Nathalie Daoust on Modern Chinese Women as “China Dolls”

In “China Dolls,” Nathalie Daoust offers a perspective on the women who struggled to find their identity in China following the Cultural Revolution.

The role of women in today’s society has finally been under brighter spotlight in the last decade or so, portrayed not only in journalistic reportage but also in the realm of art. Berlin-based Canadian photographer Nathalie Daoust is just one of many such artists, yet her work explores a reality many of us don’t really hear much about: the plight of women who faced China’s One Child Policy. The mandate has been lifted in 2016, but out of it came the crisis of an aging population. Another is the irreversible consequence it imposed upon the women, who were also already struggling to find their identity following the Cultural Revolution. This became the focus of China Dolls, an experimental body of work that Nathalie intended to be a perspective about these women.

In our interview below, she tells us more about the motivations and creative process behind the series, the tools she used to bring these ideas to life, and her devotion to darkroom work.

Hello Nathalie! Can you introduce yourself to our readers and share something about what you do?

I was born in Montreal, Canada and studied photography at Cégep du Vieux Montréal from 1994 to 1997.  Immediately afterward, I moved to New York to start my first photo series entitled New York Hotel Story which involved photographing every room of an art hotel alongside the artist who decorated it.  After spending two years documenting the hotel, I lived in various countries including Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, China, Spain where I worked on several photo projects. Over the past 15 years, I have been living in Berlin, a city that I now call home.

Can you tell us about how you began experimenting with darkroom techniques? What made you decide to keep this going?

I took a photography course when I was fifteen years old. The teacher told us that we could take photos of whatever we wanted. So, a friend and I covered part of my basement with newspaper and painted a giant tree on the wall.  We then reproduced the tree on my friend’s back and created a little imaginary world that I then photographed.

That was the first time I could say I really did a “photo shoot.” I was inspired by the special moment with my friend that was created during this process. It was as if we were on an adventure together where the ultimate destination was not clear.  I still feel this way today with each and every shoot I do and cherish the intimate moments between photographer and subject.

We’d like to know more about your China Dolls series. What sparked the idea and motivations for this body of work centered on women? Can you share with us your thought process for this series?

While living in China, I was intrigued by the One Child Policy and its effect on the current generation of women. I wanted to offer a perspective on these women who are struggling to find their identity in China following the Cultural Revolution. So I decided to photograph them individually, documenting their separate stories within what is a vastly overcrowded society. To emphasize their seclusion further, I photographed them in complete darkness using only light painting to capture them in a moment of isolation, contrary to their normally dense and concentrate surroundings.

I also wanted to highlight the sense of being “walked all over”, a feeling that has often be expressed by the Chinese women that I met. Therefore, these portraits were printed on 30 x 30 cm ceramic tiles each that were placed on the gallery floor for people to walk on, incorporating the viewer to this unsettling situation.

How did the women you photographed for this series respond to the concept and ideas you had for China Dolls?

Luckily, the woman that I spoke to were eager to share their stories and the daily struggles they face as women. I was fortunate also to have good Chinese female friends that could help me understand the cultural nuances better.   

Is there anything you wish you could have done differently for this series?

In total, I spent almost a year in China working on this project but I still feel that I needed more time to really fully grasp this transition. So, I’d like to spend more time there.

Can you tell us about the equipment that you used to shoot this series and how it let you achieve the results you had in mind?

I use my Nikon F2 camera and where ever I am I normally like to try the local 35mm film. So for China Dolls I used Lucky 35mm Chinese film, a small flashlight for the light painting, and black material to create a human-sized box. I normally do not bring much equipment nor am I a technical person. I use the same 35mm for 26 years now. For me, it’s all about sensing the connection with my subject, their environment.  I then devote months in the darkroom to recreating the feelings in the final printed artwork, which is where I do the more technical work.

How does the darkroom allow you to explore and achieve your creative vision for projects, and for this series in particular?

I love pushing the boundaries of photography in the darkroom through new experimental methods, mediums and printing techniques. I use a different technique for each project to represent the feeling I had when I was there with my subjects, on the ground. For example, in Korean Dreams, I never felt that I was able to form a clear picture of North Korea.  Most of the information that was communicated felt obscured. With all the lies and propaganda, I felt like I was losing sight of reality. That is why I developed a technique in the darkroom to engender the images with this same feeling. This involved exposing and peeling the prints over and over again to mimic the way that the regime propagates information within the country.  The photographs, like the North Korean people, are both manipulated until the underlying truth is left ambiguous, obscured and blurred.

Lastly, any projects you’re currently working on? Any shows or exhibits coming up where we can see your work up close?

Last year, I was invited to Mongolia to take part in a New Milestone travel program to spend one month living among nomadic families who inhabit the steppe. While there, I learned about the nomads’ decade-long struggle to sustain themselves. This fight for survival is becoming harder each day as their livestock die due to famine and climate change leads to harsh weather conditions. Forced to abandon their rural way of life, nomads are migrating en masse to the highly polluted Ger District of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, where the government allows them to put up their tents, the ‘gers’.

While I was in Mongolia I met many of these families and I would now like to share their stories. Since I am working with analog photography it will take at least one more year to develop everything so the first exhibition will not be before the summer of 2020.

Check out Nathalie Daoust’s website to see more of her work.

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