Treasurer of tradition
Ever wondered what mysteries lie among the depths of a professional photographer’s travelling case? For Jo Farrell, the contents are simple; “A Pelican case, with a Hasselblad 503 and a handful of film rolls. That’s it.” The black and white film photographer, known for her ethnographic project on the last remaining women in China with bound feet, tells me. With a passion for uncovering and understanding the traditions of women across the world, Farrell’s work has taken her from China through to Cuba and, most recently, Myanmar. She shares her travel tales, how she identifies her subject matter, and more…
What led to your interest in foot binding as a subject to capture on film?
My fascination is in the traditions and cultures that are dying out, and I was trying to think of how to focus my work a bit more, because just photographing places in China or Tibet and Cuba, it’s nice travel photography, but it’s not really unique. Everyone is doing it these days. So, I was thinking about women’s traditions, and being in Hong Kong I was thinking about China and women with bound feet. I had read about them 25 years ago for the first time in Wild Swans. That book gripped me and sparked my fascination in Asia.
Increased travel opportunities mean these traditions are more visible now than ever before. Has this led to a greater understanding?
I think every culture has different ways of looking at beauty and how if you look at other people’s traditions, there are a lot of things that women do to make themselves attainable or considered beautiful. Even though in one society they might not agree with another, still we have to embrace and accept what other cultures do and not be judgmental. With travel, I think people are far too judgmental in pushing their own agenda onto other cultures. I believe that when you go to a country, you should always make sure that you understand their traditions.
Is tourism a cause for concern when it comes to expectations and preconceived notions?
There’s a whole thing I’m torn about at the moment; tourism and photography. The women in Myanmar – The Kayan women, an indigenous tribe which were forced out by the Burmese. A lot of them escape to Thailand to Chiang Mai. As they are not Chiang Mai citizens, villages were set up for these women which are known as tourist villages. Tourists will go there and pay an entrance fee and photograph these women. It’s a bit like a zoo.
Are you able to travel more objectively as an anthropologist?
I think so. It’s more of a mindset as well that I am willing to listen to both sides. When I first started working with the women with bound feet, I had pre-existing ideas about what I thought bound feet were. Most people when they are asked will pull a face and say it’s horrible. When I met this driver’s grandmother, she took her shoes and socks off and I held her foot and it was just a moment in my life that completely changed what I actually thought about a lot of things.
Could you tell me a little bit about your research process?
I do a lot of reading, I buy a lot of books – the internet will never stop me from doing that. There are other traditions and cultures I’m looking at and trying to see about getting access to. I’ve got these 50 questions I will ask them. They go from the basics of date of birth, marriage, husband’s death, memories of the whole process, why it was done, to their happiest and saddest memories. I’ve also taken these photographs and made footprints. One year I got the red ink from a stamp shop and put it in a biscuit tin, and got them to put their feet in the biscuit tin. I’ve got these amazing concertina books from the calligraphy books that I bought there that have whole series of footprints. Last year or the year before I took them to get x rays. It’s a real fascination of these women that has just grown. It’s sad every year that I go back I find more have passed away. They’ve lived incredible lives, and hard lives.
So many people challenge and question the notion of tradition. What does it mean to you?
I look at it as the way a society or group goes about their life. It’s the steps and processes that we all go through that have a deep-rooted history, but we don’t always know why. I think most people that I have met – they don’t know why, they just do it.
For more information, visit www.livinghistory.photography/