For the full news about my work please visit my Instagram
My work "Jonathan, 2009" was selected by director Nathalie Herschdorfer from Photo Elysée to be part of a two-year traveling exhibition called "Dialogues on Humanity".
Traveling exhibition dates: July 2023 - December 2025
My work "Zhaohui & Davey, Rotterdam 2021" is is currently exhibited at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, as part of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2022.
Dates: June 17- September 10
My project Solace was shortlisted for the V&A Parasol Parasol Foundation Prize for Women in Photography!
Written by Fiona Rogers: These ten artists represent a diverse range of photographic approaches, and innovative interpretations of the Prize theme, ‘Agents of Change’, which celebrates the place photography holds in documenting, celebrating and effecting change.
In April 2023, a larger presentation of Germano, about my Jewish family history, was hosted at Lithuania’s Kaunas Photography Gallery: in the city where Herman’s project started life during an artist’s residency.
Dates: April 13- May 28, 2023
Link to broadcast about my exhibition on LRT National Lithuanian television.
In 2019 I was commissioned by Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios (EWS) in New York to produce a photography project about the Chinese LGBTQ+ community. The photo book is part of the Diverse Humanity book series, and was published by The New Press in december 2022.
Quote from press release:
“While faces and bodies have been photographed from all angles since the 19th century, queer communities have been sidelined by the world of photography. Today, we finally give them a face. With this series, Sarah Mei Herman brings to light people who live too often hidden from our view. Her photography allows us to open up to them and allows them to open up to us.”
—Nathalie Herschdorfer, Director Photo Elysée, Switzerland
Solace can by bought here
My work Solace was exhibited in a duo exhibition with artist Tara Fallaux at Gallery Caroline O'Breen.
The second image shows an installation of approximately 200 contact prints mounted directly on the wall.
February 18 – April 8
My work "Zhaohui & Davey, Rotterdam 2021" from my project Solace has been selected for the upcoming Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in the National Portrait Gallery in London!
From catalog text: This portrait forms part of an upcoming book project called Solace, focussing on the Chinese LGBTQIA+ community in China and the Netherlands. Reaching out on social media, the Dutch photographer had met the sitters once before. This portrait was taken the second time around, in Zhaohui’s bedroom in Rotterdam. It meditates on the trust between the photographer and the couple, who appear lost in their thoughts, forgetting the presence of the camera. The project started in Xiamen, China in 2019 and focusses on young queer couples and singles in their personal surroundings. Following a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19, when the photographer was unable to return to China, Herman eventually completed the series in the Netherlands, photographing the Chinese LGBTQIA+ community in her home country.
Dates: October 27 - December 18
My new project 'Solace' was awarded an honorable mention for the Gomma Photography Grant 2021
"The beauty of things lies in the mind that contemplates it." (English Proverb)
In an ideal world, constituted and thought out for the people by ideas of an overpowering system, it is a challenge to find one's identity, especially if its comfort lies beyond the boundaries, that seem irrefutable.
This tender body of work invites us to partake in the process of becoming open minded and living one's identity undefined by external circumstances, not through harsh resistance but humbleness and the embrace of all what makes us human.
My work Jana & Feby, June 2020 was selected for the Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards 2021.
The exhibition was held at Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Amsterdam UMC commissioned me to produce an artwork in response to the Covid-19 period. The other 10 participating artists are Floris Tilanus, Roy Villevoye, Gert Jan Kocken, Inez de Brauw, Koen Ebeling Koning, Eddo Hartmann, Narges Mohammadi, Rachel de Joode, Jennifer Tee en Salim Bayri. The works were exhibited at the Brummelkamp Galerie in AMC from 4 March until 17 May 2021. My diptich Unfold is now part of the permanent AMC Art Collection.
As part of the main exhibition my series Touch is exhibited during Athens Photo Festival 2020 at the Benaki Museum, Athens.
Dates: 17 September — 15 november
For the 35th International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories in Hyères, I was commissioned by Villa Noailles to shoot one of the festival posters. I photographed dj and activist Barbara Butch for this occasion.
