游子在美国 Youzi in the USA : Darcy Holdorf ‘Not Here Or There’.

Wednesday August 8th, 2012 by No Comments

A couple of months ago I came across the work of Darcy Holdorf, a young American photographer who worked on a series ‘Not Here Or There’ about Chinese students at Ohio University. Darcy won a prize in the US College Photographer of the Year awards, and the series was showcased in the USA on the New Yorker and The Atlantic websites, and featured on many blogs in China – I first saw her work on the Ministry of Tofu site. I was really keen to ask Darcy some questions about her work, the inspiration and motivations behind it and was thrilled to have a skype chat with her recently. It was great to talk to someone who had worked on a similar subject, to share ideas and concerns, and to learn more about her photography and interest in China. Some of our conversation is reproduced here alongside a selection of Darcy’s photographs.

GT: How did you work with the students to produce the work?

DH: In terms of language, I approached people with English, thinking they were in the US, so they would probably want to practice their English, and depending on their levels, I would slowly let them know I could speak Chinese. I started doing interviews with University officials, there were so many issues in terms of this huge influx of students, and they weren’t really prepared. I met with the English language tutors, staff in the international affairs office, and at the same time I would approach Chinese students in person, I met Popo and Andy, and they became really involved, Popo was co-president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, so that was helpful.

GT: Was the University supportive of your work?

DH: They were, in some cases they were kind of nervous I think. Some of the teachers were more open, and I met with a woman in recruitment, who I thought would be quite nervous but actually she was very open, because they know about the issues with agents in China and they have this vetting process in place, where they try to assess the legitimacy of agents before they work with them. The agent system is a really complicated system.

GT: Definitely. I’ve had a few conversations here about that too. In terms of the visual considerations, I was wondering about the focus on recreational activities in your work…

DH: When I started working on this story, there was a big stereotype about Chinese students here, among other American students particularly, that they are very wealthy; people have these generalisations about Chinese students. When I started the interviews, I wanted to make sure I was getting students that were representative of a greater group rather than just this flashy stereotype. That’s why I showed the students that I did. When I focused on recreation I  wanted to show a lot more about personal life and especially the fact that the group is very insular, and the students are very isolated, and although this is changing, I really wanted to show that, and really get into the group, because I imagined that was the only real way I could show that sort of core.

I felt like there are a lot of ways, through Mahjiang, or cooking foods from home, where they’re associating with feelings, and with their identity, from back home, it’s interesting -some of the students never played Mahjiang at home, but they started playing it here.

GT: I think that the short films you made, which are kind of extended portraits, are really beautiful – how did you come to make those?

DH: I was shooting a bit of video here and there, and audio. I wanted to highlight all three of the students, and I didn’t see a greater narrative between them, so it made more sense to me to separate them, especially as they had such different characters. I wanted to touch on specific things with each one, I thought it would be more representative of them, and in some ways easier to produce. I was recording the audio interviews throughout – at the beginning, a few weeks later and then another one towards the end, and then edited them together.

GT: I’m really interested in the platform the work was shown on, The Soul of Athens. How important was it for you to disseminate the work in that way? Did you create the work for that platform?

DH: Yes, I created it for that platform. That’s something that we work on really intensively, and get a lot of support for, it was important to me because I really wanted American students to read it, and although that platform doesn’t have a huge readership, I think it goes out more to the photo industry than it does to the local community, alumni do look at it, and it does reach some of the University, its professors and students, and I wanted that. This is one of the top party schools in the nation, which is a really strange juxtaposition, even for me. For these Chinese students, they can’t believe it, they don’t relate to that, I mean it’s just not accepted to binge drink, the way that people binge drink here. For a lot of undergrads here, they’ve never been out of Ohio, they don’t have a lot of interaction with International students and because of that lack of knowledge, or experience, they’re less likely to go out of their way you know and say ‘hey where’re you from, oh yeah I’ve been there’, you know.

GT: The way it’s presented along these other stories in this way certainly localises it, which I think is really important. How else has the work been shown?

DH: With the College Photographer of the Year award, it was shown on the New Yorker blog, published pretty widely in China, also in a magazine, and on the 1416 classroom blog in China.

GT: Thinking about that, how important was it to you that the work was seen by a Chinese audience, and did you think about that beforehand?

DH: I did think about it in advance, but not perhaps as much as I should have, because it did have a huge impact. I didn’t know how big the reaction would be, there were so many comments -there were 70,000 of them, which is really great, it’s wonderful that people are talking about this, but some of them were really negative, which impacted on the students. There was a huge reaction here when it came out there, some of the students read the comments, and there was one girl who wasn’t in a lot of photographs, but she ended up wanting to sue me, and it got really intense for a while. There were also some very positive discussions, people with similar experiences and so on, and in fact I’m really glad we started the conversation, I got some emails from people saying they were really pleased this was being talked about.

Darcy and I went on to speak about the meeting I’d had with the counselling service (see more here)….

DH: Well I haven’t heard any of that here, so that’s really interesting. Here there’s a problem with housing, people sign insane contracts, that give away your rights and your money…

GT: Yeah we have that, people letting rooms, subletting, a few problems around that. I mean it’s fascinating, I think you can keep going for a really long time. How did you know when to stop?

DH: I think mainly because I didn’t have time to keep working on it, and it’s changed so much since then, that in some ways I wish I’d kept it up this whole year, but I just didn’t have the time basically, so I kind of had a natural end. I continued a little bit, socially, hanging out with the students, then I saw Popo in China, then our relationship morphed into a friendship and I become reluctant to photograph her, I mean I do, but I do it in a different way.

GT: That’s really nice though, that’s good. I just wanted to ask you also, about the story on the African migrants in Guangzhou…

DH: I started it after the Chinese students work, I started researching it before…I’m just fascinated by this kind of mixing, clashing and melding of cultures. I lived in Guangzhou for four months, and I was noticing more Africans coming there, I taught English for three months there, and my students were talking about them. I started researching, I came back here and got a grant from the University to go back this past summer. I’m still working on that story, I’m hoping to keep going. I’m moving to China on the 29th.

Darcy is now based in Shanghai where she is working freelance and developing her work on this story. Huge thanks to Darcy for taking the time to talk to me and for sharing her work here.


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