“What is ‘female gaze’ in photography?” I had this question in mind when visiting Lean Lui’s photography exhibition. Lean has recently made a guest appearance on the Dior Talks podcast series, and coincidently, she talked about female gaze. It seems to me everything about her is related to female gaze. So what actually is female gaze in photography? Does it mean softer lighting for a dreamy photoshoot? Or is it a criticism of gender bias? After spending an hour at Lean’s exhibition, I left with an answer: None of the above.
生於1999年的Lean Lui本名雷安喬，曾在橫浪修的工作室實習，回來香港後替各家媒體進行拍攝，合作對象包括《Dior》雜誌、《Vogue Italia》和《Vice》等，2018年亦曾出版個人攝影集《19. 29》。這次展出竹作品囊括了《Poetic Life》、《The Time Goes By…》，《Daoism & Girls》及《A Single Operation Room》等，集結了她多年來的創作，而明年Lean將赴英國修讀碩士學位，展覽可視為一次人生區間的總結；而之所以取名為「Epoch驀」，大概也離不開這個原因，把二十年來所累積的，藉著這次展覽一次釋出。
Born in 1999, Lean Lui took up an internship at the age of 19 with the renowned Japanese photographer Osamu Yokonami. Upon returning to Hong Kong, Lean shot for various media outlets, including Dior, Vogue Italia, and Vice. In 2018, she published her first photobook 19. 29. Her latest exhibition gathered a number of her works over the years, such as Poetic Life, The Time Goes By…, Daoism & Girls and A Single Operation Room etc. She is heading to the UK next year to complete a master’s degree, so the exhibition can be regarded as a summary of her 20 years of life so far, which is probably why the exhibition is named Epoch.
The first thing that you see when you walk inside the exhibition hall is the Poetic Life series. Compared with most of the other works in the exhibition that are nicely framed, this series comes raw and naked — they have no frames and simply put up on the wall like posters creating a scene similar to that of a teenager’s bedroom. Poetic Life is a series of works about suppression of restlessness. It has a calm and natural tone, yet the metaphoric representation of sexuality is nothing short of obvious: flower buds on the tip of the tongue, naked skin under the water, and a fruit seed with its inside hollowed out. The sense of desire and curiosity fills this tiny corner of the exhibition hall.
走到展覽場中間，空間被劃分為左邊的《Daoism & Girls》，以及右邊的《The Time Goes By…》。與上面《Poetic Life》同樣，《Daoism & Girls》是偏向詩性而內在的作品，慵懶自在的女性臉龐，與枝葉和花蕾的陰影重疊一起，展現出一股「道法自然」的陰柔美。至於另一邊廂的《The Time Goes By…》，則以家人的生活日常為主題，尤其聚焦在家族中的女性，中間被特別放大的三張人像照，橫跨三代女性，展現出老人的沉靜、年輕的跳脫、幼年的好奇心；而相較其他作品，其色調和氛圍出奇地溫暖自然，不變的倒是那份「私攝影」的本質。
The main exhibition area is divided into two sections: Daoism & Girls on the left and The Time Goes By… on the right. Similar to Poetic Life, Daoism & Girls is a collection of rather poetic and intimate works. Branches, leaves and flowers shadowed over the contented and lazy faces of various women; they remind me of the natural feminine beauty that is associated with Daoism. On the other side of the exhibition hall showcases The Time Goes By… series which features family photos that depict the daily life of the Lui’s with a special focus on the females. This could be seen from the three especially large solo portraits of females of different ages. They perfectly capture seasoned serenity, youthful excitement, and childhood curiosity. Even though these three portraits have a surprisingly warm and natural tone that is quite different from the other exhibited works, they still fit perfectly to the exhibition theme Epoch.
It’s worth mentioning that there are two projectors constantly showing video clips on the two white walls at the back of the exhibition hall. One with video related to Daoism & Girls and the other with video related to The Time Goes By…. The video on Daoism & Girls was created by Lean’s sister, Yvonne. At the age of 15, Yvonne received a full sponsorship to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and she is a highly regarded young video director. With one engaged in photography and the other in video creation, I am curious as to what might happen if the two sisters collaborate again in the future.
