Pride Photo Award Interview with Niels van Maanen

In 2012 you were one of the winners of Pride Photo Award. Your photo series ‘Lala Life’, in which you document the secret loves and hidden lives of lesbians in China, won first prize in the ‘Documentary’ category. Why did you decide to enter the competition?

I was, and I still am, very happy with the Lala Life project. I feel that I got very close to the people I took photos of. Not in all of my photo series I can see that same amount of closeness. With Lala Life I have the possibility to show an issue to the world that is very underrepresented: the difficulty of lesbian life in China. My photo series can hopefully help lesbians in China get more recognition, or at least some support. Pride Photo Award provided me with a chance to raise attention and publicity for my photo project.

How did you come up with the topic of Lala Life?

While I was studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Århus, I worked on a big project about the topic of finding love in contemporary China. Lala Life was a subpart of this bigger project. At the time, I was living amongst others with a Chinese university friend who told me that dating shows are extremely popular on Chinese television. That kept me thinking. Arranged marriages used to be very common in China, but Chinese society is now quickly adopting a more ‘Western’ concept of love. I wanted to see with my own eyes how the Chinese balance their heritage and culture with all the new values from abroad.

When I travelled to China for one month in November 2011, I quickly discovered that many young Chinese people still struggle with freedom of choice. A lot of them felt quite happy with their parents going to marriage markets, which where held in local parks on Sunday afternoons. At these markets, parents try to find a match for their child, with a note about their child’s height, weight, year of birth, income and other factual information in hand.

Considering this, I wondered how homosexuals are dealing with this issue. Right now, the first generation of one-child policy children has grown up. How do they keep up with the huge amount of pressure from their parents to find the best partner and keep the family alive?

How did you meet your subjects?

Whereas homosexual men have a relatively big amount of platforms to meet up with each other in China — meeting points, book clubs, English lessons — lesbians don’t have that many possibilities. A contact in China hinted me about the Beijing Lala-Shalong, one of China’s first lesbian associations. While I was there in 2011, it celebrated its seventh anniversary. In the early years the association would organize meetings in a café, but later on they managed to rent a flat. Girls and women meet their every day and have the possibility to exchange thoughts, watch movies and have some English lessons. I went up to the apartment, got to know someone who could speak English and translate for me, and then got to know the rest of the girls.

How would you describe the lives of these girls? What are the problems they face?

Well, there’s the problem of nagging parents: ‘When do you get married?’ ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ If you’re not married by age twenty-four in China, you’re looked at as a weirdo. Most parents don’t know about the real sexual orientation of their kids. Only a few tell their parents. Only a few tell their friends. Usually only close friends know. All this lying and hiding creates a huge amount of pressure.

For some of them the only solution is to hide in a fake marriage with a gay guy. That was quite a booming thing. Lesbians get married with gay guys, have some wedding photos taken, but then don’t live together. Only at family occasions they pretend to be a happily married couple. It is not a single case I’m talking about: this was happening quite frequently. It was absurd, but also very sad to see. I fully understood their actions, but at the same I couldn’t help thinking: not much change will happen if everyone continues to hide and be silent.

How did you win the trust of your subjects?

Generally speaking, I’m a person that can gain the trust of people quite quickly. By talking to the women about my aims and showing them my photos, they slowly got to know me. Once I told them my pictures wouldn’t be published in China without their consent, they were fine with being photographed. They were even quite happy that someone was documenting their lives. Some of them asked me to record them: if you can only meet in a hotel room once every month, then you’re happy to have photos of each other.

Would you like to publish Lala Life in China?

Yes, I’m still hoping my photos will be published in China one day. If the women would be fine with it, that is. It would be good to raise awareness where it’s most needed. Of course, it’s really good when we in Europe know about it, but it’s in China where change should take place.

It’s quite difficult for a Chinese magazine to go public with a story on lesbians. It might reflect badly on both the women and on the magazine itself. The words of one of the women stuck with me: only as long as lesbians in China stay under the radar, they will enjoy some freedom to act. Once they go public, government will become interested and might step in.

To conclude this interview, is there something you would like to pass on to future participants of Pride Photo Award?

I can only say that I strongly recommend participating in the contest. The exhibition itself, the wide media attention, the personal care: it was an incredible experience. Besides staying in touch with the initiators and organizers of the award, I became friends with a lot of the finalists at the opening event and days in Amsterdam.

And, after all, we have to be honest with ourselves: even here in the West there is only little room for stories about homosexuality in the press. Lala Life only got published in a small magazine for human rights in Austria. Pride Photo Award is a great opportunity to get the images and the stories seen by a wider audience.

Niels van Maanen is art historian and critic, Amsterdam

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