Growing up is an important theme in Sarah Mei’s work, mainly focusing on adolescents and young adults, on their constant state of becoming, trying to capture the fleeting beauty of the continual changes and transitions they go through. She is drawn to the intensity, vulnerability and sometimes loneliness of these stages. A recurring theme is the gray area between friendship and love, and the ambiguity of relationships in certain stages of life. Herman primarily works on ongoing projects photographing the same subjects over many years.
Amsterdam-based photographer Sarah Mei Herman started Touch in 2014, during a four-month artist in residence in the Chinese coastal city-island Xiamen. Instead of focusing on the cultural differences, she wanted to research the things that are universally recognizable: the meaning of friendship and love. She started photographing young adults, primarily women, and their intimate relationships. In this ongoing series four recurring young women are portrayed over time: Haiqing, Linli, Xiaoli and Liyao. They are all connected with each other, since they studied at the same university. In the artist statement we read: Amongst the young women I met, many were in a lesbian relationship. In China gay-sexuality is not illegal anymore but it is still unaccepted by the older generations. None of the young women I photographed are able to speak openly to their parents about their sexual preferences. This is a remarkable contradiction in this fast changing modern China. At this moment, many lesbian women have secret relationships. With my still life images in the series, I attempt to refer to this hidden and secret female universe. Since my work period in 2014, I have revisited Xiamen several times. Each visit I meet up with the same young women again, capturing their changes over time. During these encounters I attempt to touch upon the intimate moments between my subjects and myself.
Touch, a project you started in 2014 during your residency in Xiamen, China, focuses on the meaning of friendship and love. What motivated you to start this series?
I started my artist in residence in Xiamen with a very open approach. Most of my work is based around the relationships between people and the necessity of closeness to others, this is what I took as a starting point. It was my first trip to China and I was curious to know to what extent I would be able to gain entry to the youth and their relationships. The display of intimacy in public is quite different in China, for example you would never really see a couple kissing on the street. My intention was to explore the possible differences as well as the things that are universal; the things that tie people together and the meaning of friendship and love. I actually got much closer than I expected and I was struck by how easily people seemed to trust me.
Touching upon the subject of homosexuality, especially in a country like China, where this matter is still taboo, might be complicated. What did you find the most challenging while working on this series over time?
Yes, the subject is definitely complicated and in many cases painful and difficult, since the majority of the LGBTQ people I photographed aren’t able to be open about their sexuality towards their parents. The young women I photographed were very open about their sexuality towards me, so in that sense I didn’t experience it as challenging. I think the challenge was more in the responsibility I feel towards my subjects. Taking these photographs, capturing vulnerable and often intimate moments, and then being brought out into the world. I hope that my photographs will never cause any problems within my subject’s families.
Can you tell our readers about the process of image production?
I have always photographed on film because I love the analog process and the quality. I mainly work with a medium format camera, which also forces me to slow down. The process is important to me, to physically have the negatives in my hands instead of just having the images on a hard drive. I also really prefer the way of working, not seeing the results immediately and not being able to instantly show them to the person I photograph. I feel that this can interfere with the way someone presents her/himself in front of the camera. After shooting I take my films to the photo lab to get them developed and contacted. From the contact sheets I choose the image which I think is the strongest and this negative is scanned in high quality so that it can be shown digitally, or printed abroad for an exhibition. For exhibitions I will choose to have my work printed in the darkroom whenever possible.
How has the experience of working on Touch affected you personally and which moment from it is most precious to you?
My ongoing body of work Touch has become very dear to me, because of the friendships with several of my subjects, which have arisen through the years. The residency in Xiamen was one of the most special experiences in my life. I fell in love with the coastal city and it’s atmosphere and I plan to return to Xiamen whenever I can.
I have many precious memories, but I think one of the most special moments was when I photographed Linli & Naomi right at the end of my four-month stay in Xiamen. I got to know Linli quite well and I photographed her several times in the course my residency. During my last week in Xiamen Linli told me about her new (and first) girlfriend Naomi. They agreed to be photographed together, so I took them to an abandoned house to do the shoot. This was only a week after they started dating and they were very much in love. I was moved by the fact that they were willing to share this intimate moment of affection with me.