Photobooks by Women from Asia: A Conversation with Amanda Ling-Ning Lo, Miwa Susuda, and Iona Fergusson
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In 2017, 10x10 Photobooks, the nonprofit photobook organization that I run with Olga Yatskevich and Michael Lang, set out to investigate the global landscape of photobook publishing by women and their role as vehicles for the circulation of imagery by women photographers. As is typical of our democratic approach, we invited ten women selectors from ten diverse geographic regions — all experts in the photobook field — each to suggest ten contemporary or currently available photography books from their region. The resulting one hundred photobooks were presented to the public for the first time in October 2018 when the New York Public Library hosted the launch of How We See: Photobooks by Women, a touring “hands-on” reading room, a series of public talks, and an associated “book-on-books” publication. With a mission to share the books with as wide an audience as possible, the reading room will tour to multiple international venues through 2020.
Over the eighteen months that we developed the How We See project, there were many surprises. Research showed that there are numerous women photobook-makers, but finding their work in the more well-known sectors of photobook publishing, distribution, and competitions proved more difficult. In particular, the fledgling photobook communities of South and Southeast Asia, with the exception of Japan, presented a few challenges for the discovery of photobooks by women: Limited online resources often necessitated a word-of-mouth approach, and a nonexistent distribution system for the many self-published and independently published small editions made the acquisition process a bit of an adventure.
When the books finally arrived at our offices, we found that although they had several distinctive qualities that we could superficially attribute to their authors’ gender or region, they also had a number of attributes in form, subject, and design that were similar to photobooks from other regions of the world. Keenly aware that we would be wading into muddy waters if we tried to classify the books solely on the basis of a photographer’s gender or region, we returned to our selectors to discuss further their selection process and findings. What follows are excerpts from conversations on photobooks from Asia that I had with Amanda Ling-Ning Lo, selector for China and Taiwan; Miwa Susuda, selector for Japan; and Iona Fergusson, selector for South and Southeast Asia.
Russet Lederman: In the books you selected, are there topics or themes you feel are particular to women? Were these topics regional or gender-specific?
Miwa Susuda: I wouldn’t say that there’s one topic or theme that’s particular to Japanese photobooks by women. Rather, I found that there’s a range, with many using a documentary or factual style and a few exploring a more conceptual or process-based approach. For example, _etc. by Maiko Haruki, is a conceptual photobook that investigates the technical possibilities of the camera lens to challenge traditional perceptions of photography. We Oui!, by Fumiko Imano, which obsessively questions identity through self-portraits created with her imaginary twin sister, is a photobook that seamlessly slides between fact and fiction. In a few cases, photographers have traveled abroad to document other cultures. Lieko Shiga’s fine-art documentary process transforms Bangkok street images of couples on motor scooters into surreal, otherworldly encounters, and photojournalist Tomoko Kikuchi captures the public and private lives of Chinese drag queens.
Iona Fergusson: One book from India stands out for me as regional and gender-specific. Gauri Gill’s Balika Mela is a series of self-consciously staged portraits of poor adolescent girls living on the margins of society. The work spans a seven-year period, from 2003 to 2010, during which time the artist twice visited a balika mela in Rajasthan, an annual all-girls fair that challenges gender discrimination by celebrating the girl-child. Rajasthan is known for its poor sex ratio and high difference in infant mortality rates between girls and boys. Gill’s photographs offer the viewer a space in which to consider identity, class, caste, and the performance of the self by girls and young women who are the least visible or considered in society. Documentary stories shedding light on the plight of poor, marginalized girls are not exclusive to women photographers or to the region. But it would be naïve to think that Gill’s gender didn’t contribute in some measure to the willingness of the event organizers to invite her to attend the all-girls fairs or to the openness and creativity with which the girls performed before her camera.
RL: How visible are photobooks by women in the region you were responsible for? Do they get as much attention and as wide a distribution as photobooks by men? Are there barriers to access for both the women photobook-makers and the audiences who want to see their books?
