For Living History, photographer Jo Farrell paints a stark yet complex portrait of China’s now-illegal practice of foot binding. Fueled by her desire to photograph traditions and peoples forgotten by the modern age, she began the series with Zhang Yun Ying, one of the few living women with bound feet. Since then, Farrell has returned every year to the village of the 88-year-old peasant farmer, creating a visual diary of a recent history on the brink of vanishing from our collective memory.
Beginning during the Song Dynasty, foot binding was executed in girlhood, when the bones were softer. With the ideal size of a mere 3 inches, “lotus feet”—nearly impossible to walk on—marked a woman who adhered to the Confucian ideals of domestic piety and servitude, thereby attracting affluent husbands and bringing prosperity to the family. Though banned by the Chinese government in 1911, the practice continued in rural communities until 1939. Farrell sees disturbing parallels between foot binding and modern modifications of the female body, like cosmetic surgeries, Botox injections, and rib removals.
Farrell’s subjects are in their 80s and 90s; their memories are fading, and in the last year, three have died. As these women are lost, the photographer follows in their wake, meticulously preserving their bodies on black and white film and silver gelatin prints. Her darkroom process, a labor of love, allows the textures and folds of the elderly bodies to emerge, revealing joys and sufferings now past. These feet, so long the subjects of abstract academic research, become living artifacts, bearing the marks of real women with stories worth remembering. For more, follow Jo Farrell on Facebook.