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Composite Life / Actual Life Opacity as a Strategy An Artistic Methodology Researching the Life of Village Women in China

Xiaoyan Men
Dissertationsstipendiatin an der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien | Abschluss-Stipendium des Doktoratszentrums 2015|16


The relationship between the concepts of composite and actual life began with my seeing oddly composed “composite” family group photographs of villagers. In 2009 the local government in Henan Province introduced a new national public medical insurance scheme for countryside dwellers. It required each family to supply a family group photograph. However, in most families, almost all the males and grown-up children lived and worked far away. Only the women remained at home. In order to meet the government edict the mothers and wives gathered together any old photographs they possessed of each family member and the local photographic studio digitally put them together in a makeshift way, and created the “composite family group photographs”.

The local government then discovered this was a mistake; individual ID photographs were needed. The composite family group photographs were never used. I came across the photographs before they were destroyed. I studied these images and decided to explore the rural life that was brought to the fore through the process of making these composite photographs. The composite photograph begs the question of the methodology of photography and the living condition of village women. This research concerns the process of photographic practice that reflects my experience of the living conditions of village women.

The project walks away from the conventional means of interview and documentary photography to test the strategy of opacity in photographic practice. Rather than identifying the women with any fixed pre-conceived categories, my field research focuses on their actual life.

The methodology of my study will focus on the process of art making through the opacity strategy. Despite all complicities, at the end, opacity is about being open-minded which is crucial for knowledge production. The process of art creation can and will be tested during the visiting and photographing of the village women.


I am a PhD candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. I studied for my Masters at Goldsmiths, University of London in England and obtained my MA Degree in Image and Communication in 2000. I have published articles and books for many years. I also show my photographic works as well as work as a curator for photography exhibitions.