Amanda Ling-Ning Lo: Many of the photographers I selected are well known in photography circles in China and Taiwan and stand out due to a scarcity, in general, of women photographers in Asia. A few years ago, they would have had no visibility outside of the region, but now, with the advent of the Internet and social-media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, their photobooks are more accessible — if you know where to look. Self-publishing and independent publishers dominate in my selection: Hui-Hsin Chang, Sherry Huang, and Hsia Yu have all self-published their books, while titles by Shauba Chang, Xiaoyi Chen, Ting Cheng, and Chin-Chin Wu are published by smaller independent presses mostly in China and Taiwan. Photography platforms and independent-publisher websites specializing in Chinese and Asian photobooks — such as Jiazazhi Photobook Library in Ningbo, China; Lightbox, the first nonprofit public photobook library in Taiwan; moom bookshop, in Taipei; and Voices of Photography magazine, in Taiwan — are building networks that offer publishing opportunities, distribution, education, exhibitions, public programming, and a global sharing of information and resources. Many of the photobook-makers in my selection collaborate with and participate in events organized by these groups. As photobook publishing increases in China and Taiwan, these organizations are critically important and provide a resource infrastructure that can be accessed from within the community and from abroad.
MS: Social media, a proliferation of exhibitions about Japanese photography and photobooks, and international photobook fairs have had a huge impact on making Japanese photobooks by both men and women globally available. There are numerous websites now devoted to photography and books from the region. Among them is sessionpress.com, a website I recently launched to aggregate information about emerging Asian photographers. The site’s articles and features provide an overview of individual artist’s work (both photography and photobooks) with links to other online resources and their websites. The goal of sessionpress is to consolidate information about Asian photographers on a single platform and to secure a clear position for contemporary Japanese photobooks in the world.
IF: During the course of my research for How We See, I was struck by the scarcity of published photobooks by women across South and Southeast Asia. Since my arrival in India, in 2003, I’ve witnessed gradual yet significant and welcome developments in the photographic network across the region. Institutions, galleries, festivals, exhibitions, collectives, archives, curatorial practices, grants, on- and off-line publications, bookstores and libraries, courses and workshops have all emerged — each engaging with and promoting the medium. Within this ecosystem, the photobook is slowly finding its rightful place and becoming more present and visible.
However, huge disparities exist from country to country with photobooks in economic powerhouses such as India, Indonesia, and Singapore gaining a stronger foothold. Inequalities in production also prevail between male and female photographers due in large measure to the privileged position that men have historically held across the region as a whole and within photography in particular. In much of South and Southeast Asia, women continue to fight against societal structures that discourage them from taking up photography professionally. For example, my research was not able to source photobooks by women in Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, or Burma and only single-digit editions in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In South Asia, the exception can be found in India, where Dayanita Singh has been trailblazing the photobook since the early days of her photographic career.
In recent years, women photographers, especially the young, have become increasingly interested in and engaged with the book. They’re eager to experiment with alternative platforms as well as to explore potential new revenue streams — some even taking the bold step of self-publishing and printing in small editions. However, barriers to publication remain high, as few publishers and distributers are willing to take up the challenge of developing this fledgling market or educating a public unfamiliar with the platform. With respect to self-publishing — an alternative avenue for some — it’s prohibitively expensive for many women, especially those starting their career or living in an emerging economy.
Accompanying the developments in digital technology is a public increasingly interested and engaged with photography. For those who would like to explore the book, select off- and online bookstores, libraries, and archives exist. But the numbers remain small and the forums often exclusive.
The last eight years has also seen an explosion in the number of photography festivals. There is one in almost every country in Southeast Asia. With their commitment to bringing photography into public spaces, festivals provide forums in which audiences can interact with different genres and types of photography. They’ve become important venues for photobook-makers to exhibit their work. But public involvement with photobooks remains extremely limited. For the time being, they gain their greatest visibility within the intimate photography communities and networks that exist across the region and within each country.
RL: In the How We See: Photobooks by Women project, 10x10 Photobooks’ goal is to explore the distinctive content, design, and intellectual attributes of photobooks produced by women. In Asia, a region with so many different cultures and aesthetic sensibilities, did you find any distinctive qualities or traits shared among the books in your selections?
MS: I believe that photobooks by women from Asia have distinctive qualities. From my perspective, an artist’s visual expression is undeniably affected by the society she comes from, her cultural and historical background, and her native language. Regarding Japanese female (and male) photographers, cultural identity is a strong and unique element in their photobook practice. It makes their books quite different from books found in other parts of the world. A good example is Yurie Nagashima, whose photobooks address gender issues through self-portraiture and family photos. Her photographs take a personal documentary position and are based on her real life. She never tells the viewer “‘I’ think that something is an absolute truth, therefore ‘you’ (the viewer) must look at my work in a certain way.” The concept of “I” in Japanese culture is very circumstantial and not completely independent. “I” always exists in a relationship with others and is rarely used in a conceptual way.
