In The Land of Promises: An Interview with Youqine Lefèvre

Youqine Lefèvre is a photographer living and working in Belgium. Following her self-published book Far From Home, Lefèvre has been focused on themes like family and community life, and recently completed a new book dummy: The Land of Promises traces both her personal family history, and the impact of the One Child Policy in The People’s Republic of China. Callum Beaney asked her a few questions about her book, and the behind-the-scenes of its creation.


Callum Beaney: The consistent way the book is captioned and annotated, the clear method behind your portrait-taking process, and the presence of scans of official documents at the beginning of The Land of Promises can almost make it feel like an anthropological survey. But at the same time, all of these conversations, all of these people you’ve met, are all framed for the viewer in terms of your own experience and life story, right?

Youqine Lefèvre: Yes. The construction of the book corresponds to my own ‘journey’ towards my story and the birth control policy. It starts with the archives, things that I grew up with and built myself on as a transracially and internationally adopted girl. Then, we see a selection of photographic archives belonging to a group of six Belgian families who went to China in 1994 to adopt girls. (My father was obviously in this group.)

Then, in the second part, I take a step back from the personal story to focus on the Chinese birth control policy, its causes and consequences. When I went back to China for the first time in 2017, I did not do any research beforehand about the one-child policy. I grew up knowing vaguely what it was about and that was enough for me. It was this first return trip that made me want to do some research, to try to understand why such a policy was put in place and what the consequences were apart from the hundreds of thousands of Chinese girls adopted all around the world. I spent several months making research on the birth control policy, until my second trip to China in 2019. The first trip and my research allowed me to better target my subject thereafter, which wasn’t easy because this subject is vast. By meeting these people and families, I wanted to try to understand how they had experienced the one-child policy, what happened when they respected it or not and how this policy had impacted them and continues to affect them. With hindsight, The Land of Promises reflects a desire, a need to reconnect to my origins and to reclaim my history. Each adopted person deals with his/her adoption as best he/she can and this work has been my way. I think that through this research I also needed to try to find some meaning regarding the reason for my separation from my biological family.

In the context of the book, many of these beautiful rural scenes feel “filtered” through this political context — I find myself noticing hints of family life with a greater significance than before. I find myself reading these veridical scenes in a more metaphorical way, where I’m constantly aware of the CCP’s politics running through the book.

I grew up surrounded by adults telling me that I had probably been abandoned by my biological family because of the one-child policy and because in China parents prefer sons to daughters. When I was little, when I asked my adoptive parents why they thought my biological parents had abandoned me, they replied (probably like the majority of adoptive parents) that my parents loved me but that they were probably too poor to keep me. With hindsight, I realize that this kind of rational explanation is of little value to the biological family and that it does not alleviate the pain of the adoptee. I had also heard of girl infanticide in China, and knew that some baby girls were even left on the streets to die there. Knowing that I was left because of my gender, and that I come from a country that devalues girls so much, exacerbates my feminism today.

A lot of the text that accompanies these portraits seems to be quite directed and to the point. Did you ask specific questions to those you photographed, or did you tell them your own background as a way of opening the discussion?

First, it was not always possible for me to speak directly with the people interviewed and/or photographed. I don’t speak Chinese and when they didn’t speak English, we talked through someone who did the translation. I always started by explaining my story to them. I made a list of questions and I think you can feel it in the testimonies. Since there is not really a text explaining in detail the birth control policy (except at the end of the book to put a minimum of context), the testimonies give an overview of this policy, allowing the viewer to understand a bit of Chinese culture concerning family and sometimes to deconstruct certain beliefs.

Putting it in their words, along with the testimony aspect, is really powerful for me. They say “this is how things are”, “this is what is true”, rather than being loaded with qualifications or being said in relative terms. Were many of them aware of such an international adoption practice?