My work Julian & Jonathan, February 2017 was selected for the Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards 2020.
The exhibition was held at Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
My project Germano, about my Jewish family history in Lithuania was exhibited at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam from 24 January until 30 August 2020.
This exhibition was generously supported by AFK & Stichting Stokroos.
I received a project grant by Amsterdams Fonds voor Beeldende Kunsten (AFK) for my exhibition Germano at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
For my current exhibition Germano I received financial support from Stichting Stokroos.
My work "Jonathan, South Africa 2013" is included in the new photo book Pools, curated and edited by Lou Stoppard. Other participating photographers include William Eggleston, Vivian Maier, Stephen Shore and Hannah Starkey.
My photo series "Coalescence", which I produced for the American Vintage Photography Prize 2018, was exhibited in the beautiful old church "Tour des Templiers" as part of the 34th Hyères International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories 2019.
Dates: April 25th — May 26th
In November 2018 I received the Rabobank Dutch Photographic Portrait Prize for my portrait "Julian & Jonathan, February 2017"
The Rabobank Dutch Photographic Prize was awarded by the Dutch National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with Rabobank and DuPho. The other four shortlisted photographers were: Carla Kogelman, Dana Lixenberg, Helen van Meene and Wouter Le Duc.
The jury for 2018 consisted of chair Philippien Noordam (Head of Art Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Bart Rutten (Artistic director Centraal Museum - Utrecht), Jitske Schols (winner Dutch Photographic Portrait Prize 2016), Koos Breukel (portrait photographer), Narda van 't Veer (Van Ravesteijn Gallery / UNIT) and Sabine Verschueren (art director)
As one of the ten finalists at Hyères International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories 2018, I received the American Vintage Photography Prize. As part of this prize I was commissioned to produce a unique photo series using American Vintage clothing.
Coalescence was exhibited at the American Vintage boutique in Paris. The exhibition was designed by the young duo Kim Haddou and Florent Dufourcq, who previously received the Van Cleef & Arpels Grand Prix during the Design Parade Toulon festival.
An interview about my work and the new Coalescence series can be found on the American Vintage Journal.
As one of the 10 finalist at the 33rd International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories in Hyères I won the American Vintage Photography Prize 2018!
I was one of the ten finalists selected for Hyères International Festival of Fashion, Photography and Fashion Accessories 2018! The opening week of the festival took place at Villa Noailles from the 26th until the 30th of April.
For the past sixteen years, curator and and art critic Raphaëlle Stopin has been in charge of the photographic section for the Hyères festival. This year's jury consisted of Bettina Rheims (president of the jury), Bill Mullen, Jed Root, Ezra Petronio, Charlotte Collet, Jean Colonna, Serge Bramly, India Mahdavi, Saskia de Brauw, Alessia Glaviano and Daragh Soden.
My work Hypnagogia was exhibited as part of JIMEI X ARLES Photography Festival in Xiamen, China.
Curated by Chen Wei.
In June 2017 my work Julian and Jonathan was shown as a 3-minute projection at Nuit Des Images - Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.
I received a four-year Stipendium for Established Artists by Mondriaan Fund!
My project Touch was exhibited at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre as part of JIMEI X ARLES International Photography Festival in Xiamen, China.
Curated by Chen Wei.
Online article about Solace on i-D magazine. Interview by Isaac Muk.
Link to article
Article in the Italian Internazionale accompanied by two of my portraits from my project Solace, about the Chinese LGBTQ+ community.
6 page publication in the Belgian newspaper magazine De Standaard.
Edited and written by Jan Desloover.
11 page publication on my project "Solace" about the Chinese LGBTQ+ community. Edit by Heike Gülker and text by Arno Haijtema.
We Love: an online publication of my project Julian & Jonathan
14 page publication of my project Touch in the Korean Vostok Magazine. Edited by Jasoo Park.
Between Us - Written by Darcie Imbert
8 page publication from my series Between Us in the the HOME issue #60
In 2010 my project Julian and Jonathan was selected as one of the 15 winners for the yearly Foam Talent issue. The accompanying interview was written by Marc Feustel.