AL: I agree. In my selection from China and Taiwan, I noticed a focus on intimacy and personal emotions, which is reflective of how the photographer sees herself in relation to her photographs. In many cases, this position is reinforced by her book’s Chinese title, which often relates to distinctly Asian philosophical perspectives, and, depending on the specific Chinese characters selected, can have multiple meanings. However, when it comes to the English translation of a Chinese title, there’s a loss of meaning due to cultural differences about intimacy and emotions. The English translation limits the imagination and presents a more straightforward reading. An example is Koan, by Xiaoyi Chen, whose title has both Japanese and Chinese roots and references a paradoxical story or riddle used to provoke enlightenment through a realization of the inadequacies of logical and planned thought. There’s no direct translation in English for the word Koan.
IF: To envision South and Southeast Asia as deriving from a distinct homogenous civilization with a common set of ideologies and a common religious, cultural, and aesthetic realm is to misrepresent the countries and the diverse ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, and religions that lie within this large geographical zone. It’s for this reason that I find the question problematic and difficult to answer. Photographer Dayanita Singh has consistently eschewed any attempt to appoint certain regional, national, generational, stylistic, or gender-based attributes to her work, especially those that the West has historically placed on countries from the “East.” Therefore, to propose that photobooks by women from South and Southeast Asia have within them an essential or distinct South Asian or Southeast Asian beauty, aesthetic, form, style, subject, or impact that unifies them would be to fall into a well-trodden but now outdated trap. Writer, curator, and photographer Aveek Sen encapsulates my sense of deep unease: “I am profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of Asia (or any other region) as context,” he says, “especially when that notion is created and sustained in the non-Asian part of the world, and then globalized.”
To suggest, however, that there are no common threads that link the photobooks that I’ve chosen would be equally misleading. But I don’t believe that these attributes are distinctly “South Asian” or “Indian,” “Singaporean,” “Indonesian,” or “Thai.” Rather, they’re attributes that are shared by many women image-makers and artists the world over: an interest in personal narratives and the documentation of the daily lives of the people, communities, and the environments that surround them.
RL: Was it hard to locate photobooks by women in Asia as you were putting together your list? Is this particular to region or gender?
AL: Yes, most definitely! First of all, the photobook is not yet a popular publishing form in China and Taiwan. The most visible photography books are high-priced art books found in major bookstores, and they rarely show the work of female photographers. In my region, zines and artists’ books are getting popular, but the concept of a “photobook” is still a fledgling topic in terms of format, audience, artistic direction, pricing, and distribution. However, thanks to the Internet, there’s a good deal of information about photobooks from Europe, Japan, and the United States. This is generating further interest in photobook-making and -collecting in China and Taiwan.
MS: Finding photobooks by women (and men) is not a problem in Japan, which has a long history of photobook publishing. As the manager of Dashwood Books, in New York City, I travel annually to Japan to visit the numerous general and photography bookstores in Tokyo, where I’m always seeking out new titles. Through social media, I also keep updated about exhibitions and new books through my friends’ posts.
IF: Had 10x10 Photobooks’ initiative been launched ten years ago, locating photobooks by women would have been a greater challenge. But since then, the network within which photography circulates has developed exponentially, making the assignment of researching and sourcing books less convoluted. Today, the gathering of information has been facilitated by a growing national and international ecosystem of photographic-degree courses, workshops, institutions, foundations, galleries, publications, discourses, archives, residencies, international festivals, grants, and agencies, which nurture photographers and promote the medium. In the process, a loose-knit transnational community of photographers and photography professionals has arisen that has opened up channels of information exchange. This is not to suggest that information gathering doesn’t have its complications, for pockets of photobook production continue to happen outside the glare of national and international forums. It’s for this reason that personal networks and connections continue to be critical, particularly when dealing with new platforms produced by women who are less visible and more underrepresented.
For South Asia, my research was expedited more promptly by an in-depth knowledge of photobooks published by women. Given that the numbers of books launched are so small, the arrival of a new edition by a female photographer becomes a source of news broadcast throughout the community. Online platforms across social media act as invaluable resources, as do online libraries, magazines, and archives such as BIND Collective (India), Pix (India), Invisible Photographer Asia (Singapore), and Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive (Australia). Participation in festivals such as Chobi Mela (Bangladesh) and PhotoKathmandu (Nepal) and attendance at exhibitions, lectures, and fairs ensures an awareness of activities concerning ongoing projects. Four key sources helped me penetrate the women’s photobook scene: Kevin Wy Lee (founder and curator of Invisible Photographer Asia); Angkor Photo Festival, in Cambodia, which has become a go-to workshop incubator for young photographers; the Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive; and the incredible generosity of women photographers across the region who are more than happy to recommend books by their peers.
