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Axelle DE RUSSÉ | CHINE, LE RETOUR DES CONCUBINES

 

BIO

Axelle de Russé is a young French photographer. She finishes her studies at the École de commerce de Rouen in 2001 and she decides to change her course and joins the SIPA PRESS agency as a member of the editorial staff.

In April 2005, together with a friend she travels to India to report the Tsunami aftermath and she then decides to become a photographer. In the same year she travels to China accompanied by two journalist for a reportage on “hidden women” During this journey she comes across the concubines’ reality.

In 2007 ABACA assigned her the press coverage of the French presidential election. In the same year AFJ supported by the Figaro assigned her the Canon Female Photojournalist Award for the reportage The Return of the Concubine.

With the co-operation of Elsa Fayner and Marina de Russé, this reportage was presented at the 2008 edition of the International Festival of Phojournalism - Visa Pour L’image – in Perpignan and at the Festival Du SCOOP d’Angers in November 2008.

In January 2009 Axelle wins the SCAM grant with a project about interactive photography.

Her works have been published by Le Figaro, VSD, Paris Match, l’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Point, Cosmo (France and Spain), Glamour (France and Spain), Marie Claire Mexico and La Nacion.

CHINA, THE RETURN OF THE CONCUBINE


Winner of the Canon Female Photojournalist Award presented by the French Association of Female Journalists [Association des Femmes Journalistes] and sponsored by Figaro Magazine – with The Return of the Concubine

Texts: Elsa Fayner and Marina de Russé

In China, the status of a man was once measured by the number of women he had – both wives and concubines.

In 1949, the Communists banned the practice, seeing it as a sign of bourgeois decadence, but now, after two decades of market economy, concubines have returned – the 'ernai', meaning 'second wife'.

I wanted to tell the story as seen in China today in the third millennium, to report on the private, taboo tale of these young women, captives in a golden cage. According to estimates, there are approximately 100,000 'kept women' in Guangdong province alone.

The tradition of the concubine may be the subject of many a male fantasy, but for the young girls, it means living in seclusion, waiting on and for the man, in a state of total dependence. For a man, a concubine is a sign of success.

The deal is simple: money in exchange for sexual favors, but with exclusive rights.

A man has “his” concubine. Even though the practice is banned by law in modern China, as are all forms of prostitution, it is so widespread that wives of civil servants have set up their own secret association known as the “Alliance against Concubines in the People’s Republic of China”, to wage their own battle.

Their leader has become a private detective and travels across China in search of concubines. (In fact, the revival of the practice has brought about an increase in the number of private detectives.)

The phenomenon of concubines can be found in all social classes. Many of the girls have come from rural areas to escape poverty, and first started as sex workers, before being chosen as concubines. Others are approached at private parties, or even universities. These young women go from extreme poverty to a life of great loneliness and boredom in strange cities where they know no one. And they wait. In exchange, they have an apartment and a car, but they must be available for their partner who is often a married man, with his family somewhere else.

While concubines are taboo, they are everywhere, but are not allowed to speak, and certainly not to strangers. A concubine may have official recognition from friends and colleagues, but not from the rest of society. They lead lives reminiscent of 19th century courtesans in tales by Guy de Maupassant or Zola’s Nana.

Axelle followed the lives of 3 girls: Dazhu, 22, left her village to work in Shangai as a waitress, became a hosten and ultimately a concubine. Nanhua, her too moved from Shangai in search for money and became a concubine a few months afterwards. Xian Mengfei, a concubine who sent her savings home to enable her family to buy a new house.

 
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