You’ve set out to make a record of some of the last remaining women in China with bound feet. What motivated you to tackle this subject?
For the past 15 years I have been photographing traditions and cultures that are dying out. In 2005, I decided to focus more on Women’s Traditions and as I have been visiting Asia since 1998, I first researched traditions in China. I asked around about whether there was any women with bound feet left and eventually through a great friend of mine found Zhang Yun Ying, the first woman in my project in 2005. I went to photograph her in her village and met three other women who had bound feet but declined to have their feet photographed. I returned the following year with copies of my first book, Jo Farrell Photography 1, which included the photographs of Zhang Yun Ying and the remaining women asked if they could be included in the next book.
How did you find the women photographed and approach them about the project?
Serendipity. After the first few women I found a new translator who’s Grandmother also had bound feet. A bus ride to Beijing introduced me to a young man who had a couple of women with bound feet in his village. The taxi driver to that village told me about a woman in his village.
After the first book was published I could show my work in a more professional way, so the women understood that it was for academic and anthropological reasons rather than being a mere tourist. There has certainly been some hesitancy from some of the subjects as they are not used to the interest shown in their feet, but once they were explained the project and saw more previous work they were more than happy to be included. I explain the project first and ask their permission before any photographs are taken or interviews started. I respect their wishes. My interest in them attracts their neighbours to crowd round and watch, they are no longer the forgotten but have been brought to the spotlight. I am aware of trying to make them as comfortable as possible, on more than one occasion I have rounded up the neighbours and got them to leave.
One old lady in Yunnan agreed to be photographed and I spent over an hour interviewing her. When it came time to photograph her feet she ran off and locked herself in her bedroom. We had to talk to her through the door and ask her what was wrong. Her son went to fetch one of her friends to help, it turned out the friend too had bound feet. I asked her if she would like to be part of the project and she readily agreed, so I started to photograph her feet and the first lady unlocked her bedroom door and took her place next to her friend, ready to be photographed too.
Foot binding was officially banned in China in 1912, yet it continued. Can you tell us a bit about the tradition.
Foot binding has a long history through multiple dynasties. When it was originally banned in 1911, it came to a halt in the cities and metropolitan areas but continued in rural areas. Although once considered only for the elite and women who lived lives of luxury, the tradition had traversed through the country and any status – so that peasant farmers were also implementing this tradition in order to marry their daughters into families with more land or more farm animals.
These were the last women to have bound feet as it was stopped by government decree. The women (even in rural areas) had the bindings forcibly removed. This put an end to foot binding for further generations, making these the last women with bound feet.
You recently successfully completed a kickstarter and have plans to turn this work into a book.
I recently completed my Kickstarter campaign to go back to Shandong Province to photograph. Up until now I have been completely self funded and often struggle to make the yearly trip to photograph the same women as well as find new ones. I decided to try crowd funding so that it would make the project a reality. The Kickstarter was a complete success and I am still receiving contributions through my new website.
My aim is to eventually put together a coffee table book by a renown publisher and have an exhibition of the work in a prominent museum or gallery. It will include the interviews with the women about their foot binding, marriage, living through famine, the cultural revolution and family life today. The photographs include portraits, their homes and gardens, family and of course their feet.
You’ve said that your aim is to capture, but also celebrate, these women.
This will ensure that I can capture on film and record the lives of these women for generations to come. I want people to see beyond the feet and recognize the women for who they were and the lives they led.
Jo Farrell is a documentary photographer and cultural anthropologist capturing traditions and cultures before they are completely eradicated.