Searching for the Miao Goddess

asher_miao_goddess_1

It’s a funny thing, how these little things in life lead us to places. When I left china at the end of 2013, I forgot to exchange some of my Yuan bills (Chinese local currency). When I was traveling in China, we used to call them “Mao bills”… 20 mao, 50 mao, 100 mao due to the big Mao Zedong portrait on them. As I was struggling to find entertainment during the 12 hour flight, I started looking at the bills and that was the first time I noticed it, something I didn’t see before: every bill has a beautiful painting on it. each showing a different place in China. In a way, with these bills in your pocket, you carry a “piece of China” with you wherever you go.

Originally, these paintings were the inspiration for my 2014 photo project entitled “The Yin-Bou fishermen of China”. In January 2015 I decided to follow the bills once more. This time it was one of the smaller bills that got my attention and directed me to my next photo project – “The Miao Tribes”

A small, isolated and beautiful village called Xijiang (西江), near the city of Kaili, is home to a major part of the “Miao” (苗族); an ethnic group that is spread around this region of south China. Generally speaking, all the people of this ethnic group accept the “Miao” title as a statement of their origin although, the “Miao” are actually a mixture of approximately 20 different tribes: Biasha, Xixiu, Dangi etc. each tribe with It’s own traditions, rituals, and styles of clothing.

asher_miao_goddess_2

Not much is known about their origins; but from what we do know, it seems that these tribes were formed about 5,000 years ago, from a small kingdom that broke apart in south central Asia. The Miao tribes moved throughout the region, herding their flocks and trading goods for thousands of years, until slowly they have settled in villages and adopted a lifestyle that is more common in south China – Agriculture.

asher_miao_goddess_3

A unique attribute to the Miao tribes is that they have been changing constantly. Their appearance is a visual mixture of about 5,000 years of culture in South and Central China. The different Miao tribes adopted varied rituals and traditions as they moved across that area. In a way, each Miao tribe preserve it’s own little window into ancient China. From colorful festivals and wedding clothing, traditional music styles and the most famous of them all – The beautiful handmade silver jewelry and crowns artwork that is unique for every tribe.

asher_miao_goddess_4

The Miao tribes unique and varied visual appearance is precious, especially when considering the fact that these tribes were some of the only survivors of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960’s and 70’s in China. This survival was only possible due to the location of the Miao villages, which can be found in the muddy mountains and forests of South China, areas that were very hard to reach by outsiders at the time.

asher_miao_goddess_5

My journey led me to Kong-Bai village (控拜), where I was photographing the master silversmith Long Zhong (龙忠) in his smoky old workshop. I wanted to find the right way to shed light on him and his amazing hand-made silver artwork; the same jewelry and crowns that became a symbol, over thousands of years, of the Miao tribes themselves in our modern world.

asher_miao_goddess_6

Those of you who know my approach to photographing and documenting people, know that I always ask permission from the people I’m photographing, but on this trip I took that approach to the next level. I wanted to keep whomever I was photographing involved with what I did, up to a level where they where an active part of the creative process, working together to find our way to the final image. So, before I pulled out my camera, Long Zhong and I sat down for a talk. Using an IPad, I was showing the old silversmith my work, sharing with him stories from my travels and explaining to him what I was trying to do with the Miao tribes.

asher_miao_goddess_7

Sadly, we couldn’t talk directly as old Long Zhong didnt speak English or Mandarin-Chinese. with the help of his son, we spoke in three different languages, changing words from English to Mandarin (Chinese) to a special Miao dialect called Dang-ni (挡倪) and then, when the time was right, I asked for his help:

“I want to tell your story, how should we do it? What should people see and learn from your art?”
Luckily, the effort was not in vain and, after our talk, Long Zhong understood what I was trying to do for the Miao tribes and something changed. He felt that he had a mission to tell the world about his people. By sharing and taking the time to explain what I do, Long Zhong changed from being just a “photography subject” into an active part of the making of the Miao project itself.

asher_miao_goddess_8

Long Zhong told me that in order to become a master silversmith, one must learn the craft and practice it for over 10 years. In the Miao culture, the art of being a Silversmith passes from generation to generation and is kept within the family; as he explained, one does not simply copy his family’s style, but learns how to find his own. It is the Miao’s belief that every generation is destined to be better than the previous one, therefore, every young Miao must strive to push himself forward into a better future, both personally and as a tribal community.

asher_miao_goddess_9

asher_miao_goddess_10

Something else changed for me during this journey. So far my photography style has been a mixture of Documentary and Art photography. I was always mixing the two styles in different, but somewhat even quantities, in order to find the right images for the stories I was telling. But something was missing from the photographs I had taken so far with the Miao tribes.

I remember the first time I saw a Miao woman, standing tall with a crown on her head. She looked almost as if she wasn’t human. It felt as if the clothes and silver crown she had on enhanced her, in my eyes, she looked like a spirit from another world, walking amongst men. I wanted to have that feeling visualized in an image.

asher_miao_goddess_11

At this point I decided to put aside, just for a bit, the documentary style. I wanted to go out for one day of shooting using only Art Photography as my approach to tell about the Miao tribes. I was aiming to create an image that would not only show the Miao tribes, but would also encompass that feeling I had when I saw them for the first time, so I decided to go out and form the Miao ‘goddess’.

asher_miao_goddess_12
This trip has been an important experience for me; especially as a young, thriving photographer. Never before have I gone out for a shoot like the ‘goddess’ shot. One that had a directed, well planned, and controlled artistic style to it. That image was the final outcome of my days with the Miao tribes. My purpose was to create an image that would visualize that feeling I had from meeting this culture for the first time.

Although I enjoyed this experience of directing and creating a shoot, and learned much from it, I’m still not quite sure if I’m completely ready to leave the world of documentary photography and transform myself to this artistic style just yet. But one thing is clear – this style is definitely an interesting technique for any photographer to have in his “tool box”.

asher_miao_goddess_13
Being a young photographer, I want to challenge myself to try new things and find better ways to tell stories. I don’t know where this road will take me, but I’m willing to find out…

About the Author

Asher Svidensky is a freelance photographer specialising in art photography with a strong passion for documentary and storytelling. His work has been published in magazines and newspapers around the world including the BBC, National geographic (USA), The Times Newspaper (UK) and many more. See more of Asher’s work on his website, and follow his travels on Facebook and Twitter. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.