"I think when you go to art school, the first photographer you like is either Cindy Sherman or Diane Arbus. Only those two! I'm definitely in the Cindy Sherman group. She really played a role to show different women, different ages. Me, on the other hand, I'm not representative of a lot of women."
Hailun Ma is probably used to having her work compared with the role-playing, performance art photographer Cindy Sherman. Many of her photographs are self-portraits, depicting characters in uneasy, dreamlike stasis. However, her self-portrait work started as an antidote to loneliness and boredom. "In high school, my parents were super-busy so it was only me, home alone. I would set up my camera and timer on a bunch of books and start taking selfies as play, like hanging out."
"I'm always available, you know? I'm available for myself all the time. I don't think of it as a self-portrait though, I think about it as me acting this story."
While the stories behind NYC-based Hailun Ma's work are often different, they are bound together tautly by a common theme: beauty standards, power and control. All these stories come from the same starting point—the artist's child-and-woman-hood in China.
"I didn't realise until I came to America—oh my God. Here, beauty standards are like, a girl has to be sexy or independent, but in Asia it's more like the cute, submissive, soft, innocent [type]. I just think that's really interesting to me. I think that beauty standards function in society [as a reflection of] a man's role. I wouldn't say in Asia that we're not not equal, but I would say that in [people's minds] men and women cannot be equal. In Asia, I feel like, in a man's head, men think they should have more control and that women should be more submissive. I want to critique that."
In her Imagination Portraits series, she literally puts women in powerful positions, riffing off Renaissance status portraits and traditional, detail-heavy renderings of the Chinese royal family. The heavily retouched photos have a deliberately painterly touch, while an almost unnerving sense of calm radiates from the subject—more often than not, the subject is the artist herself.
"I use retouching a lot though. In my fantasy, I'm obsessed with one thing and I'm also critiquing it. That's how I work with the whole thing. i'm obsessed with sick beauty standards. I'm obsessed. At the same time, I'm critiquing it. Whenever I see a doll-looking girl, I feel creepy—but I would love to look more like that."
"I want every girl to look powerful in my photos," she says. "Now I think about it, I think it's a subconscious thing, how I choose my subject matter. I feel guys in my photos are more feminine and I tend to make them more feminine, and the girls, no matter who I shoot, now matter how they look, I tend to light them in more strong ways. I think power also comes to control. I want to show that control. I want them to have this doll-like innocent look but at the same time I want them to have control."
The doll-like features that permeate traditional Asian beauty standards seep through the artist's Fifth Floor series, an experimental project that has a disturbing sense of surveillance floating through it. It is an airless and claustrophobic reflection of contemporary Asian femininity – but the metaphor can be extended around the world.
"In America it's more about individuality, but in Asia it's more like everybody has to be the same. So I feel like I have to act in this way: I have to be this innocent girl. Don't smoke, don't drink, be like—" she covers her mouth meekly with both hands—"'Hahaha!' [and] talking like this—"her voice goes into a higher register—"[and] don't curse. You have to look a certain way, even. I just feel trapped in that."
Counter to this oppressiveness is the sense of being watched—one that young women find all too common. A helpless passivity—or is it paralysis?—infiltrates from the lone female subject through the frame. "As a girl you grow up and you feel like you walk down the street and men will look at you. If you're a girl you'll notice these things. And some of those looks are not... The male gaze is not friendly. The whole series touches on those two things. You can see that some poses are very sexual. It's how I interpret the two things together."
At heart, though, is the relationship Hailun Ma has with the camera. "I feel like no matter who I take a picture of, it's kind of a reflection of myself. I think when it comes to my self portraits I do it self-consciously, but when it comes to others, I know more, I'm in control. When I take self-portraits it's more subconscious. I just put the camera there and I communicate with it."
"I always think of it that way when it comes to self-portraits. Sometimes it's just me and the camera and you sit there and have an idea of what you want to create and you just talk to the camera. Eye contact is very important. Yes."
Hailun Ma laughs again, this time without covering her mouth.