Mao Zedong once said that “women hold up half the sky”, or rather he said something in Chinese that roughly translates to that. While the days of foot binding are gone and women have moved up the social ladder over the past century, men still occupy the prime positions in business and government. Lili Almog attempts to bring Chinese women, particularly women of ethnic minorities, to the forefront and provide a historical record of their lives through The Other Half of the Sky, a collection of photographs from remote Chinese villages.
The book begins with an introductory essay, “Unseen Women”, by Richard Vine. The essay comprises four out of the book’s eight pages of text (all of which, excluding the acknowledgments page, were penned by Vine). Such an introduction does orient readers to an extent, which is quite helpful. Due to its brevity, however, the essay becomes something of a mishmash, where discussions of Chinese history, gender issues, minority issues, and points about the modern economic and political situation in China compete for space with biographical material of Almog, an overview of her project (from his view), analysis of her work in the book and in general, and a brief history of photography in China.
The essay is filled with interesting tidbits, few of which are expounded upon to a sufficient degree. In other words, it is quite typical of what the introductory essay has come to be: a short plug for the following material, a bit of context, and if the audience is lucky, a critical lens or two through which to view it. Western publishing culture demands nothing more of such material because, frankly, few people bother to read them and quickly move on to the text itself with little further consideration. In The Other Half of the Sky, however, there is little other written text. Therefore, what text there is becomes all the more important.
While the details of Almog’s journey mentioned in the essay sound interesting and could provide additional insight into the work, there’s no reason they couldn’t have come directly from the artist. In fact, I believe even a slight bit of background from Almog herself would have been an invaluable addition to the book. I suppose the logic behind the lack thereof is that the images ought to stand for themselves. While they do stand for themselves, I fail to see what could have been lost by more clearly organized contextualization through writing. Anyone who has spent months traveling throughout rural China in an attempt to understand and represent women of ethnic minorities as Almog had would likely have some additional insight that would be of interest to readers.
Throughout the book, there are images that contain striking contrasts when seen by Western eyes: Chinese women dressed largely in traditional garb also sport tennis shoes, a Tibetan woman wears a facemask featuring images of Snoopy. Such pictures imply the encroachment of Western culture to even the most remote rural areas of China. More than that, they show the influence of modernism and development on traditional, isolated cultures.
The photographs are divided into six sections based on the surrounding environment: “Mountain”, “Backyard”, “Factory”, “Lake”, “Street”, and “Land”. Each section begins with a sort of establishing shot that focuses on the environment rather than an individual. These titles indicate an interplay between the natural and man-made, pre-modern and industrialized. The photos in each section have their human subjects in the foreground, but the backgrounds often help inform the scenes as well. For example, some of the “Factory” pictures (not a highly modern, industrialized production plant as its connotation implies) have cinder blocks and plastic bottles taking up more of the background than plant life.
These pictures, as well as most in the book, exhibit the interaction of human structures and the natural environment and the persistence of such structures in the landscape. Such interactions, as well as the relationship between the camera, subject, and background work to create a wonderful ideascape or idea-image, a sort of scene beyond the scene. The compilation and ordering of the images as such helps create a similar effect for the collection as a whole: a sort of cinematic third-meaning is produced through the placement of the images and the audience gains information through inference rather than direct exposition.
Indeed, Vine’s essay cues readers to the depth of meaning they should expect to find in Almog’s photos. He writes, “Like Hemingway’s prose at its finest, Almog’s pictures gain their eidetic power from all that is said without being explicitly stated, all that is seen without being blatantly shown”. I agree with the sentiment here. The analogy, in my opinion, fails to hold up but does draw attention to the difference between the crafts of writing and photography.
Though there are plenty of differences between the two, the key is that this collection of photographs does not (nor does it attempt to) generate or sustain a continuous narrative as Hemingway’s stories do, thereby making it the reader’s job to provide any necessary contextualization (either out of his or her own expertise or, barring that, imagination) and any relationships between scenes become obscured. As interesting and loaded with meaning as the photographs are, I often felt kept at arm’s length from them.
That is to say, while I could make all the inferences I wanted to, there was little context to guide the extrapolations I made about the photographs. Are my analyses accurate? Are these images indicative of larger trends (more sociological in nature) or rare and therefore interesting exceptions to trends (a more anthropological take)? Am I reading too much or too little into any given scene? The obvious criticism, then, becomes the analogy’s sentiment spun in a different way: Almog’s focus on the individual women in portrait style fails to provide sufficient context to maximize its potential effectiveness. That’s not to say that the book is a failure by any means. Such issues would not have been so frustrating if the book was not so intriguing.
Vine says, “[Almog] avoids the pitfalls of the colonist gaze by taking her subjects as she finds them, without manipulating them into ‘representative’ scenarios”. Is it possible for the images to be anything other than representative? A photograph, by its very nature, provides an indexical representation of something that exists or existed in the physical world and emphasizes certain aspects as opposed to others. Then, there’s the selectivity involved in photography: an artist must choose what gets put into the frame and what does not, later selecting the most effective images, which presumably express or convey the artist’s vision better than others.
How, then, can the images that were selected be anything other than representative? Perhaps there is no indication in the book that the individuals depicted throughout stand as representatives for any one particular thing, but there is certainly no evidence to the contrary. If nothing more, they represent the women of China as seen by an outsider and as presented to outsiders. Almog may not have subjugated them or, at the other end of the spectrum, romanticized their foreignness, but the medium of photography is inherently manipulative and representative, regardless of whether or not the artist feels superior to his or her subjects.
The Other Half of the Sky gives faces to ethnic and social minorities. Its photographs celebrate the common people of China, whose images will never be found on currency or in magazines. As Vine says, Almog’s portraits contain “the subject’s implicit self-assertion, I was here, [which] is as elemental as a Neolithic handprint on a cave wall, as poignant as an epitaph”. Such a lasting handprint, in this case, belongs not to the elite but to common and marginalized people. The adherence to the portrait-style depiction, however, gives very little context to the images and keeps the book from being the great work that it could be.