No, which is surprising when you know that hundreds of thousands of Chinese girls have been adopted around the world! And more surprisingly, most of the people I met seemed to ignore the reasons why the birth control policy was established and its many consequences. Especially young people. It’s hard to say if the people I met really didn’t know about this or if they didn’t want to discuss it. China is a totalitarian regime and politics is a delicate subject. Discussing it openly with a foreigner is even more so. I think there is a lot of unspoken in these testimonies, a desire to ‘keep face’. Some were more honest, like Lu or one of the tour guides who accompanied me. They explained me that in reality, although people would tell me that they would like to have two children (a boy and a girl), they preferred to have a boy first anyway.

One of the people who particularly caught my attention was Li Jie (b. 1930). Many of the other comments are centred around what women ought to be, how men are this way, women are that way. How families should be like this, and how it’s shameful to be another way. Him being older, perhaps my expectation was that he would be more conservative, and say exactly what many of the younger people you spoke to were saying. But instead he seemed to just describe his circumstances, the result of not living according to the social expectations — intentionally or not. Did he say anything else?

His testimony is also different because I did not ask him the same questions as the other people I met in 2019. Before my trip in 2017, I had not done any research on birth control policy. I had prepared nothing except the visit to the orphanage. My questions were therefore more spontaneous. With hindsight, I realize that there are elements that I would have liked to explore, to ask him other questions. Finally, we don’t know if he and his wife would have liked to have a son. They were able to have four children (four girls) because they had them before 1979, before the birth control policy. Apparently they didn’t try to have a son at all costs. Their daughters seem to have scrupulously respected the policy (in the countryside, after 1984 it was allowed to have two children). I do not know if they send them money, as is the tradition in China (as being peasants, they do not benefit from any pension system. Their only financial support would therefore be their daughters). Through his testimony, we understand that because they did not have a son, they live alone and must continue to work to support themselves. If they had had a son, it would have been different: he would live with them, he and his wife would take care of them, provide for their needs.

It was a meeting that had a huge impact on me. Despite their situation, he and his wife seemed happy and serene.

Li Jie

Did you find that younger couples of this generation who are in a similar situation as – such as having four/only daughters – faced the same kind of prospects as Mr Li?

The majority of the adults I’ve photographed are younger, and are mostly only children (born shortly after 1979). Mentalities seem to have changed because most do not want their children to support them financially during their old age. We have to take into account that they live in the city and that the mentality differs depending on whether you live in the city or in the countryside. But whether in town or in the countryside, only children have all told me about the burden of being an only child: you have to take care of your own family, your parents and your in-laws. Tradition (by that I mean filial piety) requires a child to support his/her parents. When this support is not financial, the children still send gifts to their parents for the Spring Festival, take care of them in case of illness and keep them a minimum company.

Given your childhood in Belgium, did you find that your cultural upbringing led to any assumptions or miscommunication when researching for this project, and when exploring these small towns and cities as you made it?

The research I did after my first trip to China in 2017 allowed me to know why this policy was put in place and how, what were and are the discriminations against Chinese girls and women and what were the consequences of this policy. This research made me realize that these biological parents who relinquished one or more of their children (mostly daughters) had really « good » reasons for doing this, and I started to deconstruct the supposed guilt of these biological families, which are largely absent from this debate since they are hardly ever heard.

It was especially reading China’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy by Kay Ann Johnson and my second trip to China in 2019 that allowed me to deconstruct these prejudices with which I grew up. In her book, Johnson explains that the ideal for Chinese parents would be to have two children, a boy and a girl. She also explains that if the Chinese government had not made national adoption nearly impossible through a law passed in 1991, the vast majority of relinquished children would probably have been adopted by Chinese families. She deconstructs the Western point of view on the one-child policy, the Chinese culture, biological and adoptive Chinese families who relinquished one or more of their children and the transracial and international adoption. 

In China, while talking to the families and people I’ve met, I realized how very complex it all is. This preference for sons does exist, but it is not a generality. I met a mother who would have preferred to have a daughter. In Suzhou, people explained to me that parents preferred to have daughters. This wish to have two children, a boy and a girl turned out to be true. So I quickly got over these prejudices that devalued my country of origin and understood that nothing was simple. We cannot deny the harsh reality but it is more nuanced than that.