In 2016 photographer and artist Sarah Mei Herman (Amsterdam, 1980) found a box of photographs taken by her grandfather Mordechai. Together with his younger brother Jehuda he ran a photography studio in Kaunas, Lithuania before the second world war. This studio was named Germano, Lithuanian for Herman.
Foto Germano specialized in family portraits. Herman recognized marked similarities between her own work and the portraits made by her grandfather in the 1920s and 1930s; the composition, the quiet faces, the subdued looks. This was to be the starting point of an investigation into the pre- and post-war history of the Germano family. During her time as an artist in residence at Kaunas Photography Gallery, Herman conducted archival research and explored some of the places where her family members had lived and worked.
She also discovered several anonymous photos online which were taken by her grandfather. These portraits turned out to be part of a photographic archive owned by the Rokiškis Regional Museum. It was in the town Rokiškis where Herman’s grandfather was born and where he and his brother had their first photo studio. The portrait of “Unknown Girls” (Rokiškis 1925) in particular resonated with Herman on a deep level due to the striking similarities with her own contemporary portraits. This photograph became a starting point for the project.
During her research, Herman visited Tonia Levin (1925-2019), the daughter of her grandfather’s eldest brother Solomon. At that time Levin was the only living family member who had personally experienced the photo studio. She barely survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel after the war, taking the memories with her which are central to this exhibition. Using archival documents, letters, multimedia elements as well as portraits of Tonia’s family, Herman composed an ode to Levin and the strength with which she rebuilt her life after the war.
Alongside the work about Tonia’s life and memories Herman presents portraits from her series “Julian & Jonathan”, about the relationship between her father and her 21 years younger half brother Jonathan. In this way Herman shows the continuation of the Herman family. Germano brings the family history back to its origins and explores the notions of fate and survival, 75 years after the Holocaust.
In 2010 Sarah Mei Herman completed her MA in Photography at The Royal College of Art in London. She received several grants from Mondriaan Fund, Prins Bernhard Cultuur Fund and Amsterdam Fund for the Arts. Her work has been shown internationally at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Le Château d’Eau in Toulouse, Benaki Museum in Athens, Musée d’Art Moderne in Liege, JIMEI X ARLES International Photofestival in Xiamen and at Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, among others. Her work has been included in several art collections such as Rabobank Art Collection, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and AMC Art Collection. Recently Herman completed “Solace”; a commissioned photo book about the Chinese LGBTQ+ community. In October 2022 one of the portraits from “Solace” was shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in London and earlier that year this project was shortlisted for the Gomma Photography Grant 2022 and was awarded an honorable mention. Recently Herman was nominated as a finalist for the V&A parasol Women in Photography Prize 2023.
The exhibition is supported by Lithuanian Council for Culture and Kaunas City Municipality.
Written by Arno Haijtema (Dutch)
Voor haar boek Solace fotografeerde en interviewde Sarah Mei Herman Chinese lhbti-jongeren. Sommigen van hen zocht ze op in China, waar homoseksualiteit een taboe is. Anderen sprak ze in Europa. Maar ook hier hebben ze te maken met hardnekkige
vooroordelen, en de afkeuring van ouders en familie.
Daags voor ons interview over haar nieuwe boek Solace (‘Troost’), in de volle metro van Londen, had Sarah Mei Herman nog zo’n moment waarop ze dacht; ‘O, had ik maar een camera bij me. Al die in zichzelf gekeerde mensen.’ Pure schoonheid vindt ze dat, het moment waarop mensen stilvallen, zich misschien even niet meer bewust zijn van hun omgeving en het masker van onverschilligheid of neutraliteit, van sociale conventies, per ongeluk even laten zakken. De paar tellen die de fotograaf de gelegenheid bieden door te dringen tot de kern van haar model.
