One spring afternoon in 2019, I met my parents at a beautiful, secluded beach near my hometown of Yantai in eastern China. Arriving in separate cars, my mother and father stood together gazing at the ocean, while I took their photograph. It was the first time they’d seen each other in eight years.
I felt an immense happiness as I snapped away that day. The shoot not only brought a yearslong photography project to an end; it was also the culmination of an even longer personal journey. After nearly a decade of bitterness and regret, my family was finally spending time together once more.
This was what I’d hoped to achieve when I began photographing divorced Chinese couples in 2018. The series, titled “When We Two Parted,” started as a graduation piece for my degree at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and then evolved into a long-term project. It consists of a selection of couples’ portraits presented in elegant white frames, each accompanied by messages the divorced partners wrote for their former spouses.
The project was inspired by the chats I occasionally had with friends at college. Like me, many of them were raised in single-parent families. China’s divorce rate has surged over recent years, reaching 3.4 per 1,000 people in 2019 — an even higher rate than in the United States.
Many classmates told me their parents had become unhappy in their marriages, because they felt forced to constantly make sacrifices for their families and children. Marriage in China can bring an overwhelming burden of responsibility, and relationships often break under the pressure.
A divorced couple meet at a local housing bureau to transfer the ownership of their house to their daughter, in a photograph from the series “When We Two Parted,” 2019. The couple had recently finalized their divorce. Courtesy of Gao Meilin
The frankness with which my friends were willing to discuss their parents’ separations was a revelation to me. As a child, I’d internalized the stigma that’s often attached to divorce in Chinese society. When my mother’s friends visited our home, I’d pretend she and my father were still together. Once their relationship finally broke down completely, I sank into a lingering sense of inferiority that lasted through my high school years.
But these exchanges at college made me realize the silence that so often surrounds divorce is counterproductive. I felt an urge to do something to set my parents and myself free, to reconcile ourselves with the past and release some of the unspoken feelings we’d hidden inside.
I decided to take photos of my parents and other divorced couples, as a memorial to their lives together and a chance for a better goodbye.
The first stage of the project was the hardest of all: finding subjects willing to pose for the camera. At the outset, I drove to the civil affairs bureau in Beijing, parked my car outside, and quietly observed couples passing by through my long lens. I was struck by how calm some of the divorcing couples looked, and how unexcited the newlyweds appeared. Sometimes, it was hard to tell which was which.
I talked to a few couples as they entered the bureau, but they were in incredibly low spirits and rejected my invitations. So I started to rely on my personal network to find subjects, connecting with separated couples across the country introduced by friends and other acquaintances. Eventually, after talking with over 100 divorced couples, 12 agreed to let me take souvenir photos for them.
The couples I photographed had already moved on emotionally by the time they met once more — unlike those who refused to take part, who were still entangled in their past lives. I didn’t tell my subjects how to pose; instead, I tried to capture their natural selves in the moment. Each subject’s situation was unique, and the photos carry a range of different sentiments — from regret and helplessness, to forgiveness and reconciliation.
A photograph of a divorced couple from the series “When We Two Parted,” 2019. The woman is taking a call from a friend, while her ex-husband gives her some space. The couple separated several years ago, and have since made peace each other’s new lives. Courtesy of Gao Meilin
Gao’s parents stand together gazing at the ocean, in a photograph from the series “When We Two Parted,” 2019. Courtesy of Gao Meilin
A divorced couple work together at a photography studio, in an image from the series “When We Two Parted,” 2019. The couple still jointly run the business, as they can’t afford to shut it down. Courtesy of Gao Meilin
Some of these shoots were particularly memorable. The first couple I met had divorced two years previously, but was still managing a small photo studio together. They had a daughter preparing for the gaokao, China’s college-entrance exam, and they couldn’t afford to shut down the business. When I arrived, they had just finished doing a couple’s wedding photos at the studio. I told them to leave the setting as it was, with a red cloth hanging in the background, and photographed them then and there.
Another photo that has stayed with me was of a woman whose ex-husband died after they separated. She told me that, although she had since remarried, she didn’t feel any happier. As I photographed her standing alone in front of her former home, we were both trembling and tearful. Afterward, she wrote her partner a message: “You are in heaven, while I’m still wandering in this world.”
But on a personal level, the project’s most lasting impact was the photo shoot with my parents, which helped resolve some of the problems between them and provided me with some answers. Convincing them to take part took a lot of time and courage, because they were reluctant to look back on that part of their lives. In the end, I told them to do it to help me graduate, and they finally agreed.
As part of my project, I asked each couple to write notes for each other after the shoot, and my parents did this, too. My father wrote, “I appreciated all the happiness you brought me.” In return, my mother wrote, “You’re a wanderer; don’t ever stop” — a reference to my father’s passion for travel and exploring new things. Reading and reflecting on these words, I found they understood each other, and I understood them.
A woman stands outside her old apartment, in a photograph from the series “When We Two Parted,” 2019. The woman’s ex-husband died following their separation. The note she wrote to him, posted on the right, reads: “You are in heaven, while I’m still wandering in this world.” Courtesy of Gao Meilin
It wasn’t until exhibiting the project when I realized how much it would resonate with others who had experienced a broken marriage. The visitors’ book in the exhibition hall revealed the true meaning of the whole project to me.
There was no visitors’ book laid out on the opening day. But as I wandered around the gallery and overheard people’s reactions to the photos, I thought, why not record them all? The next day, I stuck a notebook to the gallery wall. I now have three of these notebooks full of people’s comments. Some said they were divorced themselves, while others were raised by single parents. I remember one person writing: “Your pieces brought tears to my eyes. My parents’ divorce, to me, was a misfortune, but also fortunate at the same time.” I found these emotional reflections on my work incredibly touching.
In China, some people still have prejudices about divorce. Parents sometimes oppose their children marrying a partner raised by a single parent, as they’re considered to be “problematic.” But in fact, children of single parents understand good and bad relationships, and the value of trust. If anything, they’re better able to deal with relationship issues.
I dated one guy for six years, but we broke up before Valentine’s Day this year. I hope to create a family with someone I love one day — we just weren’t on the same page at the time.
Gao Meilin poses for a photo during a trip to the US state of California, 2020. Courtesy of Gao Meilin
In the future, I plan to continue exploring similar themes in my photography. As I was raised mostly by my mother, I’d like to do a project on the relationship between me and my father. Another may look at the emotional world of single-parent children. I believe constant creation is the best form of healing.
Gao Meilin is a photographer based in Beijing. She previously studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Du Xinyu and Chen Qi’an.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Gao Meilin’s parents look out at the ocean near Yantai, Shandong province, in a photograph from the series “When We Two Parted,” 2019. Courtesy of Gao Meilin)