"They call Xiamen 'the Mediterranean of China,'" says Sarah Mei Herman over the phone from Amsterdam. She's currently preparing to shoot new work for the Unseen Photo Fair in September (Polaroids that capture hypogogia, the exact moment before sleep), but her portraits of young couples on the beaches and in the university dorm rooms of Xiamen are still on her mind. After spending four months in the coastal city-island in 2014, and then briefly returning the following year, she wants to go back.
Herman, who studied photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in The Hague and the The Royal College of Art in London, likes to take her time with her work. Her projects can literally last lifetimes. She's been photographing her younger half brother, Jonathan, for 10 years, since he was five; two Dutch sisters, Julia and Stephanie, since 2005; and a pair of identical twins, Jana and Feby, through their childhood and into their late teens ("Theirs is the closest possible human relationship," she says).
Herman is fascinated by "the transitions and continual changes young people go through on their way to adulthood," she explains. "I'm drawn to the intensity, liminality, and sometimes loneliness of these stages. To the gray area between friendship and love, and the ambiguity of relationships in certain stages in life."
In Xiamen, Herman also found a changing city. The university (where she taught a photography workshop) is a small island of permanence — all grand buildings, palm trees, and perfect lawns — amid a frenzy of demolition and construction. "For a Chinese city, Xiamen is very small, it's maybe 4 million people, but like all of China, it's changing rapidly," she says. Her ongoing series Screen Touch explores the evolution of intimacy between young couples against this backdrop — and in the presence of everyone's now-constant third wheel: their phone.
How did you first end up in Xiamen?
I'm really interested in the closeness and intimacy between people, particularly people in relationships, and young couples, and I'd never been to Asia before. I came across an artists residency in Xiamen and I spoke to the director, who is a Dutch woman. She told me that the young people in China are quite open. I had thought about going to Japan, but it's more difficult to approach people there. Xiamen is quite an open-minded city and people are willing to be photographed. The director told me that girls are physically very close with their friends, they hold hands for example, and that really interested me. [In the Netherlands], when girls walk hand-in-hand it usually means they're a couple. But in China the girls walk hand-in-hand and the boys walk with their arms around each other. It's just what friends do. So I applied and went for four months. I wanted to see what the differences and universal things were in terms of intimacy, and whether people in Xiamen would show that to me.
How open were the couples you met?
I never expected them to be as open as they were. My boyfriend had been to Hong Kong and told me about these signs they have in parks saying you're not allowed to kiss or show physical intimacy in public. So I thought it would be hard to find young couples. And I don't speak any Chinese and the young people I met don't speak much English. But at the university, I became friends with some, and I also approached people in the street. In the end, I noticed that we didn't really need the language and I did get quite close to them. The intimacy, in a way, is the same as here.
I photographed quite a few lesbian couples. I didn't really plan that, but I met them. I was so surprised that they wanted to share their stories. There's one photograph of two girls kissing but they looked like a boy and girl. That's something I noticed quite a lot. That often one person from the couple looks quite like a boy. That way they don't really have to worry; they can walk hand-in-hand and be intimate. In China homosexuality is not illegal anymore but it's still a great taboo. I became quite close with two of the couples — one broke up, the other is still together. Finding boys was actually more difficult! I hope to go back and find male couples.
What did the girls think about the images?
I had an exhibition of the images in China and one in Amsterdam. I sent [the subjects] the photographs and they were really proud of them. The only thing they told me is that they all want to come and live in Amsterdam, in a place where they can get married.
What does the title, Screen Touch, mean to you?
The series is about the intimacy between young people — so it's about "touch" — but it's also "touchscreen" turned around. I noticed that most young people are watching their screens the whole time. Much more than in Europe. There's a beautiful beach in Xiamen and you see them sitting there very close together, but when you look at them from the other side, they're all looking at a phone. The screen is sort of an alternative form of intimacy. You don't see that in every image, but it's a thread.
There are also stills in there that I shows as lightboxes, which were a metaphor for the light that comes from screens. I photographed in the dormitories, I wanted to show this sort of girl world. You see all this underwear, and all this pink. The girls share this very intimate space; they live there four in one dormitory, and all their stuff is mixed up together. Those images show their world, but they also create some air between the portraits, because they're very intimate.
Do you think screens can also bring people together and make us more intimate?
I asked people I met how they felt about [their phones] and they always said, "Well, I could go and meet one person or I could talk to five people at the same time on my phone." But it's more superficial. I find it sad that people forget to look at each other. I notice it in myself. I get distracted all the time. The Chinese students do everything on their phone, their shopping, their communication, everything. But I think it's a new, alternative way of intimacy, it physically makes people sit closer together. But there's always this third thing, the screen.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Sarah Mei Herman