Herman (42) is als fotograaf, afgestudeerd aan de Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten in Den Haag en The Royal College of Art in Londen, altijd geïntrigeerd geweest door intimiteit en liefdesrelaties. Met haar camera op zoek naar de mentale en fysieke staat waarin je verkeert als je met je geliefde of alleen, in je eigen wereld, onbespied, ongestoord - jezelf bent. Dat sleutelmoment vinden en vastleggen, is de gave van de fotograaf, die erkent dat ‘mensen zich snel bij me op hun gemak voelen en me toelaten’. Zo komt ze tot iets wat we de essentie van een wezen kunnen noemen, en laat ze de glinstering daarvan in haar werk weerspiegelen. Hoe ze dat deed in de Volksrepubliek China, in de stad Xiamen, toen ze daar als artist in residence in 2014 voor het eerst neerstreek? Tamelijk blanco arriveerde ze in het land waarnaar ze allang nieuwsgierig was en, net als voordien, op zoek ging naar mensen die voor haar model wilden staan. ‘Het kostte wel veel tijd. Ik zocht contact op de campus van de universiteit, waar studenten soms wat Engels spreken. Vaak waren het vrouwen. Zij stelden zich meer open, en bovendien kreeg ik alleen toegang tot de slaapzalen waar vrouwelijke studenten wonen.’ Ook sprak ze op straat mensen aan. ‘Ik had een briefje bij me met in het Chinees het verzoek voor mij te poseren.’ Vrij gemakkelijk wist ze - de magie van uitstraling - het vertrouwen van Chinezen te winnen, en bouwde ze vriendschappen op die tot op de dag van vandaag duren.
Het was min of meer toeval dat Herman drie keer in contact kwam met vrouwen die een lesbische relatie hadden. Geheime relaties, want hoewel onder de Chinese wet homoseksualiteit sinds een jaar of twintig niet meer verboden is, wordt zij door de overheid en door oudere generaties verre van geaccepteerd. ‘Het is een groot taboe. Ouders pushen hun kind om traditioneel te trouwen, lhbt’ers staan er onder enorme druk. Er vinden nephuwelijken plaats. Ouders vermoeden natuurlijk wel dat hun kind niet hetero is, maar ze willen het niet weten, of hopen dat het eroverheen groeit. In het ergste geval sturen ze hun kind naar wat dan homogenezingstherapie wordt genoemd.’
Drie keer kwam Herman terug naar Xiamen om er te werken, resulterend in grote project Touch. Een serie daaruit werd in 2021 onderscheiden met een derde prijs bij de Zilveren Camera in de categorie documentaire internationaal. En ook elders, in de Verenigde Staten, bleef haar werk niet onopgemerkt. Ze kwam in contact met een filantropische instelling die fotoboeken financiert over de lhbti-cultuur wereldwijd, met uiteindelijk tot gevolg dat ze een vijfde reis naar China kon maken. Zo keerde ze in september 2019 terug in Xiamen om, eerst voor twee weken, te werken aan het nieuwe project dat zou uitmonden in Solace.
Via via zocht en vond ze nieuwe homoseksuele en lesbische modellen, die graag meewerkten. Herman: ‘Ook zij vinden het belangrijk dat zij gezien worden, en dat hun verhalen worden gehoord.’ Zo ging ze in eerste instantie langs bij veertien jonge Chinezen in Xiamen die bereid waren voor haar te poseren. Als de modellen nog bij hun ouders woonden, in China minder ongebruikelijk voor jongvolwassenen dan in Nederland, moest de ware aard van het project worden verhuld: ‘Bij een tweeling thuis, allebei homo, vertelden de jongens hun moeder dat ik ze fotografeerde voor een project over tweelingen. De vader, voor wie ze geen goed woord overhadden, was buiten de deur aan het werk. Ze waren dol op hun moeder, die waarschijnlijk wel wist hoe het met haar zonen zat.’ Bemoedigd door de resultaten van de eerste twee weken plande Herman een nieuwe reis. Maar corona zette er een streep door. China ging op slot, om pas eind 2022 weer open te gaan voor buitenlanders. In overleg met de uitgever in New York, zenuwachtig vanwege een stagnerende planning, besloot Herman verder te werken in Europa. Ze maakte portretten in Nederland, in Duitsland en van een stel in Parijs dat ze een kleine drie jaar eerder in Xiamen ook al had gefotografeerd.
