Through Her Lens: Jiang Feiran’s Fight to Keep Love Alive
When photographer Jiang Feiran decided to get married four years ago, she was sure she’d be able to avoid the pitfalls that ensnare so many young couples. Cheerful and optimistic by nature, the then-27-year-old Jiang wasn’t worried about how to keep the passion alive post-marriage or the effects of the notorious “seven-year itch.” But she soon realized her relationship wasn’t quite so simple. “Sadly, by the time I put marriage on the agenda, I’d already started to itch,” Jiang says. “I thought I’d be able to escape from that loop, but really it was only when I actually got married that I realised I was ensnared in the same bonds.”
Jiang’s feelings are by no means unique among women. After getting married or spending years in a long-term relationship, it’s all too easy for everyday concerns to overtake romance and for platonic affection to replace passion. While both can be called “love,” Jiang worries that with time, she’ll find herself motivated more by a sense of duty and responsibility than true feeling. “I’m particularly terrified of the prospect of our ‘love’ becoming ‘affection,’” she says.
These fears form the basis of “Marriage Scenes,” a series in which she recreates and dramatizes critical moments in her relationship with her young family. The project’s first chapter, “The Variations of Romance,” focuses on this less romantic, more political side of marriage. In one shot, taken on Jiang’s own wedding day, a pair of newlyweds seal their matrimonial alliance with a firm handshake; in another, a middle-aged couple engages in high-stakes bilateral negotiations, flanked by translators.
Jiang is open about the fact that her battle against taking a transactional, complacent approach to her relationship hasn’t always been a winning one. “I wanted to convey all the weak, fragile, and precipitous flashes in my marriage, all those moments when love was faced with death and knocked on its gates,” she says.
In her view, marriage is a constant struggle against these feelings. Whenever two lovers interact — be it at their wedding, on the street, in the bedroom, or in the dining room — they draw on their reserves of love, until eventually they’re exhausted. Sometimes they both reach that point simultaneously; sometimes one side continues to feel something that the other no longer does. “It’s unavoidable,” Jiang says. “The process is the same as Sisyphus dutifully pushing along that ever-tumbling boulder.”
In her opinion, the only solution is to keep fighting — sometimes literally. As the exaggerated staging of her work might suggest, her response to the Sisyphean problem of marriage is to act out — “zuo” in Chinese. In one photo, a woman dressed like a traffic cop issues her partner a “ticket” as punishment for violating the terms and conditions of their relationship. In another, a woman lights a fire in hopes of being saved.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, such desperate moves don’t always elicit ideal responses. Constant drama isn’t necessarily a better foundation for a long-term relationship than resigned acceptance. The result is a paradox: If in order to keep love — and by extension, your marriage — alive you need to constantly stir up drama, you might end up exhausting your partner’s reserves of love and patience even sooner.
Still, Jiang prefers fighting to giving up. “You just want to do something,” she says. “You need to keep manufacturing incidents in order to stimulate your passion. It doesn’t matter whether they’re successful or not: At least you’re not resigned to watching [your love] fall and get swallowed up by the day-to-day grind.”
More recently, her view of relationships has been complicated by the addition of a new variable: the birth of her child. In a sense, however, her new role has helped scratch the itch she felt by introducing her to a new community, one made up of wives and mothers struggling with her same feelings.
This newfound camaraderie inspired the second chapter in her ”Marriage Scenes” project — this one focused on mothers. For the series, she built three experimental sets, each representing a location she identifies with contemporary motherhood: the office, a bar, and a museum. The first she chose because of how she came to identify the office as a place of rest, relative to the home, where the real work of mothering takes place. The bar, meanwhile, was a space in which she and her girlfriends could share their woes and talk about the emotional tolls of parenthood. Jiang describes these gatherings as being part-revolutionary committee, part-support group: The women would meet at the pub almost conspiratorially to plan their uprisings and help each other out. “By reflecting the feelings and heartaches of the ‘wives group,’ I was able to mitigate the feelings of loneliness and volatility I felt in my own marriage,” she says.
The third setting, the museum, she chose when she saw how mothers centered their whole lives around sculpting, molding, and raising their kids. The moms she knew treated their children like they were their own artistic creations — and were constantly putting them on display.
Although some have hailed “Marriage Scenes” as a feminist work, Jiang prefers to think of it as a kind of visual diary, and she says she didn’t set out to critique marriage or gender roles. Nevertheless, it’s hard to miss the resonance her work has for today’s women, who are expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden in raising their children and keeping their husbands engaged.
As Jiang’s daughter gets older, she says she’s considering expanding the project to document the relationship between mothers and their daughters. Although the therapeutic worth of her work is uncertain, she still sees value in it. “In looking carefully at the emotional back-and-forth [between partners], you gradually learn to understand the other side,” she notes. “They’re also struggling and working hard. Even if the problem can’t be solved, you can learn to be a little better to him.”
Translator: William Langley; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: “Group photo of 1st Mesdames’ Assembly,” from Jiang Feiran’s ‘Madame’ series, the second chapter of her “Marriage Scenes” project, 2018. Courtesy of Jiang Feiran)