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Delmar Gallery, 144 Victoria Street, Ashfield, NSW 2131
11 November 2023 – 3 December 2023
Ahead of her upcoming exhibition at the Head On Photo Festival, Sarah Mei Herman shares her thoughts on intimacy and the poignant moments in her work in conversation with Matthew Webb.
Matthew Webb: Your work seems to be defined by an intimacy that is universally relatable. How were your projects conceived?
Sarah Mei Harman: Throughout my practice, I explore relationships, loneliness, longing, intimacy and the human urge for physical proximity. Intimacy between people (in friendship, family relationships as well as love relationships) has always been an endless source of inspiration to me; the way bodies touch and the importance of “the other”. “Touch” is a necessity of life, as well as something that makes life worthwhile. I attempt to reveal the subtle and tender gestures and feelings between people, by peeling away all the things that might distract. I search for a certain stillness, a moment which somehow seems to transcend/ go beyond the scene. My projects have always slowly developed over time. I never really start with a very clear concept in mind. I work intuitively and my images arise through my encounters with people.
MW: Could you give a short overview of your Solace project on show at the Delmar?
SMH: In response to my long-term Touch series, I was approached by Emerson & Wajdowicz Studios (EWS) to produce a related project about the LGBTQ+ community in China. Specialising in socially-conscious multimedia design and art, EWS runs a photobook series devoted entirely to LGBTQ+ themed stories – showcasing the diversity and complexity of queer communities around the world. In September 2019, I returned to Xiamen to portray 14 queer individuals and couples, all of whom I found through my existing network in the city. Alongside portraits of each person, and images of the private spaces they inhabit, Solace features interviews with each subject about life, love and their personal fears. Unable to return to Xiamen during the pandemic, I continued the project in the Netherlands, photographing young members of China’s LGBTQ community who had relocated to Europe. The book was published by New York’s The New Press in December 2022.
MW: How did your relationship with China, Xiamen, and the people in your photo projects begin?
SMH: I heard about this well-known artist in residence at CEAC (Chinese European Art Centre) in Xiamen, China. Although I’d never been to China before, after speaking to an artist who had just come back from a residency there and hearing her enthusiastic stories about the city and the people, I decided to apply for funding. I started my series Touch in 2014, during a four-month artist residency in the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen. I was curious about the cultural differences I encountered there, but I really wanted to portray something universally recognisable: the meaning of friendship and love, in all its intensity and vulnerability. Meeting my subjects in Xiamen’s streets or at the university campus, I started photographing several young adults – primarily women – and their intimate relationships.
MW: What has been the reception to Solace and what has the project meant for those who have participated in the photos?
SMH: Solace received a great amount of attention. After the book launch, Solace was published and exhibited extensively. A portrait from this series was shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, whilst the wider project was shortlisted for the 2022 Gomma Photography Grant, receiving an honourable mention. Most recently, my work reached the final of the V&A Parasol Women in Photography Prize 2023, and won the Grand Prix at Croatia’s Rovinj Photodays. I think that for the participating people it was an important way to be able to share their story. Apart from the photographs, the book also consists of interviews I did with them. I’m still in touch with most of them, and they seemed very happy with the final book.