De Chinese lhbti’ers in Europa leven weliswaar gemiddeld in een tolerantere omgeving, maar hebben evenzeer hun beladen voorgeschiedenis, worden ook geconfronteerd met de afkeuring van ouders en familie en de weerspannigheid van vooroordelen. De Nederlandse ouders van twee geadopteerde Chinese jongeren zijn, naast die van een jongen die in Nederland opgroeide, de enigen in Solace die weten wat de geaardheid is van hun kind, en die hun voorkeur voluit omarmen. De foto’s van 31 jongeren zijn aldus verzameld in Solace: portretten, maar soms ook interieurfoto’s van hun kamer of woning. Iedereen komt in het boek aan het woord, en vertelt over zijn of haar leven, de obstakels en angsten, maar ook over de vreugde van hun relatie. Anderhalf tot twee uur trekt Herman doorgaans uit voor haar foto’s. Ze tast voorzichtig af of iemand iets wil vertellen over zijn of haar situatie. ‘Soms voelt iemand zich eerst ongemakkelijk, is gereserveerd of verlegen. Maar er komt altijd een moment waarop iemand zich overgeeft .’ Ongekend intieme en relaxte foto’s levert het op, altijd gemaakt met de analoge Mamiya 6x7 cm (middenformaat) camera. ‘Ik ben gehecht aan lm. Je kunt niet, zoals bij digitale opnamen, meteen zien wat het resultaat is: dat komt de concentratie ten goede, en ook het model wordt niet afgeleid door nieuwsgierigheid.’
In Solace mogen dan lhbti’ers model staan, wie het boek bekijkt hee vaak de neiging dat aspect te vergeten. De warmte van de aanraking, de teerheid van de huid, tederheid van een blik, ontspanning en overgave, die gun je iederéén: ze overstijgen genderkwesties. Zonde dat het boek op de Chinese markt niet te koop is: een voorwaarde die Hermans modellen begrijpelijkerwijs stelden aan hun deelname. Maar na tweeënhalf jaar kilte van quarantaines, lockdowns, sterfgevallen en stress zou je ook de Chinezen deze visuele troost van harte gunnen.
Sarah Mei Herman: Solace, Portraits of Queer Chinese Youth; 192 pagina’s; The New Press; €23,99.
By Laura from the Gomma Grant
Sarah Mei Herman, with her series "Solace".
"The beauty of things lies in the mind that contemplates it." (English proverb)
In an ideal world, constituted and thought out fr the people by ideas of an overpowering system, it is a challenge to find one's identity, especially if it's comfort lies beyond the boundaries, that seem irrefutable.
This tender body of work invites us to partake in the process of becoming open minded and living one's undefined by external circumstances, not through harsh resistance but humbleness and the embrace of all that makes us human.
Forword by ChenChen
What a delight, a gorgeous gift to get to write this introduction for Solace: Portraits of Queer Chinese Youth by Sarah Mei Herman. This is a book I wish existed when I was younger, when I was thirteen and knew that I was gay and started to come out of the closet. This is a book I needed when I was fourteen and forced myself back into the closet out of fear—terror that I would not find love or acceptance, any viable path in life, any future. This is a book I would have embraced at fifteen, sixteen, when I again came out. This book is one I am so glad to have and to embrace now, at thirty-three, continuing to navigate a straight world that pushes queer people into closets of all kinds. I now understand that the closet is not my invention but a condition of societies that would rather I disappear than claim or make any space of my own. These days I am less interested in straight acceptance or rejection, in others’ ways of defining or erasing my personhood. What I am interested in: the lives, the imaginations, the interiorities of my fellow queer people, especially those whose queerness also intersects with Chineseness. And I am invested in expansiveness when it comes to both categories—how queerness and Chineseness can be whole universes, multiverses that continue to branch and grow. I refuse to see queer Chinese worlds as narrow, as too “specific” a subject to write about or photograph. I am thrilled to see how Herman seems to agree with her beautiful work in this book—these photos encourage a kind of seeing that is richly layered, playful, soft, and immensely caring. Softness lives here, yes, but it demands true engagement. These photos radiate a gentleness that I experience as a form of strength. Their range of emotion astonishes: joyful, desirous, melancholic, whimsical, yearnful, loving, contemplative, nervous yet utterly present, tired but not defeated. These photos brim with warmth, at once intimately domestic and boldly declarative. Each image declares, here I am or here we are. Each is a tender cosmos, uncompromising in its textured humanity and complete in its own way—while also suggesting a vast