Laura Barisonzi Captures the Art of Wushu

October 4, 2011

By Barbara Goldman

© Laura Barisonzi

Wushu Martial Arts athlete photographed on location in China

Capturing natural action and genuine emotion are the traits that make New-York based Laura Barisonzi a sought-after photographer.  Barisonzi thrives on shooting at difficult locations and under extreme conditions. So it is not too surprising that she decided to work on a personal project involving strenuous action sports on location in China. 

Barisonzi studied Mandarin for years and lived in China for a year but had never done a serious photographic project there. She had been thinking about doing a project that would combine her major interests. Wushu, the national Chinese sport of martial arts and part of their cultural tradition, seemed to be the perfect way of combining her love of sports, action, fitness and beauty.  She wanted to capture a unique look through this exceptional sport that would capture the energy, vitality and culture of the people, which she feels is lacking in a lot of contemporary photography on China.

Barisonzi’s concept was to feature the athletic prowess of top Wushu athletes, while also showing a range of the skills, forms and styles of the sport. “I wanted to include both the realistic gritty training shots in regular training clothes as well as more fantastical shots of the athletes in beautiful traditional Chinese backgrounds with the bright colored clothes they wear when they compete,” says Barisonzi.

 The easy part for Barisonzi knew what and how she wanted to shoot. The hard part was getting to shoot on location in China, where access is never easy.  The majority of the subjects in her project are employees of the government, and the government has little interest in publicity of their training facilities or any materials that look at or document even traditional sports such as Wushu.  Once in China, she was able to find a contact who was involved with the Wushu community and who was able to arrange the customary courtesy banquets. Courtesy Banquets are a traditional part of Chinese culture, where one hosts a banquet in order to discuss and get favors. After a lot of legwork and courtesy banquets, Barisonzi was able to make contact with several coaches and athletes who gave permission and were willing to participate in the project. 

She was lucky enough to get to shoot at many of the top programs in the country, including the place where Jet Li trained. Even though her time was limited with them, Barisonzi managed to gain access to the most elite athletes.

In addition to access, the shooting of Wushu presented several difficulties for Barisonzi because of the rapid movement and large area the martial arts patterns cover.  There were also safety issues  for her in terms of being too close to swinging sticks and swords and with the athletes doing the aerial moves anywhere other than on their protective mats. Also, some of the moves she was asking the athletes to do were very physically challenging and could not be repeated more than a few times in one day.  All of the jumps and leaps in her shots were completed without any trampoline, adding to the incredible prowess, strength and agility of these star athletes.  Yet for Barisonzi, the hardest part of the shoot was communication. “I did almost all the art direction in Mandarin and my assistant didn’t speak English. Getting to learn more about Wushu and working directly with the athletes on the shoots was incredibly rewarding and inspiring,” adds Barisonzi.

Having gear that was small and light was also important as she and her team almost always had to rely on public transportation and cabs. A lot of lighting was required to freeze the motion and highlight the forms of the athletes.  She used strobes including Paul Buff Einsteins and a variety of grids and soft boxes and shot with a Nikon D3.  Many of the shots were done with multiple Vagabond batteries, including the indoor shooting, as power in some of the gyms was unreliable. Another difficulty was transporting the gear throughout the country.  They used the new high speed trains to travel from province to province as getting a driver’s license in China can be a very bureaucratic and long process.   In fact, most people in China, including Barisonzi’s assistants, were not experienced or licensed drivers.  But after the high-speed Wenzhou train crash on July 23, 2011 that killed 40 people and made worldwide headlines, she did decide to drive to a few locations, which also turned out to be an experience in itself.

Barisonzi’s shots exude pure action, power and emotion.  She plans to continue the Wushu project with the publication of a book at a later point.  Like her athletes, Bariszoni also has executed an amazing feat by making public a very private and rarely seen cultural tradition in China.

Her beautiful, colorful and action-packed Wushu imagery is now posted on her site.  The Wushu project as well as more of her action, sports and fitness work can be seen at

barisonzi Wushu Blue