One Photographer’s Mission to Find the Last Women in China With Bound Feet

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originally appeared in thebeijinger blog

For the past five years, British photographer Cameron Hack has set out to document ordinary people in China. His project, Humans of China, got off to a modest start with Hack often choosing a single photo of his subject and pairing it with a brief quote from their interaction.

Since then, and over 100 posts deep, his WeChat entries (ID: humans-of-china) have grown into extended sessions with individuals willing to open up about their past. These musings are often framed within the context of China’s rapid development, gleaning insights into the lives of regular citizens as they try to make sense of their lot. The backdrop is a world that is often indifferent to personal minutiae and is instead judged largely on accrued successes and familial stability.

Ahead of the opening of his exhibition titled “The Last Ladies With Bound Feet” at Zarah on Jan 19, consisting of images taken during his interviews with this disappearing demographic, Hack told us a little about how his project began.

In June of 2018, I visited Hainan in search of some of the last ladies alive who, at a young age were tattooed for many different reasons one being that it was easier to find a husband. This tradition has since been banned and these kinds of ladies have dropped drastically in numbers over the last few years and soon to be no existent. After I posted the stories a friend of mine from Inner Mongolia asked me if I would be interested in meeting the last lady left in her village with bound feet.

Can you tell us a bit how the idea for your Humans of China project first came about as well as when you decided to start documenting women with bound feet?
In 2015 I saw a group of guys who ran a small project called Humans of Hutongs and really liked their work. They took amazing photos but they came without much of a story. I think this project took off from Humans of New York which has also given me some inspiration. The project first started in 2018 with story #1 being posted in April about a lady who sells strawberries in the province of Jiangxi.

At that time I didn’t really know what bound feet were so I did a little research and without a second thought I booked a train ticket to Hohhot and arrived four days later. In that weekend I managed to meet three ladies with bound feet who, all have amazing life stories and wonderful experiences. They were willing to talk to me and let me take photos. It was a weekend I’ll never forget however it was filled with not only happiness but sadness also. Those ladies have suffered awful amounts and I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how tough their past must have been. 

What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced while trying to document these stories?
The first big challenge was simply finding a lady with bound feet. In the north of China, most ladies with bound feet have already died or are very close to 100 years old. If you know where to look it’s not too difficult but it costs not only time but money. When I find a lady, she’ll often invite me into her house, meet her husband or her kids, they feed you, let me take photos, and gives me a pair of shoes. [From that] I take away another amazing story and it makes the time and money spent well worthwhile.

I had mentioned to some of my colleagues that I was going to Inner Mongolia to meet a lady with bound feet and they laughed at me. They told me that the last lady with bound feet is long gone and I had no chance of finding such women. This made me even more determined, and from then on I have spent most weekends traveling to different cities and towns to meet these old ladies who are really the very last ladies in China with bound feet, and like the ladies with tattoos, are soon to be history.

What have been some of the surprises that have come from talking to these women? Have you found that they have shared emotions or recollections with regards to their circumstances?
There is no better feeling than leaving with a great story and knowing that someone is willing to sit down with you, sometimes for two or three hours, and tell you all about their past. I think I have been made speechless by every single story at some point. Ladies have told me they led the Chinese army in secret to fight Japanese strongholds; that with bound feet they built the walls of the house 80 years that they still live in; or that they climbed the Great Wall and met foreign missionaries in the 1930s who told them to stop binding their feet.

The second challenge would be the language. There are so many different types of languages, and trying to understand some of the ladies can be particularly hard. Normally someone is around to help who speaks quite fluent Chinese such as their grandkids or a next door neighbor but I have largely relied on local drivers who I hire for the day to help me translate as they can speak both the local language and standard Chinese.

What approach do you take when interviewing people – is it usually just a single encounter? Do you find that people are for the large part open to talking about their past experiences?
When I hear that this village has an old lady or that town has two then I really have a feeling an excitement. I have a long list of questions which I try and ask and then whilst talking with them I need to take it as it comes and think of questions related to what they’ve told me on the spot. I have tried to visit ladies at least twice but sometimes that’s hard as some of these ladies live in very remote areas. I normally try and get the questions that might bring sadness to the ladies out of the way first such as death, how painful footbinding was, and the struggles during the ’50s and ’60s when food was scarce and life was though out the way. I always try to end on a happy note such as the happiest times of their lives and ask about their grandkids and festivals. Nearly all of the ladies I’ve met were married in arranged marriages and didn’t meet their husband until the day of the marriage. As such, one question that always gets a laugh is ‘When you first saw your husband did you think he was handsome?’

How did you go about selecting the photos for this exhibition?
That was tough – not all of the photos I have taken are amazing but I do have some very good photos. I chose some of the best photos but also the best stories taken from different provinces. The longest stories aren’t always the best; some are very short and sweet. I wanted to find a good range of ladies who have done some interesting things with their lives: traveled, danced in dance troupes, are still fit and healthy, and had a mixture of happy and sad times.

Not only do they share their past but they also share their present and future. Some of the circumstances that the ladies are in now are really sad. They often feel lonely and are waiting to die. I think old people are very much like young children. They need love and affection, they need help and attention but many old people lack this. In contrast, other ladies have told me that the last few years have been the best ever. They have the chance to eat well, wear nice clothes, and are given money from the government. They always enjoy festivals and birthdays with their families and have had the chance to travel, seen grandkids been born and even great grandkids, and have grown old with their husbands.

Most ladies, although some are hesitant at first, are very much open to talking about their past – happy and sad, positive and negative. I think most old ladies like to have a good chat and I think, although not all of them say this, that they feel lonely and many people don’t care about their past or even their present or future. Of the around 88 ladies I’ve met, I would say five or so have been interviewed previously and have had photos taken because of their small feet. I truly believe that when I leave their houses, they have really enjoyed their time talking with me. I feel old people are pretty honest and blunt and if they didn’t want to talk to me or have their photos taken then they’ll tell me, or at least if not, I’d be able to sense it. When I revisit the ladies, they often remember me and normally light up when they see me.

If there was one piece of advice for someone wanting to better understand China from an outsider’s perspective, what would it be?
I think the first thing would be is to keep an open mind. Some of the things I have documented, although they are all true, is not the China you would see today. However, if you look in the right places you can still find a really interesting side to China, a side that is slowly fading and I personally think will disappear in the near future. Don’t always listen to others – go out there and explore for yourself!

Do you have any new projects coming up in the future? What do you hope to achieve with Humans of China in 2019?
Yes! I have many crazy ideas but I am focusing on “the very last off…” which would include people who have met or spent time with Chairman Mao, traditional minorities, ladies with tattoos, ladies who have rings around their necks, people who survived the Japanese, and members of the Red Army who are still alive.

I plan to display more work and I would like to put the stories and photos from the ladies with bound feet into a book.