Growing up, Hailun Ma never really felt like she fit in the beauty standards, as she never saw anyone who looked like her in the media, but she never really minded that. As a kid, she began toying around with photography by taking pictures of herself embodying all sorts of characters. Now, she does that for a living. She not only puts herself out there but also shines a light on other kinds of people that we don’t get to see in a daily basis, like those from her homeland in rural China. In her opinion, that is what photography is all about: sharing moments and stories, getting others to see and feel the uniqueness and beauty in the unexpected and unknown.
How did your love of photography start? Was the lack of representation of East Asian beauty a motivator to pursue this profession?
At first, taking pictures was just a hobby of mine to kill time. I started taking selfies, you know, being a girl and everything (laughs). I used to put my camera on top of books and set a timer, and I’d just be goofy and weird to experiment. Then I fell in love with it. Growing up under the Chinese beauty standards, I was not the typical pretty girl. My skin was too tanned and my face was not small enough. To be honest, I did not mind it, I liked the way my skin tone is a bit darker, but the whole environment and other people around me made me upset because they perceived beauty as what the standard is. Especially, there was no role model or inspiration for me to look up to in the media. When I was growing up, and especially when I came to New York, I learned that the most important thing is to embrace my own beauty and think for myself rather than follow the beauty standard.
Your body of work encompasses editorials, portraits, documentary-style photos and more personal and even indescribable work. How do you choose your projects and their formats/approach?
I am interested in so many things. When I am interested I just cannot help but photograph it. For me, my work showed every part of me, it showed where I come from, how I grew up, what I like and who I am.
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Your Fashion? photo series seems to question the industry itself, hence the question mark. These aspects are the hypebeast phenomenon, the unnaturalness and awkwardness of posed photos, as well as recurring tropes from fashion photography. What other themes do you criticise that I may have missed?
I think you almost covered all of them. However, in addition to criticism, it also reflects my own questions towards fashion photography while I was studying my master’s degree, precisely, in fashion photography. I come from a fine art background but part of me is really drawn to fashion; I love fashion styling and how fashion photography is an amazing platform to show my aesthetic and vision. But another part of me is very confused by the media. I am still experimenting how to use this platform and to cope with my fine art approach.
What would you say about the present state of fashion photography, and what do you think it will look like in the future?
I think the present state of fashion photography is really interesting; film has returned. Imagery becomes more and more personal and relatable. Instagram brought a huge change in terms of how images can be seen. I honestly don't know what the future of fashion photography will be, but I am excited. As a viewer, I think it is important to use this powerful platform in a positive way. I would love to see more real and diverse (size, race and age) people wearing fashionable clothes and appearing in magazines. As a photographer, I would love to make images that say something rather than just showing beautiful people in beautiful clothes, which is also nice. But I want to use fashion as an element to tell a story or show a place, a culture, or a group of people that other people have never seen before or don’t know about.
Your Pink Bikini series show the main differences between Western and Eastern cultures, as you described Americans interacted with you and somewhat embraced you when taking those pictures. However, most Chinese people were weirded out and would stay away from you. What other differences did you experience when you first moved to New York? How have those influenced your work?
When I first moved to New York, I was blown away by how different each person is and how they dressed; it is almost like they use clothes to show their personality. In Asia, especially in China and Korea, society is still largely hierarchical, we tend to follow the rules and what others do or wear. Being different or standing out is considered a bad/rebellious thing. Also, moving to New York made me think a lot about my identity, beauty and even lifestyle. Overall, it opened up lots of possibilities in my life. I became braver and more confident, and in a way, it also influenced my work. For me, my work is really influenced by my experience moving from the East to the West. I tend to combine these two cultures together and embrace both of them.
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In one of your most recent series, you took photos of people from rural China and Mongolia. They differ greatly from the rest of your work, what inspired you to go there?
I come from a city called Urumqi, which belongs to the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region located in Northwestern China. The people I photographed are from my homeland. My inspiration behind this series is partly about being away from home. It has been eight years since I left. I still get homesick and, sometimes, I feel a bit lost in a big city. Then, I start missing how blue the sky was there, how simple the people were back in my homeland. Another part is about growing up. I am fascinated by how colourful and vibrant the Uyghur traditional clothing is and how beautiful and majestic nature is there.
It has been my passion to introduce my homeland to others. My hometown is so different from New York City, even from most other cities in China. Fashion, as most people know it, is far from the life in Xinjiang. But people have a great sense of style. I want people to know this place and love it as I do, to feel it as I do. And that’s also what photography means to me, it is to share: a memory, a new place, a person’s story, a lifestyle or even a piece of clothing.
What was the most remarkable moment of your trip? Also, could you tell us about the people you met there, who stood out to you the most?
The most remarkable moment is when I was on this road trip with the intention of photographing Kazakh people and their lifestyle in my homeland, but I had no idea who could I meet and what would they look like. I even had no idea which town or village should I come across. I just had a general direction of where I wanted to go, a city called Altay. There, I met this boy when I passed by, something about him was really interesting to me and I wanted to photograph him. So I pulled over and asked him if I could. I ended up staying with him and his family for one and a half days in this beautiful grassland in the Kanas lake area. His mom made me dinner and I drunk camel milk with them. That night, I saw the most beautiful starred sky in my life.
In your selection of photos for the brand Aviva Jifei Xue, you had a few black and white images, which seem to be, in part, influenced by Nobuyoshi Araki’s work. What other artists inspire you?
My inspiration is always changing as my photography evolves. Araki is my earliest inspiration. But now I really like Roe Ethridge, Olgac Bozalp and Ruth Ossai.
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You have a set of photos that are Sim-based art, what moved you to start this? Moreover, I was once told that the obsession some have with the Sims stems from their own fascination with people and human behaviour, does that ring a bell?
I really love playing The Sims; I spend so much time in that game, even just to build a house and a character rather than playing it. I am interested in the idea of creating a world and characters. One day, I realised the way I play the game is really like my approach to photography. It provides a virtual space and I could use it to help me manifest ideas without worrying about the limited resources I have in real life. Moreover, the game itself is really interesting and profound. It simulates our everyday lifestyle and the basis of society. And it gives freedom to players, making them designers of their own world in the game. Their way of playing the game reflects their own characters, ideologies, and even subconscious behaviour.
You have done many self-portraits throughout your career, how do you approach taking pictures of yourself differently to portraying other people?
For me, using myself or other people is the same: it is about turning this person or myself into a character. I started photographing myself because it felt natural to me. It is how I became interested in photography in the first place. I always felt an urge to express myself when I was a kid, and as I said previously, I would set a timer and placed my camera on a stack of books and just brought myself into whatever characters I needed myself to be.
Could you tell us what you are currently working on?
I went back to China a couple of months ago and photographed more people in my homeland with the intention of combining fashion to document the rich culture of these people. I am planning to go back again and expand this series.
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