輪到最後，要進入展示《A Single Operation Room》的小房間之前，我們首先會遇到平放地板上，以金屬和玻璃框起的巨型照片。照片來自《A Single Operation Room》，腳背上有一道深刻的傷疤，旁邊簇擁著花朵，而相框的四個角落，則散落著真實的泥濘；好像花朵真是從傷疤中萌芽茁壯，而又仿佛是在告訴我們，傷害中總能孕育出點什麼。
For the last part of the exhibition, A Single Operation Room, visitors have to enter a small exhibition room. But before entering the room, there is a gigantic metal framed photo lying on the floor. The photo, taken from the A Single Operation Room series, shows a deep scar surrounded by flowers. There is real sand and mud scattered around the frame. I had an illusion that the flowers were sprouting from the scar and wondered at what such an illusion hints.
《A Single Operation Room》是Lean去年接受腫瘤割除手術，把手術中經歷的痛楚和不安，以具象的形式呈現出來。走進展區前，必須先從兩堵牆中間的窄門入內，是自成一角的展覽區。而來回看著牆上十幾幀照片，除了像傷口，疤痕和病人服，這些明顯與手術相關的象徵物外，最有趣的是各置在左右兩端的照片。在右邊的照片中，少女被頭套肉色絲襪，像是被驚嚇想尖叫的模樣。至於左邊的照片，只見一張垂下來的臉，正舔著自己膝蓋上的傷口。而明明兩張照片互打照面，又同樣是在受苦，卻好像無法相互理解，只能各自沉浸在那種令人發狂，而逼近歇斯底里的情緒。
A Single Operation Room is a visual depiction of the pain and anxiety that Lean went through when she underwent surgery to remove a tumor last year. To enter the exhibition room, visitors have to go through the narrow entrance between the two white walls. I walked back and forth inside the small exhibition room to look at those dozen or so photos on the wall. There were images of wounds, scars and patient gowns, such items being obvious symbols of surgery. Besides that, two other images in particular caught my attention. One of the images is a portrait of a young girl with her head covered by flesh-colored stockings. She looks frightened and as if she is screaming. The other image showed a person licking the wound on his/her knee. Even though both photos share the same theme of suffering, there doesn’t seem to be a genuine connection between them. Afterall, nobody can truly understand other people’s pain. One can only attempt to communicate their definition of pain and then suffer alone in his/her own self-defined hysterical world.
Back to the question I asked at the very beginning, “What is ‘female gaze’ in photography?” I still couldn’t obtain a definitive answer after spending nearly an hour at the exhibition. Such a question is similar to that of “How to define ‘woman’?” — there are multiple definitions. A woman can be someone who is confident of her own body and proud to express her desires. A woman can be a nerdy bookworm who spends day and night reading ancient Chinese classics. A woman can be a granddaughter or a sister. A woman can also be someone who is free to express her sadness, anger, and disappointment. That is to say, we shouldn’t confine someone to live and behave in a certain way simply because she was born a woman, and there shouldn’t be a concrete definition of ‘woman’ at all. In a similar sense, ‘female gaze’ in photography should be open to interpretation.
The following words from Lean explain what ‘female gaze’ to her:
“I strongly encourage more female to pick up the lens, empower their perspective through their lens; using your own ways to release own desires and views, nothing to be embarrassed about. Plainly express the desires can’t be just a male’s right, I am sick of patriarchy’s female image who pleases men; the Internet is all about teaching “How to get your boyfriend take your good picture.” That’s quite ashamed that even nowadays, mostly women are taught to set their appearance as the biggest selling point by society. However, the most powerful thing is not in front of the camera but behind, photographer is the one who decides what can be presented. Although photographing and being photographed does not indicate a definite power struggle, holding the lens is a definite indicator of empowerment.
……In this image-dominated era, only when more women take up the lens, then “feminism” will not be only a style, but a norm that we don’t need to specially mention it.”