie Candies
Grannie Candies
Grannie Candies

“Grannie Candies” exudes joy. Each frame embodies the aura of a particular sweet—Strawberry Chocolate, White Rabbit, Guava, and Botan Rice Candy—carefully orchestrated through textural styling choices. In one image, we see a woman’s face covered in illustrations of sneakers, beach balls, flowers, clouds and a tiger. In another, a male model has green hair and eyebrows, his head adorned in guava candies. “These sweets are traditionally known as boring, old people candy,” Lin says laughing. “It’s the stuff you would see in bowls at your grandparent’s house, but not the type you would be excited to grab from the store.” The result is a set of photographs that upend the traditional vocabulary of beauty and, instead, evoke the talismanic quality of everyday objects.

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Year of The Wood Dragon
Year of The Wood Dragon
Year of The Wood Dragon

Fusing cultural threads into the worlds of fashion and beauty in nuanced and unexpected ways is part of Lin’s signature as an image-maker. As a daughter of Chinese immigrants, she strives to tell stories that reflect her own experiences growing up Asian-American while breaking away from industry tropes. In “Year of The Wood Dragon,” Lin worked with stylist Kimberly Nguyen to transform their protagonist into different variations of dragons. Graphic, sensual and playful, the series breaks away from the long-standing customs typically associated with Lunar New Year and signals Lin’s intention to cultivate her own visual history.

“My generation of immigrant children, in particular, grew up very conservative,” explains Lin, whose childhood was spent in the suburban Midwest. “There were a lot of social standards we had to uphold—doing well in school, playing a musical instrument—a checklist of expectations. Making photographs gave me a newfound freedom to do what I wanted, which was so different to my regimented childhood. It was a place where my desire to break social norms was not just accepted, but embraced.”

Exploring her cultural heritage is essential to Lin, but she is also wary of how the industry approaches diversity with a check-box mentality. Chinese and Asian culture has been extracted and exoticized by the West for years, particularly when it comes to art, fashion and style, often taken with no credit. Today, thanks to the internet and a new generation of artists like Lin, Chinese culture is shaping Western media in new and dynamic ways. 

“We’re finally at a place where the industry is carving out space for us to have a voice,” remarks Lin. “I’m not confident that had I posted these projects a few years ago, they would have received a similar response. People didn’t care then.” An important part of Lin’s process is collaborating with Asian creatives and she has developed a meaningful kinship with artists such as Selena Liu, Kevin Cheah and Chika Nishiyama. “It’s the community I feel very comfortable with. If we tell stories about being Asian, I want the entire team to be Asian. We’re not scared to be creative and tell our story. Fashion can feel very frivolous at times. If I’m going to partake in the industry, I want the work to have a strong narrative. I honestly believe that if fashion is utilized correctly, it can be such a powerful storytelling tool.”

Outside fashion, Lin can often be found photographing people of prominence. Most recently, she’s made portraits with Lindsay Lohan, boygenius, Kimora Lee Simons and Pat Cleveland. The binding agent between her creative worlds of fashion, beauty and portraiture is an arresting simplicity. “It’s so instinctual to me. I’ve always been more drawn to the subject’s expression than the theatrics that might surround it,” remarks the image-maker. “I think a simple image can often be the most powerful!” Through her discerning eye, Lin manages to make work that occupies the intersection of striking and subtle, playful yet refined. Rich textures, props and palettes are employed in small quantities, conjuring a calm and soft energy that is distinct and memorable. 

Connection—with people and objects —is the driving force behind Lin’s storytelling. Pulling from life to craft narratives that blend the familiar with fantasy to unite people and provoke conversation. “It’s the most wonderful thing,” Lin says excitedly, as she reflects on the potential of image-making. “I’ve always been a deeply emotional person who experiences very high highs and low lows. I didn’t have an outlet for any of that until I started shooting, and once that clicked for me, it was very natural to use the medium to channel those thoughts. ”