A word that comes to mind when looking at the work of Hangzhou-born and New York-based photographer and multimedia artist Mengwen Cao is “tender”. The photos, bathed in soothing post-production, invite us into the subject’s world without becoming voyeurs. “I think of photographs as containers of time and keepers of memory,” Mengwen tells It’s Nice That. “They are bookmarks of different periods of our lives.” As a child growing up, Mengwen recalls the many family albums their family kept which inspired their profound fascination with the art of photography. “It’s precious to see my parents and grandparents when they are younger,” they explain. “It’s adding different dimensions to these people who we are familiar with within certain relationship dynamics.”
Whilst Mengwen quickly realised photography was what they wanted to do, it wasn’t until they arrived in the USA in 2012 that they knew it could be a career path for them. “[At home], there was nobody around me who was doing that,” Mengwen says. They took up various internships and side-gigs at their university newspaper, television and film programmes, and then eventually a job at NPR’s local radio station in Austin, Texas. “Moving across the ocean to another country that speaks a completely different language and embodies different values can be daunting,” they say. “And my camera is like my wingman to get to know this new land.”
With their camera, Mengwen likes to stay the “quiet observer and participant”. From cultural and political events to various people they meet, Mengwen has found photography a lifeline in understanding the States. “I get to know people from all walks of life in intimate settings,” they add. “I love how photography sessions are also intentional quality time with people.” It’s through this genuine appreciation for the subjects that they photograph that beautiful “intimate moments and a sense of being” comes to life in Mengwen’s work. “My photos are also usually quite vivid, colourful with mysterious light,” they say of their signature style. As for their process, “it varies from project to project,” they tell us. “Generally it starts from my lived experience and my observations of my surroundings, and I ask many questions.” Mengwen then uses the photographic form to find answers through self-reflection, research, experimentation and collaboration. “Each time is a dialogue with my feelings and emotions,” Mengwen explains.
One of Mengwen’s fascinating ongoing projects is Liminal Space, which started after they moved to New York in 2015. “It’s my first time feeling like I have a loving and supportive queer community,” they say. “I have immense tenderness towards these people who embrace me as who I am in each stage, low and high, as we’ve witnessed each other’s growth through a long period of time.” It’s a stark contrast to Mengwen’s childhood, which they detail as being riddled with shame for being queer – relegated often as taboo. “The media representation of queer folks in China are usually quite extreme, either suffering or glamorous,” Mengwen explains. “I crave to see moments in-between.”
It was this search for balance that led Mengwen to photograph their friends in more quotidian settings. “I want to downplay the label ‘queer’, but focus on creating beautiful and authentic representations of a sense of being,” they say. “In some way, I want to tell my younger self that you are not alone and you can be proud of who you are.” But, it’s not just Mengwen’s younger self and other queers that they hope Liminal Space reaches. “I also imagine folks like my parents who see the work and have a sense of familiarity as well,” they add. “I want to assure them that being queer isn’t a scary thing and instead, it can be beautiful, empowering and healing.” It’s these feelings that have also guided their other projects, In here We Are and I Stand Between – both dealing with agency, coming out, cultural identity, and “mitigating harm in loving situations”.
“Overall, I’m asking what if we deserve love just by being?” Mengwen tells us. “What does it feel like to be safe and spacious? How do you celebrate life with ease and joy?” As Mengwen goes on to unearth the quiet moments of a multi-faceted queer life, they remain steadfast in their endgame. “I hope to stay authentic to my own growth and vision,” they say. “I hope to never cease to change and expand, and I hope my work can lend comfort and hope to others as well.”
Mengwen Cao: Sueann, Liminal Space (Copyright © Mengwen Cao, 2019)