Julian Song Inside the image maker’s photographic fantasy world

A photograph of male model Huang Liyang and female model Li Qian seemingly flying through the sky surrounded by the skyscrapers of nighttime Shanghai.
WordsGem Fletcher

Nothing is quite what it seems in Julian Song’s photographs, and that's precisely how he likes it. From two-headed cats and underwater skateboarders to flying sword fighters and dresses made of french fries, the Chinese image maker subverts everyday scenes with playful humor and uncanny irreverence to create a visual world that is distinctly his own. He walks Gem Fletcher through the creative ideas behind some of his favorite images.

A photograph of model GuyuTong dressed in a white bridal dress as she rides a red motorcycle through a quaint alleyway.

Audacious, irreverent and satirical. These are just some of the words that encapsulate Julian Song’s images. Over the last seven years, he has built a reputation for delivering creative ideas that embody playful contrasts, pushing at the edges of the brief to make sure when a viewer encounters his work, they always have to look twice. When I speak with him—him at home in Shanghai, me in London—I’m struck by his calm and introverted demeanor, a world away from the exuberant visual world he has created. 

“I don’t like to travel. I just like staying home with my dogs,” Song tells me. “I’m more interested in watching other people’s lives and being inspired by that.” TikTok is the source of much of his observation. He engages in a sort of digital anthropology in which he extracts idiosyncratic social gestures and emerging pop culture trends from the fringes of the internet to inspire his projects.

A photograph of models Jiao Tong and Wu Guoqiang facing away from the camera as they cross a sandy beach towards the ocean, one of them suspended in mid-air as if jumping with joy.
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In addition to Song’s obsession with TikTok, his work is informed by a love of fashion and Asian cinema. Last night, he watched Ming-liang Tsai’s “The Wayward Cloud” (2005), snuggled on the sofa with his dogs Mui Mui, Prada and Togo [one rescue and two strays who followed him home one evening]. “The film is beautiful,” he tells me while sending me film stills as we talk. In one, the female lead is singing among a sea of watermelon umbrellas dressed in an oversized suit that feels like an homage to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. It’s bold, beautiful and silly. “I don’t really get the film,” he says, laughing, “but I love watermelon.”

A photograph of model Wang Yuanxiang wearing a dress made from cling film, with shrimp wrapped inside its layers.
A photograph of model Cici splitting a watermelon in half with an iron sword.

In one image taken for Vogue, Song captures a women slicing through a watermelon in mid-air with a sword. For him, watermelon represents home. It’s the main export of FuLi, a tiny village in the HeiLongJiang province of northern China where he’s from. For as long as he can remember, his mom has worked in the watermelon market, dispatching the fruit across the country. At first, FuLi sounds idyllic; his childhood was spent playing MaJiang and jumping rope with the girls in his neighborhood. However, Song was bullied at school while simultaneously grappling with his queerness in a traditional environment. It wasn’t easy, but music TV became his escape. He spent hours entranced by Jolin Tsai, A-mei Chang, Karen Mok, Elva Hsiao and Ranie Yang, who all found liberation through their empowered feminine worlds.

Song didn’t have a conventional path into photography; his first encounter with the medium was during his advertising degree. He bought a camera, started making photographs of his friends, and has never looked back.

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What excites me is bringing fantasy closer to us so we can suspend disbelief and imagine this is a scene from our lives.
A photograph, taken below the surface of a body of water, of male model Yan performing challenging skateboard manouvers underwater.

GQ Magazine

Interestingly, Song refers to his process as being closer to math than art, describing it as “a formula designed to break conventions.” Movement and humor are combined with an unexpected element—an unusual or divergent context, perspective or prop—culminating in an image that feels strange and familiar in equal measure. In an editorial for GQ, Song took the brief to create a fashion story about movement and pushed it into a space of playful extremes by subverting the energetic choreography of skateboarding and placing his protagonist underwater. “I wanted to turn the brief on its head,” he explains. “I like to challenge myself constantly. I’m not a good swimmer, and we shot the project in a 6-meter deep diving center in Shanghai. It was crazy, but one of those days that embodies why I love my job.”

A photograph, taken from an elevated position and from a distance, featuring female model Taoye and male model Lin Wenhui facing off against each other in a sword fight.


Many of Song’s images are laden with physical stunts. Inspired by action films, he often uses wires to suspend his models in the air, enabling them to get into gravity-defying poses. Crafting a sense of cinematic drama in the everyday is intentional for the photographer as it mimics how he likes to experience the world. In this Mulan-inspired shoot, made on the streets of Hangzhou, the models were on wires during their sword fight. Song shot the image from the eleventh floor of a nearby building to heighten the tension, as well as to give the viewer the sense they had happened upon a scene. “I think sometimes fashion images can be rooted too much in fantasy, but what excites me is grounding ideas in real life,” says Song. “Bringing fantasy closer to us so we can suspend disbelief and imagine this is a scene from our lives.”

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I have always thought of my work as being closer to math than art. My style is a formula designed to break conventions.
A photograph of male model Huang Liyang and female model Li Qian seemingly flying through the sky surrounded by the skyscrapers of nighttime Shanghai.

Modern Weekly Shero

Outside of TikTok, cinema is a crucial inspiration for Song, who loves to center contrasting ideas—pulling from historical and contemporary references to imagine something new. This image blends the 90s Hong Kong action film “The Heroic Trio”—directed by Johnnie To—with cues from Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons RTW Spring 2022 show, in which she presented voluminous hair sculptures worn on top of the model’s natural hair. Song further pushes his concepts in post-production, defying the limitations of reality. “We shot the image on a rooftop in Shanghai,” Song tells me. “I wasn’t using wires then, so I photographed the models standing in their pose, lighting them to match the background and then crafted the image in Photoshop.

An image, created using a combination of photography and AI technology, of female model Feng Qisi seated on a bed with eight cats lounging around her.

Marie Claire

Like many image makers, Song began to explore the possibilities of AI in his practice in 2023. His prompts, inspired by TikTok, manifested unbelievable or bizarre moments that would be impossible to create in real life, from a girl gang of dolls to dramatic action scenes. “The AI software doesn’t produce perfect images yet, so the photographs have all these strange errors, which makes the pictures more unusual,” explains Song about an eye-catching image of a model sitting on a bed surrounded by cats. “Sometimes, the cats have two tails, no feet or two heads. It’s funny and subtle, and I love the result.”