A moving photography exhibition displaying the ancient Chinese tradition of women with bound feet is being held in Siem Reap, as the city hosts the 10-day-long 14th annual Angkor Photo Festival.
The exhibition, Bound Feet Women of China, displays the work of Jo Farrell, a Hong Kong-based documentary photographer.
Farrel said she began the project in 2004, spending years taking photos of old Chinese women who underwent the ancient, but now extinct, tradition of foot binding when they were young girls.
“Most people told me it was a tradition from the past and there were no women left with bound feet."
“But I met a taxi driver who took me to his grandmother’s village in Shandong province, that’s where I met Zhang Yun Ying. She became the first woman in my project,” she said.
In 2014, Farrel published a book on the topic – Living History: Bound Feet Women of China – featuring portraits and photographs of Chinese women who have undergone the process.
In the book, she explains that the practice became fashionable during the reign of Chinese Emperor Li Yu in the 10th century.
Young women, aged between seven and 15 years, would have their feet bound together to modify the shape and reduce the size of their feet. The desired final result became known as “lotus feet”.
“The first year is particularly excruciating because the girls are made to walk until their toes would break under their weight and become numb. But 50 or 60 years later, they don’t have any pain in their feet.”
Farrel explains that lotus feet represented feminine beauty to those who practised the tradition, with the excruciating process to achieve them showing that the women were able to endure great hardship and “serve as better wives”.
By the mid-19th century, it was estimated that 40-50 per cent of Chinese women had bound feet. But after it was banned in 1912, the tradition increasingly became stigmatised, with virtually no new cases recorded after 1949.
Today, there remain only a select few elderly Chinese women with bound feet, acting as living relics of a by-gone era.
Farrel’s photos will be displayed at jewellery brand and social enterprise, AMMO Jewellery Workshops, in Siem Reap. The organisation provides disadvantaged children training in crafting jewellery from recycled silver and brass bullet casings.
Farrel insists that her photographs are not intended to sensationalise the topic, but educate people on what lengths women will go to in order to be accepted in their societies.
To this end, she previously photographed the Kayan women of Myanmar, who wear brass coils to elongate their necks.
“The Siem Reap exhibition will excite and provoke, encourage empathy and understanding and instigate reflection,” she said.
Zelda Cheatle, a world-renowned curator and photography lecturer based in London, praised Farrel’s work as “considered and thoughtful”, saying a “joy, calm and happiness” emanated from her subjects.
Farrel’s exhibition, Bound Feet Women of China, opened on December 9 at the AMMO Jewellery Workshops and will run until December 18. Entrance is free.