Ramona Jingru Wang asks: “Does the appearance of Asian bodies in an image make it inherently political?”
Ramona knows what it’s like to be both behind and in front of the camera. Drawing on this experience, the Pratt Institute MFA graduate questions when an artwork becomes political in her new series, Family Album.
- Jyni Ong
- 25 November 2021
Two years ago, Ramona Jingru Wang started to unexpectedly work as a fashion model while studying for an MFA in photography at Pratt Institute. Little did she know the experience would inform her next series, Family Album, a self-published newspaper project where she captures the other sides of East Asian models away from the flashing lights and stark white backdrops. “The experience of being a model gave me another perspective on the idea of photography,” she tells us, “not only as a medium of art but more so as an act that creates social connections.”
Through modelling, she began to see how photography can further one’s understanding of self-image or a group’s image. As a model, there were times where Ramona felt uncomfortable, overly exposed in a situation where she was not in control and her image was being used for commercial gain. On one level, she describes this “strange, objectifying feeling” but deeper than that, there was also the underlying emotion of “being one of the only tokenised Asians in those photos.” In turn, she wanted to do something that combatted the feeling of alienation, to get to know her fellow models more and ultimately “create an alternate photographic presence that is in contrast to their commercial one.”
In this way, Family Album is not an overly sentimental piece about Asian culture or Asian identity. Instead, the artist created the ongoing series as a way to connect ritualistic aspects of photography both during and after the actual image is created. Born and raised in Guangzhou, China, Ramona initially studied economics before venturing into the realms of photography as a post-grad. Though photography and economics might seem as if they don’t have much in common, Ramona draws parallels between the two in her practice. For one, she uses her lens to explore how images interact with reality, exploring the social connections that impact both people and their spaces. “I want to explore the duality of the public effects and personal sentiment embedded in most photographs,” she adds.
For this series, the photographer paid particular attention to the materiality of the final printed works. She explains: “I think the materiality of photographs matters as it affects how we interpret the images.” She therefore carefully selected newsprint for its connotations with mass media, hoping to echo its public-oriented purposes through the near translucent sheets. “I want to trick the viewers into confusion when they look at photographs that blur the boundary between private family snapshots and commercial fashion photography.” Digging into the dissonance between process and outcome, Ramona’s process considers how exactly an image is made, how it is presented and how it is read as a final object.
“The process of doing photography as an ‘art practice’ can be exploitative,” she says, “but not so much when we think about taking personal photos of friends and family for memories.” And because Ramona understands what it’s like to be both in front of and behind the camera, her shoots strive to create an atmosphere of equality and care. With this in mind, Ramona’s work asks the viewer to question the tokenisation of having POC models in commercial campaigns. She asks whether POC artists are subject to overly identitarian readings of their work and wonders what do people see when they see Asian models in a shoot resembling a family album. Along with this, the work also questions when an artwork becomes political: “Does the appearance of Asian bodies in an image make it inherently political?”
She tells us about a couple of particular images from the shoot. The first features Bea and her grandma (two of the first people she contacted for the series). They met while on a music video shoot for Future where Bea and Ramona were two of the only Asians cast. During the shoot of Bea and her grandma, Ramona listened while they talked about their life living together, touching on beloved plants and beautiful gardens. They had afternoon tea and sampled delicious food made by Bea’s mum. In the shoot, Bea is dressed like her grandmother, a nod to their close relationship. Anecdotes were relayed in turn, Ramona adding: “Bea told me her grandma would sneak into her room to smoke a cigarette sometimes.”
In another shoot, Ramona tells us about her time with Wenhao and his mum, who was especially excited about being photographed and she changed into several different outfits in preparation. The shoot took place in their garden and while Ramona turned her lens on Wenhao’s mum, so did he. “That afternoon felt so special as Wenhao and his mum had fun dressing up and taking photos, which is so different from dressing up and taking photos in a commercial shoot.” After the pictures were taken, the two friends spent time talking and lounging and reading tarot cards in the fresh grass.
GalleryRamona Jingru Wang: Family Album (Copyright © Ramona Jingru Wang, 2021)
Ramona Jingru Wang: Family Album, Wenhao and Mom (Copyright © Ramona Jingru Wang, 2021)