Daddy and I: White Fathers, Asian Daughters

Debbie says:

I’m out of my comfort zone blogging about photography without Laurie. At the same time, I don’t want to leave this one alone for the month or more that she’ll be gone.

O Zhang is a photographer from the People’s Republic of China. I didn’t know her work before today.

photo from Daddy and I

Her latest series, “Daddy and I” showcases adopted Chinese girls with their Caucasian fathers. The artist’s statement says:

What is the nature of this complex relationship, especially when different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are introduced? Through the relationship of the emerging feminine power of the adolescent girl to the mature father, each image explores the relation of the two often divided cultures: East and West.

Like the girls adapting to their new situation, China is learning from the West to grow its economy. Is its emergence from regional power to global economic force a change that will be accepted and encouraged? Or will it be seen as a rebellion against the rules that the West has established for others to follow?

Likewise, as the girls grow up, will they remain innocent adoptees under the tutelage of their western patriarchs? Or will their progression to maturity disturb the relationship’s equilibrium?

Great questions! And yet, at least to my Western eye, the photographer’s responses seem to underscore distressingly stereotypical notions of feminine power and Western patriarchy. Fathers wear ties, or button-down shirts. More of the girls than I would expect are wearing clothes that echo traditional Chinese dress, others are in “cute schoolgirl” outfits. In all photos, father and daughter touch, usually a close hug, but occasionally just the touch of a hand. Look at how the father in the photograph below is grasping the daughter’s wrist with both hands, as if he was afraid she would run away.

photo from Daddy and I

Very few pictures show or even indicate any physical activity. Everyone, without exception, looks straight at the camera, not at each other. I know from working with Laurie that if the models were looking at each other, they would be more likely to be comfortable and relaxed. Particularly given the artist’s statement, O Zhang may very well intend us to feel discomfited by the photos, and to believe that we are picking up on discomfort in the models.

What we can’t know without more information is whether she also intends the understatedly eroticized flavor of the series. Many of these photographs, taken alone, would appear completely harmless–and they probably are. We live in a time where genuine father-daughter affection, an experience of extraordinary value, is far too frequently misconstrued into something more sinister. Nonetheless, viewing the photos as a group is unsettling. I know from other series on the website that Zhang is no stranger to erotic imagery. What I can’t know is what she means here, and especially what these photographs look like in a Chinese rather than a western context.

One oversimplified implication that can easily be drawn from these pictures is that Zhang is simultaneously subtly feminizing China in relation to the patriarchal west and encouraging adopted Chinese girls to use their feminine mojo in relation to their fathers’ power (as, of course, girls across cultures have done for millennia). I expect it is far more complicated than that. In any event, I very much appreciate the way Zhang is raising these questions both in words and in photographs, even if her “answers” don’t sit comfortably with me.

Thanks to Racialicious for the pointer.

photography, China, adoption, interracial adoption, fathers, daughters, Body Impolitic

2 thoughts on “Daddy and I: White Fathers, Asian Daughters

  1. I think this is an excellent article. When I was in college (a small private university in Missouri) back in 1998, I was the only Chinese on campus. I think when she grows up, it will be vital to keep communication channels open.

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    You will be eligible to win our September Prize: Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. You can simply submit your permanent URL on the Contact page. Thank you for your consideration.

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