Living History: Bound Feet Women of China
Jo Farrell is an award-winning black and white photographer and cultural anthropologist. Born in London, England she has been based in Hong Kong for the past 12 years. Her photography work focuses on traditions and cultures that are dying out.
Her project “Living History: Bound Feet Women of China" merges the educational, the anthropological, the taboo, the social and the artistic by showcasing for the very first time a focused body of research on the practice of foot binding in China. A passion project already well recognised having gone viral in 2014 in world media, Jo Farrell has devoted herself since 2005, to tracking down the last surviving Chinese women to have had their feet bound. Footbinding (also known as ‘lotus feet’) was the Chinese custom of applying painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth, resulting in drastically altering the bone structure of the feet to reach a target petiteness.
The first encounter happened by chance. When the artist got chatting to a Shanghainese taxi driver about whether there were any women left with bound feet, he mentioned that his grandmother did. Farrell recalls; “I was surprised to hear. Most people told me it was a tradition from the past and that there were no women left with bound feet. I went to the village of the cab driver’s grandmother in the Shandong province, and met Zang Yun Ying. She became the first woman in my project.”
Taking the artist across China to numerous rural villages mostly situated in Yunnan and Shandong provinces, the artist found a further 50 women, some more than 100 years old to photograph and interview. Having revisited many of them year after year, she gained a unique insight and was able to follow their progress as they are becoming older. Farell developed friendships that go beyond language, culture, and age, purely based on mutual respect. Her up close portraits, photographs of their modified feet, alongside the women’s home surroundings have amounted to a comprehensive book entitled Living History: Bound Feet Women of China. Telling the stories of these women and their experience is at the heart of the project. Said to have become fashionable in the 10th century when the Emperor Li Yu became entranced by a courtesan dancing with small bound feet, other women of the court took to binding to gain favour. Originally banned in 1911 however it continued in rural areas until around 1949 when the women were forced to remove the bindings. Enforced by Chairman Mao, who ordered anti foot-binding inspectors to publicly shame any women they found, Farrell continues, “it was considered an old tradition that did not reflect modern China and should be stopped, their bindings would be hung in windows so that people would laugh at them.”
The process was usually initiated for girls between the ages of 7 to 15 years old, slowly bending the foot to achieve a much smaller surface area, Farrell explains, “the first year is particularly excruciating because the girls were made to walk until their toes would break under their weight. After that, the toes became numb and now, 50 or 60 years later, they don’t have any pain in their feet. It’s all quite numb.” The ‘lotus foot’ emulates the idea of feminine beauty and the process means the women could endure great hardship and thus will serve as better wives. “In Chinese society, it was the only way forward for women,” says Farrell. “They did it because they thought it would give them a better future, a better life.”
Jo Farrell uses her analogue Hasselblad camera and develops her own film. This form of photography requires an immediate editing process. The artist chooses to show her works with the original negative framing to show there is no cropping or post production involved in her photographs. This methodology defines Jo Farrell’s artistry as she seeks to document traditions that are disappearing; a cumbersome process in the age of digital photography and intense post production, however the most fitting way to capture the remaining Chinese women who can have ‘lotus feet.’
The portraits are humanising, demonstrating Farrell’s ability to work with her subjects and ultimately to be moved and changed by the process. She admits she was surprised by her own reaction to seeing the real bound feet. “The first time I met Zang Yun Ying and held her foot in my hand it was just incredible – so soft and so incredibly formed.” This is not about the “vision” of the artist, but instead a conversation and deep listening, making Farrell just as much an anthropologist as a photographer. Even her diary, that she kept daily during her visits, reveal her sense of compassion, for example to simply keep these women company who may be ignored or left to themselves in their old age, bringing them food or medicines to treat their ailments. At one stage she writes that there is gossip spreading in the villages, that the artist in profiting from the research, when in fact this self funded endeavour has been an act of devotion with no financial backing or great commercial appeal.
This series excites and provokes, encourages empathy and understanding and instigates reflection. Farrell insists her photo series isn’t meant to sensationalise, but to educate. Surprisingly, this practice resonates with today’s society whereby women still alter their bodies to be more attainable.
More information: www.livinghistory.photography