Guo Yingguang, photographer and winner of the first Jimei x Arles - Madame Figaro Women Photographers Award: "I’ve never positioned myself as a female photographer per se"

Guo Yingguang graduated from the University of the Arts, London. She has worked as a photojournalist for Reuters, China Daily and other media. She has also portrayed famous figures such as Joe Hisaishi.

Guo Yingguang was the winner of the 2017 Jimei x Arles-Madame Figaro Women Photographers Award, the first award of its kind in China, which was launched in 2017 by Jimei x Arles photo festival and Madame Figaro China. The series The Bliss of Conformity started from an investigation of the phenomenon of "leftover women", which in turn triggered Guo Yingguang's attention to "the blind date park" and "arranged marriages". 

In July 2018, Guo Yingguang was invited to exhibit her works at Rencontres d'Arles. Doors interviewed her before the opening of the exhibition in France.

Guo Yingguang,  Untitled , from the series  The Bliss of Conformity,  2016

Guo Yingguang, Untitled, from the series The Bliss of Conformity, 2016

How has the Jimei x ArlesMadame Figaro Women Photographers award you won in 2017, which brought your work to the forefront of the photographic scene, affected you on a personal level?

If curator He Yining had not taken my work to Jimei x Arles, and I hadn’t won an award and had so much media exposure, I would probably still see it as a kind of hobby, something to do that makes me happy. To be taking interviews like this one, and having the chance to exhibit in France makes me feel truly blessed. I know that taking part in the Arles Photo Festival is a rare opportunity.

I’ve never positioned myself as a female photographer per se, although the issues I focus on are indeed women-related. I’ve got more confidence in my own ideas now, making me more willing to participate in discussions related to women's issues. Going forward, I think I will carry on focusing on this side of things.

In your series “The Bliss of Conformity” your photos are all in black and white, is there a reason for this choice? What meaning were you trying to convey?

Some of the documentary photos in the handmade book I made after this series are in color; my etchings are black and white. I wanted to create an emotional contrast. The photographs on paper, the objects on A4 paper, are themselves in black and white, but the red strings in the photos retain their original color.

What is the specific meaning of the red string?

When I was creating this work, I found that the red string element made a frequent appearance. Parents displayed A4 paper (matchmaking introductions) in various forms. Some tied red string to umbrellas and trees. Collecting elements from the matchmaking park, I made a note of how many things were displayed by hanging, being clipped or tied on with red string. Looking over this material to make something of it all, I noticed the red string threaded throughout the images and I decided to make use of this in my work.

Underlying this, red string has a special meaning in Chinese marriage, woven into books and art. This is not just a physical red string, but also depicted on the papers displayed by parents. The most important information such as age and gender is all marked in red. In a way, the metaphorical red string echoes the real red string.

View of Guo Yingguang's exhibition at Rencontres d'Arles

View of Guo Yingguang's exhibition at Rencontres d'Arles

During your work in Shanghai, what was it like to witness this phenomenon?

Before I went for the first time, I had just gathered information online. So when arrived at the matchmaker’s park for the first time, I was shocked. The level of bustle and excitement was incredible. I went often after that, and people got used to me. Later, when I took photos, the same people were in the park. I reckon it had become a regular part of their lives. Even when the weather was bad people still went. The expression on their faces also shocked me. Many people asked if I had directed my photographic subjects, these women. The answer is it was all by chance. At the time, I just felt the bustle, and noticed that deals were made off to one side among the trees. I did not direct anything. What I saw was what I captured on camera. The matchmakers were all in a similar position. I was also curious about this. This is one of the reasons I went back so often.

This series has a very poetic and almost melancholic feel to it, it is a series that transpire the fragility and pain of those conditions. Could you talk a little bit about your view on the issue of arranged marriage and its consequences in China?

I had thought arranged marriage was something of the past, but when I was doing this project, I saw how popular it had become again, a bit like retro fashion. I was shocked that despite society having developed as much as it has, there was still a place for arranged marriage. A huge cultural chasm had opened up.

I used to think that it was down to an intergenerational gap. Our values are fundamentally different from those of our parents’ generation. But after deepening my exposure, I saw online discussions about my work, and found that many young people today have similar ideas. I have come round to believing that in some shape or form arrangement marriages are here to stay. Recently I learned about Ayawawa (a “bisexual emotional expert” who advocates that women should use their gender “advantages” to their benefit). Sometimes it’s not just her theory that makes people feel powerless, but also the cases she shares. Some girls applied her theory and are now in so-called happy marriages, and this makes me feel sad and powerless. I really think it’s a step in the wrong direction.

In your work you also use other form of creative artistic practices such as videos and installations, how did you come about using these artistic methods to support your photography?

In “The Bliss of Conformity” I wanted to show everyone what was happening in these matchmaker parks, and I wanted people to understand the questions I was raising, my views and emotions. Documentary evidence, video, and photo books all turn into concept-serving material in the end. I’ve added value to these materials by experimenting, and combining, using photography to reveal something of the relationships at play. Not only what you see, but also what happens between people, in the present continuous tense.

Actually, I started with the paper part, but a part of my research was based on my own feelings about the phenomenon of “leftover women.” This led me to investigate matchmaking parks and arranged marriages. I then developed  a study of the “pseudo intimacy” between two sides of an arranged marriage. Working on this later, new ideas came to light. I felt that the “leftover women” part was not clearly reflected from the beginning. We only saw the presence of parents, but the child was also there, just on paper. No one was thinking about that “paper child’s” experiences. In my work, I turned myself into “paper” and materialized the experience by writing my own dating resume. I was not sure whether age was an essential condition at that time, so I wanted to give it a try. What I found was that age really was everyone’s primary consideration. People's reactions were very real. Even if they did their best to conceal it, you could see it in their eyes. Some people even came up to me in the park to praise my “courage.”

Guo Yingguang at work

Guo Yingguang at work

Your exhibition in Arles means that you will be showing your work for the first time in France, is there anything in particular you are hoping for with a larger French public?

Actually, the handmade book has already been taken to France for exhibition. I received some feedback at the time. Some French sociologists and anthropologists were very interested in this topic and wanted to discuss it with me. My video was also broadcast as part of a discussion on gender, with some repercussions. The Arles exhibition is aimed at a larger audience, and I do not have any clear goal. All I hope is that I can clearly express my ideas and bring them to an audience that is able to feel them too.

In the future, what is a social topic that could interest you in developing a new series?

I’ve been looking into the Southeast Asian phenomenon of “wife-renting” that has become a big business in the region. Looking at relevant information, I also discovered that many of the foreigners had developed deep feelings for their rented wife. I’ve seen very moving farewells at bus stations for example. I will continue to focus on this: the complex emotional connections involved, more than the actual phenomenon itself.

Read Guo Yingguang's Proust Questionnaire