What does ethnic identity mean in the globalised world? Photographer Yolanda Y. Liou explores this notion in her latest series Thank You For Playing With Me, for a recent exhibition in London’s Crypt Gallery. “In my case, I’m originally from Taiwan but only started taking photographs after I relocated to the UK,” Yolanda tells us. “So does the difference between my background Asian culture and my habitat Western culture affect me in any way?” Prior to taking part in the exhibition, Yolanda had never considered her role as an Asian photographer, preferring to focus on the content of the image and allowing it to “speak for itself.”
So in Thank You For Playing With Me, she explores this role head on, confronting a prevalent Asian beauty standard that she herself experienced growing up. Yolanda tells It’s Nice That: “The expectation of being skinny as the standard is relentless in Asian beauty culture. I’ve experienced the stress of this since a very young age and I was always trying different ways to lose weight in order to conform.” She recalls a particularly poignant memory in junior high, where she asked her little sister to stand in front of a mirror with her, “and almost like a mantra, we kept repeating: ‘I want to be thin, I want to be tall, I want to be thin, I want to be tall…’”
Subsequently enduring physical and psychological trauma as a result of this kind of pressure, Yolanda felt like she would never be confident, or worthy of being liked if she wasn’t skinny. But when she moved to Australia, and later the UK, she learned to view her body in a different way, and to embrace herself in a new environment where she felt “encourage to be [her]self.” So when it came to creating this new series of works to be exhibiting alongside other London-based artists from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, she decided to explore body imaging in more depth.
Recently coming across the body positive Enam Asiama through Instagram, on first impressions, Yolanda was struck by her oozing confidence and charisma. “Suddenly it clicked,” she says on this new discovery, “I’m a fashion photographer, I create images, images don’t create me.” Proposing the shoot to Enam (who quickly agreed to take part), the pair, alongside Enam’s friend Vanessa Russell, embarked on a project to celebrate body diversity. Opting against the use of other stylists, hair and makeup artists, Yolanda wanted the shoot to showcase the models at their most comfortable, and their own sense of style.
Remarking on how the entire shoot was “so beautiful and warm”, when they wrapped up, “I was overwhelmed with content” says Yolanda. “So I said to them: ‘thank you for playing with me’. That was literally how I felt, like I was playing with my little sister, but we didn’t need to answer to anyone but ourselves.” In addition, Yolanda has translated the series in a new photo book that she hopes will be available to the general public some time soon.
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