Did you want the book to appear more politically neutral, or even malleable to these different political contexts by keeping things closer to documents & statements? Even the text keeps quite closely to the statistics, rather than indulging in judgmental remarks. I know online Chinese netizens can be a little more euphemistic, perhaps in a way they wouldn’t be in real life (I’m thinking how things get referred to as “being harmonized”).

I can understand that The Land of Promises may seem quite neutral. This distancing is conscious. It is rather an attempt of observation on my part. On birth control policy, both on transracial and international adoption as a system, from which China (by China I mean the government, orphanages, certain executives and traffickers) has benefited financially and which has benefited Western families since they had access to children (especially girls) from Chinese families (and not the opposite) and on the consequences caused by this policy within the country itself and with which the Chinese government continues to struggle. The purpose of the book is similar to my critique: nuanced because everything is not completely negative, and a lot of things can be seen between the lines since the people I met do not always express themselves directly.

So how do you think The Land of Promises would be received by mainland Chinese on the whole, or even by the authorities were you to sell it there?

I have no idea how this work would be received in China. The Land of Promises will be exhibited in Shanghai at the Yuz Museum from April 28 to August 15 2021 as part of reGeneration 4 organized by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne in Switzerland and I am curious to know how it will be perceived. Perhaps because now the one-child policy belongs to the past, the subject is not as delicate as it used to be. I do not know.

I notice throughout the book that certain scenes feel very composed, almost like they’re following a traditional painting’s logic. There are three consecutive spreads that really jumped out: first, an almost still life-like scene of a kitchen, then a black and white shot of some trees, and then a circular lake painting on a wall — what kind of ideas/material were you considering when shooting these domestic and landscape scenes? They’re extremely beautiful, especially in the warm sunlight. What kind of relationship did you want them to have with the many portraits in the book?

For me, it has always been obvious to mix portraits and landscapes. It creates a balance and a dynamic. The Land of Promises marks an evolution in the way I photograph landscapes. First, because of a technical aspect: my camera fell on the floor a little before the middle of the trip and my rangefinder was no longer reliable. So I had to work with a tripod and measure the exact distance between my subject and my camera. This ‘constraint’ has changed the way I work. It accentuated the slowness, already present from working with film. This slowness is important for me because it is a vector of proximity with the people and places photographed. The shooting was done in a very instinctive way, where I was in contemplation. It’s a suspended moment for me, where I completely lose track of time. In life as in my artistic practice, I am guided by my emotions more than by reflection.

Of course, by photographing this kitchen, it also relates to life in the countryside, a certain projection on my part on my history, a reflection on the condition of women assigned to domestic tasks and so on, but it goes beyond that. The landscapes in the series are different from those of my previous projects, perhaps also because it was not possible for me to establish a real proximity with the people photographed then. The portraits were less intimate because the duration of the meeting was rather short. In general I like to work with the same people over a long period (several years) and to immerse myself in their daily life. Here it was not possible. This need for proximity is therefore perhaps reflected in the landscapes. Some landscapes are less documentary and more personal, they are an attempt to reappropriate my country of origin through photography, and by extension, my story. 

The archives present in the beginning of the book are intimate (and at the same time documentary) but on another level. I think that the landscapes, put in relation with the portraits allow to install a balance between research/documentary and intimate.

Something I also really like is the length of the book — I can see some people wanting a shorter edit, but I like how it really builds up an atmosphere, and makes for a slightly broader survey of the people you interviewed, and feels much more comprehensive than just a quick peek into these places.

Yes you’re right, the fact that there are a lot of images, of content, allows me to set up an atmosphere and to express an attempt to understand my subject. Of course I received comments on the length of the book. But in general the feedback is quite positive. The viewer is free to dig or not as I did. I believe that this is a work that has to be looked at over a longer period of time, where it is necessary to come back to it several times.


Youqine Lefèvre

 

All Rights Reserved: Text © Callum Beaney & Youqine Lefèvre; Images © Youqine Lefèvre