Jennifer Mien Mien Lin is an internationally exhibited photographer who was born in Taiwan and who currently splits her time between New York City and Miami. Her work is intense, dazzling, and often sensual and exhibits deep insights derived from the struggle that women, and especially women of color, still face throughout the world. Her images are also infused with a deep sense of humanity, optimism, and activism.
How does your work reflect your belief that you have to have courage to be a woman in the world today? Are you offering solace, encouragement, documentation, deeper insights?
If you look at the entirety of my life’s work, I am simultaneously behind the camera and in front of it. I am obsessed with creating narratives, stories. One of my favorite lines is from Joan Didion where she writes: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”.
My self-portraits and photographs of women form a plethora, dancers, artists, models, women from all walks of life, and color, I believe that every woman has a story of overcoming adversity, of oppression.
In our world obsessed with pursuing aesthetic female perfection, the toxic pressure for women to appear to be airbrushed, skinny, with big eyes, impossibly small waist, and surgically enhanced breasts, my work is a counterpoint to this toxic status quo. I love surrealism, and the private secret worlds we all have inside us that we are fearful of showing to the world. A part of that is our assertion of our sexuality and our strength. Women’s bodies are the source of life. It’s not an accident that for hundreds of years, artists have looked at women as muses.
As a woman living in a developed country, it’s very easy to forget about the rest of the world. For me, my roots as a woman of color, from a culture that historically favors boys over girls, I will remember the majority of the developing world is of this mindset.
When I say that it takes courage to be a woman in this world today, I am speaking particularly of women and girls who are oppressed, who are unseen, who live in developing countries, as visible minorities.
My photography from the beginning has been a visual investigation of the representation of women in the art historical visual canon. My work is unapologetically feminine. It speaks to the beauty of the female form, of the nude. For me, women are muses, I’m certainly not the first artist to derive incredible inspiration from the study of form and bodies.
There’s a simultaneous vulnerability and mortality when a woman’s body is shown in photography. As Susan Sontag expressed:
To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability… All photographs testify to time's relentless melt.
The sexuality viewers derive from my work can either threaten or inspire insofar as the point of view of the viewer and his or her place that they occupy in this world. The female body in particular when placed in natural environments projects a feeling of immortality, sustaining a permanent moment. I hope my work offers solace to all women, women of color living in a world that favors Caucasian ideals of beauty. My work is a deep celebration of the overwhelming beauty of women of all ethnicity and class.
As a group which enjoys nominal rights and equality but still suffers deeply, do you think women can or should play a special role in social transformation different from men? Can female artists help shape or guide this role?
My answer is unequivocally yes. Women artists that came before me like Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović, Jenny Savile, Tracey Emin, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, and writers like Anaïs Nin, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Emily Dickinson were fearless in their confrontation of the patriarchal art establishment that often treated their work as not serious. It’s too easy to simply label an artist as a “woman artist”. An artist is an artist regardless of their gender. Great art speaks for itself regardless of the gender of the artist.
In one of your pieces you wrote about the reclamation of the female body through nature. Can you please elaborate on this? For example, reclamation from what?
The western world, especially that chaos that is currently enveloping our country, is the western attitude of man dominating nature. In the east, there is this idea of humans respecting nature as nature is the truest perfection that exists in this world. The further we move away from our inherent connection to nature, the more disconnected we become from our selves.
My body of work last year was about this very conflict. I wanted to create photographs where my female subjects are a part of nature, almost seamlessly integrated into natural environments like oceans, jungles, forests. The reclamation I speak of is the owning of our female bodies through nature, rather than domination, and exploitation of nature through “civilization”.
Although you can’t be pigeon-holed as an erotic artist, a portion of your work involves sensual images of women’s bodies. May I ask what you are shooting for during those times when you do present sensual imagery?
Women’s bodies are the sight of purity, the origin of life. Contemporary advertising portraying women has been hypersexualized to cater to the male gaze, and the undeniable exploitation that we see in many male artists and the way they treat their female subjects is wildly obvious.
Can you tell me more about the work you just completed about how our voices can galvanize change?
Great art speaks to one’s soul, my art gives voice to women, people of color. I believe it empowers to not live in fear about voicing yourself. Art has the power ability to galvanize the masses. In the current state of the country, I have been deliberately creating and selecting work that I hope gives my viewers a sense of power and verve that women have.
Can you tell me about some of your overseas projects dealing with refugees and the marginalized?
I made a documentary about Dalits, our untouchable girls in southern India because as a woman who as a girl has experienced oppression, I feel with my heart it’s my civic duty to give voice to those who feel unseen. I spent a few months at an extraordinary school that only accepts untouchable girls and boys, and through their education, in one generation, they become civil servants, engineers, nurses. Their parents live below the poverty line in India which is under 600 dollars per year. For me to witness this was a revelation. The power of education to transform lives.
I also made a short documentary about an Afghan refugee I met in Germany when I had a solo exhibition. I was touched by this story that, I felt again, the civic duty to give him a voice to reprehensible injustice and indifference many feel towards refugees.
On the second or third night of the George Floyd protests, when there was police violence toward bystanders and rioters were destroying, burning and looting, you posted a performance of yourself, on Instagram, playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It was very affecting to me. Can you explain why you posted that performance?
Music, as the most abstract art form, has a way of evoking feelings that goes beyond a sort of rational understanding. The moonlight sonata carries a pathos in its music that I felt expressed the sadness I felt about the injustice we as a nation have witnessed against African Americans.
You were trained as a classical pianist. Can you briefly tell us how you shifted toward the visual arts and especially photography?
I began training as a classical pianist at the Royal Conservatory of Music from the age of 4, and also began ballet at 6. I played competitively in my teens in national competitions. And ballet taught me the discipline of form. Both art forms trained me in the art of discipline.
I studied literature in college because the written word has moved me from a young age. My mother read me The Count of Monte Christo when I was 5 and I was hooked in the power of storytelling.
Photography came rather accidentally. I moved to China after graduating from university and moved to Beijing from 2006-2009 and I was the assistant director of Galleria Continua, one of the most prestigious international galleries in Beijing. I worked with Ai Wei Wei, Anish Kapoor, Michelangelo Pistoletto to name a few. I made artworks for them, curated. After my time at this gallery, I was running deep in the contemporary art circles in Beijing. I picked up a camera and just started shooting and haven’t stopped since I moved to New York in 2009 and decided to pursue my career as a fine artist. Which brings me to where I am today.