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2019-02-01 14:30:02  + video Commentary

This article is part of a series on Chinese photographers.

It’s only natural that aviation would play a central role in Wang Lin’s photos. As a onetime flight attendant, Wang says her former day job gave her the chance to see the world from two vastly different viewpoints: the sky and the ground. Yet when she tried highlighting this perspective by questioning society’s preconceived notions of flight attendants, the result was controversy, misunderstanding, and a pink slip.

Born in 1973, Wang Lin’s career choice was inspired by a chance meeting with an older girl who had graduated from her vocational high school. The girl’s pretty features and elegant attire led Wang to believe that a life in the skies would be all glitz and glamor. But after a decade spent on the job, the gap between reality and fantasy had begun to weigh on her.

In 1990s China, air travel was a luxury out of reach for all but a select few. In those days, flight attendants were subject to a rigorous selection process. Airlines wanted their attendants to project an image of youth, beauty, elegance, professionalism, and high-end consumption. In return, attendants earned good money for the time. There were supposedly other, unofficial perks, too: A common rumor had it that flight attendants were well-positioned to find themselves successful husbands — after all, only the rich could afford to fly.

Wang Lin, photographer and former flight attendant, shares her experience of attaining fame and losing her job for taking pictures of her coworkers. By Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

But as air travel became an increasingly mainstream transportation option — though one still out of reach for many — the profession is no longer the bastion of elitism it once was. Yet sexist stereotypes regarding the lives and motivations of flight attendants have persisted.

A lover of the arts from a young age, Wang Lin eventually left her job to pursue a two-year program in photography at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. Upon graduating, however, she found she couldn’t earn enough as a photographer to support herself, so she eventually returned to her former profession. Unwilling to completely give up on her dreams, she began taking photos of her coworkers’ lives, both at work and at rest.

The former category portrays flight attendants as we’ve come to expect them: beautiful, elegant, and impeccably made-up. The latter, however, shows a less instantly familiar side of the job: unkempt and unwashed women lounging in their pajamas in cramped and messy dormitories; eating instant noodles; buying clothes at wholesale markets; and generally refusing to conform to society’s ideals of how flight attendants — and women more generally — should behave.

“The photos of flight attendants that we’re used to seeing are all so glamorous,” Wang tells me. “Airlines only ever choose the prettiest attendants to be photographed, and photographers always work with a certain fantasy in mind.”

Her photos formed the basis of Wang’s first photography project: “Tulips in the Sky.” She sees tulips — her favorite flower — as a metaphor for the profession. “I’ve always thought of tulips as flowers that open during the day and close at night. They remind me of life as an attendant,” she was once quoted as saying.

Her second series, “Sunlight/Moonlight” highlights the contrast between attendants’ glamorous images and the reality of life in the air. Her third, “30,000 Feet,” moves away from flight attendants and toward the skies themselves, juxtaposing the clear blue atmosphere and white clouds at peak altitude with the smoggy air and towering, uniform high-rises that dominate earth-bound skylines.

Wang’s photography career hasn’t been without turbulence, however. In 2010, someone took the photos from “Tulips in the Sky” and, without her consent, uploaded them as a video titled “The Leaked Journal Entries and Private Photos of Unhappy Air Hostesses.” Set to heart-rending background music, Wang’s photos of attendants lounging in their messy dorm rooms, eating instant noodles, and hunting for bargains at the market suddenly became proof that these women were miserable, rather than just human.

When the airline she worked for saw the video, it terminated Wang’s contract. It didn’t matter that the video wasn’t hers; her bosses said she’d damaged the company’s reputation. Although she eventually won a grievance in court and was granted compensation, the incident still cost her a job that she loved, not to mention her main source of income.

It was a heavy blow. “At the very beginning, I found it hard to adapt to life back on the ground,” she says. “I would always think to myself, ‘I didn’t get dressed in my uniform or put on make-up today.’ At night I would have these nightmares in which I’d put on the uniform, but I wouldn’t be able to find the airplane, or the airplane would take off without me. That made me feel really anxious.” Her most recent series, “Stray Tulips,” is an attempt to process the loss of her job. In it, she superimposes images of herself wearing her old uniform onto panoramic shots of nature.

Her troubles didn’t end with the loss of her job, however. At the end of 2015, “Sunlight/Moonlight” won an award from a photography website, and in early 2016, it made the front page of one of China’s biggest internet portals. But rather than being a cause for celebration, this exposure brought more heartbreak. Within days, netizens had left over 18,000 comments on the slideshow, most of them less interested in Wang’s subject — that is, the real lives of flight attendants — and more in discussing which of the women were the prettiest.

Most comments were degrading, offensive, or provocative. The prettier attendants were reduced to the objects of male desire, while the more ordinary-looking ones were mocked.

Wang was furious that her subjects had been “engulfed,” as she puts it, by a horde of online trolls. “As a woman, I obviously wouldn’t want anyone to make comments saying that I’m ugly or that I don’t have a nice body,” she says. “Even though they weren’t addressed to me, I felt those comments like a prick in my side as I read them.”

While she concedes it’s ultimately normal to judge people based on their appearance, Wang couldn’t accept the way online commentators cowered behind a cloak of anonymity as they picked apart her subjects — people she knew. She chose to retaliate in art. She took and printed screenshots of those 18,000 comments and painstakingly sewed them over the bodies of the women she had photographed until they were completely covered. She called the series “@engulfed.”

Yet although Wang’s works subvert the ways patriarchal society dominates and consumes women’s bodies, she doesn’t know if she’d call herself a feminist. “Perhaps it’s because of my personality, but [people in the industry] say my images aren’t angry enough,” she says. “That kind of animosity just isn’t part of who I am, and I’m not the type to actively challenge anything.”

Still, while she may not feel like an activist, being embroiled in one controversy after another has gradually awoken Wang’s desire to fight back.

This manifests in a variety of ways, not least her increasing unwillingness to accept the patronizing way that most male photographers refer to her as a meinü — a term of address that literally means “beautiful woman.” “Perhaps they have good intentions in calling me meinü instead of by my actual name,” she says. “[But] the bag full of equipment on my back is just as heavy as yours, I walk just as far as you [to take my pictures], and I create just as many works as you. I don’t lack anything that you have. Why is it that you must always say to me meinü this, meinü that?”

Wang didn’t set out with an explicit desire to push back against stereotypes about flight attendants, but her frustration mirrors that of many Chinese women. There’s a growing desire for a society-wide revision of what it means to be a woman and an end to restrictive gender stereotypes and patriarchal fantasies that require women to constantly project an image of idealized femininity. And although Wang might not identify as a feminist, her work follows a similar flight path. “I want to bring things back to reality,” she says.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Two untitled photos from Wang Lin’s “Sunlight/Moonlight” series, 2008-2009. Courtesy of the artist)