What does it mean to be ‘like a girl’? Why is ‘manning up’ all about being tough? These are the types of gender norms Chinese photographer Hailun Ma seeks to explore, understand and challenge through her work.
As a child, Hailun Ma was always artsy and loved drawing, but it was boredom that saw her try her hand at photography. “My parents were very busy so I was often at home alone. At first, I would take pictures to kill time.”
And like so many other bored kids before her, she initially turned the camera on herself. “I started taking selfies. I would put the camera on top of a pile of books and set a timer. In my selfies I always try to be goofy and be me. Sometimes I would dress up as different characters.”
Hailun quickly fell in love with the artform and soon sought out other subjects for her photographs. Despite her love for photography, she wasn’t always sure that she would turn professional. “Even though I studied photography for four years as my major, I actually have only been serious about photography for three years. But I know this is what I want to do in my life. I think it is the best way for me to express my aesthetic and share my vision.”
Hailun’s work is visually stunning. She cites German photographer Loretta Lux as her biggest influence: “She is the first photographer I liked. I love her colour palette and the surreal quality in her work.” And, while Hailun Ma plays with Lux’s influence of pastels and surrealism, she also delves into her own heritage to bring Eastern and Western ideals into focus.
Her move from China to New York has impacted her work, helping her to successfully fuse elements of both cultures: “Moving to America really opened my mind about things such as the beauty norms and female identity, which is also what my work has been focused on.”
Having already played with expressions of gender back in home in China, Hailun began to examine the difference between norms in both countries. “In China, beauty is often associated with purity and innocence. Women who act cute, gentle and vulnerable are considered more attractive to a man. Here in the U.S. , I feel like the beauty norms are more diverse.”
While norms may be more diverse in the U.S. Hailun feels women and men are still forced to fit into certain tropes and, through her work, she seeks a way to understand them, “I’m interested in gender because of my experiences as a kid. Growing up, I often heard people tell me a girl should be a girl, and a boy should act like a boy. Generally, ‘being like a girl’ means not strong enough and more submissive.”
Hailun feels that these traditional depictions are severely limiting for both sexes. “To me, it limits girls from so many things girls want to do and to become. The same goes for boys: why should all the boys be strong and tough? I want to challenge and critique it by showing powerful girls and softer boys in my work.”
Now, Hailun Ma has her sights set on publishing her first book. She plans to return home to Urumqi to capture a new series. Expect a marriage of beauty, the surreal and dream worlds that continue to explore and challenge Eastern and Western ideals.
Photos courtesy of Hailun Ma.
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