aliveness shimmering outside the frame. For this introduction I would like to highlight just two images in particular (though all of them speak to and resonate with me in ways I will keep ruminating on for a long, long time). The two images are: Chen Ze on pages 24–25 and then Cai Zhemin and Lai Xiaoli on pages 28–29. In both of these photos, a window figures prominently in the composition and atmosphere; how the subjects are positioned in relation to the window—a site/sight of possibility, of daydreaming, of dreaming toward some abundant thing one longs for—moves me and kindles my imagination. First, Chen Ze on pages 24–25: I love how he is sitting in a window ledge, in front of a very large window, bright natural light streaming in but gently, such that he can sit comfortably in partial shade. I love his relaxed attire and posture, his feet left bare, his arms lightly crossed and resting on his knees, his hands hanging in a carefree way. At the same time, his gaze feels defiant, casually defiant, his eyes meeting the camera with a charismatic determination. He is cool and seems to know it, though not in any overbearing manner. His determination doesn’t look cold or cynical; rather, his expression is one of simple confidence and clarity. My sense is that he knows what he wants, or the main and important things anyway, and he will pursue them; he is pursuing. Chen Ze’s gaze is not directed toward the window but to the camera, the photographer, the eventual viewer/reader of this book. The window may represent the world, a horizon of possibility, but he seems more interested in engaging another person. He seems on the verge of speaking. He has something to share with us, perhaps something in the window we have not noticed ourselves. He is ready to point it out. Next, Cai Zhemin and Lai Xiaoli on pages 28–29: these two appear to be a couple, based on how closely they are standing—not next to each other but with each other, one’s head leaning in and slightly resting on other’s cheek. They, too, are in front of a window, though their relationship to it is altogether different from Chen Ze’s to his window. Here the pair is looking in different directions, seemingly lost in their individual thoughts, though still intimately connected. The photo makes me think of me and my own partner, in our day-to-day working lives, where often we are in different spaces, engaged with different goals and responsibilities, yet still considering each other with every move. Or: we are both at home, just in different rooms. Or: we are both in the kitchen, say, and leaning in, touching a cheek, a shoulder, while thinking about and looking at different things. The way Cai Zhemin and Lai Xiaoli are looking at different things in this photo reminds me of so many small, quotidian and yet exquisite moments from life as a couple. They may very well be thinking of the same thing but in divergent, idiosyncratic modes; they may be thinking of each other like that. One seems to be looking out the window, her face bathed in soft golden light. Meanwhile her partner is looking off to the side and slightly downward, half her face in shadow, the other half also in that warm, warm gold. Unlike what I saw in the image of Chen Ze sitting in a window ledge, the subjects here don’t seem ready to talk to an outside audience. They are immersed in their own worlds—individually and also as a pair. Neither is looking into the camera, into a photographer’s or viewer’s gaze. Instead, they stand engaged with their own interiorities. The window is a site where they get to fall into slow, careful contemplation. A sense of determination may reside here, too, in the shunning of the camera’s presence, in the one’s window gazing and the other’s more inward expression. In any case, I am so moved by the photo’s focus—not only does a queer couple get to be the star here but they get to exist in their own universe, for themselves. Their queerness and Chineseness need no explanation, especially not to a non-queer, non-Chinese audience. Whether they are “out” in any larger, public way does not matter. What matters, in this portrait, is how much space they have, how free they are to think and feel and want what they want. And their thoughts, feelings, and wants in this photographed moment might be about larger, societal acceptance of LGBTQ people. I don’t know. In writing about these images, these words are, of course, my subjective interpretations. I could be wrong about what’s happening in the photos, in the subjects’ hearts and innermost chambers. But I am grateful for this opportunity to imagine, to let my imagination roam, gallop, sprawl out in response to this art and to let myself be transformed by its power.