RL: What do you think should be done to encourage more women photographers and photobook-makers and to provide more democratic outlets for their work?
IF: It’s hugely encouraging for women photographers to see work by fellow female practitioners being published, gaining recognition, and even winning awards. This is especially true for women in societies in which gender bias exists more strongly and who feel the weight of the glass ceiling pressing from above. In South Asia, barriers to entering the profession are significant. For many female photographers, committing to long-form photographic projects, which are a crucial component of many photobooks, comes with a price tag. It’s for this reason that grants, scholarships, residencies, and workshops play such a vital role in helping women work on their projects. International culture centers such as the Goethe Institut, Alliance Française, and Pro Helvetia play a vital part in helping women achieve their goals. National initiatives such as the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts Photobook Grant, in India, should be lauded as great first steps in promoting a book. But application to these awards is open to both men and women. My recommendation would be for national and international organizations to establish female-specific grants, scholarships, and residencies in order to incentivize and facilitate women to work on their long-term assignments and help them publish and print their work.
AL: I couldn’t agree more! Access to education, workshops, financial support, and information resources is a critical factor in encouraging more photobook publishing by women from both South and Southeast Asia. Through these networks, more young women photographers and photobook-makers will be able to connect with a larger community that can provide the needed support and encouragement.
RL: Thank you Amanda, Iona, and Miwa for your thoughtful observations on photobooks by women from Asia. This is clearly an ongoing discussion that cannot ignore the diversity of countries and cultures that encompass Asia. What I find so enlightening in your research is the range of topics and approaches you uncovered in your selections for the How We See Reading Room: from a handmade book exploring female individuality in Iran to a widely distributed offset publication focused on the power dynamics between a Chinese woman and her much younger Japanese male lover. The variety of styles, content and approaches in bookmaking is awe-inspiring. That said, the greatest obstacle that remains is the issue of distribution and circulation. With edition sizes often very small and the cost of international distributors quite high, many of these books never reach beyond a local audience. One of the main reasons we developed How We See: Photobooks by Women has been to circulate these books globally. With the touring hands-on How We See Reading Room, we have been able to bring these books to museums, universities and libraries in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. So far costs have been prohibitive to install the reading room in Asia, but we have been able to share images from and information about the books in How We See through the distribution in China, Taiwan and Japan of the accompanying How We See: Photobooks by Women “book on books” publication.
Amanda Ling-Ning Lo is the director of intermediArt, a creative agency in Tokyo and Taipei engaged in photobook design, editing, and project coordination. In addition, she and her husband own nitesha, an online art and photography bookstore that also curates book-related exhibitions. In 2017, nitesha launched nitesha BGTP–Book Gallery Taipei, an experimental book space in Taiwan. Lo also consults for Zen Foto Gallery, in Tokyo.
Miwa Susuda, founder and director of Session Press in New York City, is also a photobook consultant at Dashwood Books, a reporter for IMA magazine, a nominator for the MACK First Book Prize, and international mentor for the M.A. Photography Program at Photography Studies College, in Melbourne. Susuda has lectured widely on photobooks, including presentations at the Visual Studies Workshop, in Rochester, New York; and Casemore Kirkeby, in San Francisco. Among publications featuring Susuda’s writing are 10x10 American Photobooks and the 6th International Fotobook Festival Kassel.
Iona Fergusson moved to India from London in 2003, seeking a new challenge after a decade working in the fragrance industry. She found it at Vogue India, where she worked as the photo editor for six years. In 2013, she returned to the United Kingdom to complete her master’s degree in the history and critical theory of photography at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. She is now an independent curator and producer specializing in lens-based work, with a particular interest in South Asia.
Russet Lederman, who lives in New York City, is a writer, editor, and photobook collector. She teaches art writing at the School of Visual Arts and writes on photobooks for print and online journals, such as FOAM, The Eyes, IMA, Aperture, and the International Center of Photography’s library blog. She is a cofounder of 10×10 Photobooks, coedits The Gould Collection, lectures internationally on photobooks, and has received awards and grants from Prix Ars Electronica and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Aveek Sen, “Why Asian Photography?” in Trans Asia Photography Review, vol. 1, issue 1, Fall 2010, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7977573.0001.102.