What I feel completely confident in asserting is that these images were created by a photographer who cares about her subjects as people. And that care leads to my dreaming, my interpreting these images in the ways I do. There’s a spaciousness here where both subject and viewer are respected; I don’t feel as though I’m being spoon-fed a reductive “message” about queer Chinese youth and their lives. I feel enlivened, empowered to “read” these photos in an exciting variety of ways. I am writing this introduction in May of 2022, with Pride month in the United States right around the corner. Increasingly each year, around this time, I feel a sense of dread rather than excitement. I still enjoy many aspects of Pride month, especially those related to queer poetry and poets. But I am disturbed by how commodified and corporatized some parades and celebrations have become. Pride began as a protest, a riot, a refusal to assimilate into straight, mainstream norms and values. I get angry over statements like “we’re just like you” that seem to beg for mainstream acceptance and capitalist power. Why should we, as queer people, strive for that? We can accept ourselves and each other—let us celebrate the power in that. Perhaps that is one meaning behind Herman’s title for this book, Solace—all the resourceful, inventive, playful ways in which LGBTQ people find and build community with one another. It’s a form of solace in a world that too often denies us basic comforts and support. We have each other. And those lacking community can take some comfort in this very book, in these images of love and community as well as of solitude and yes, loneliness—but a kind of loneliness that doesn’t have to be crushing. Of course, grief and sorrow are a part of queer lives, too, and I love how this book doesn’t shy away from those intensities; it reflects those emotions while seeming to say: tragedy doesn’t have to define queer life. Looking and looking at these images, I can’t help but think of the late, great June Jordan and the title of her collected poems: Directed by Desire. The subjects of these photos appear to be deeply directed by their own desires: to learn about and understand themselves, to forge connections, to tend to their loves, to reimagine relationship structures, to love themselves more fully, to fight for societal change and social justice, to make out of their lives freshness, tenderness, good surprise, queer joy, alternate ways and spaces in which to not only survive but thrive. It would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that this book has a particular focus on young people from Xiamen, a city in southern China that typically doesn’t get much international media attention—and my birthplace. My immediate family emigrated to the U.S. when I was just about four, but I still have extended family in Xiamen and have visited them. I’ve long wondered if I would/could ever come out to them. For a while I thought it unnecessary since I’m not very close with my relatives and don’t get to see them often. Lately, though, I’ve been rethinking this framing—what if I could become closer with them, by sharing more of my actual life? What if I learned that I had a bi cousin, a trans uncle, a lesbian niece? How else might my queer Chinese multiverse expand? My use of the term “multiverse” is in part inspired by the 2022 film Everything Everywhere All at Once (A24, directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Sheinert), another piece of art and culture that I wish existed when I was younger and am so happy exists now. When I first came out to my parents, they denied it completely. They thought it an impossibility—gay and Chinese? They didn’t have any examples of this being a kind of person to be. Thus, I was no longer a real person in their eyes. “This doesn’t happen in China,” they said, over and over, to the point where a part of me believed their absurd claim. I must be an anomaly, I thought. A subcategory of freak within the realm of freaks. For years I sought out acceptance and community among non-Chinese queer people. I am still in a process of unlearning the separation between my queerness and Chineseness. I am learning how to bring every part of myself, every world-self and self-world, together. And now I have Everything Everywhere, I have Solace, and many other queer Chinese texts, artworks, sources of nourishment and magic, vessels of desire and direction. This photobook reminds me: I have my own art, too, as solace and sustenance. So, because I am a poet primarily and in my marrow, let me close with a poem, one that I wrote to celebrate being a queer Chinese multiversal proud freaky phenomenon.
On view now in the Kunstkabinet: a presentation by photographer and artist Sarah Mei Herman (Amsterdam, 1980). In 2016, Herman found a box of photos taken by her grandfather Mordechai. Together with his youngest brother Jehuda, he ran a photography studio in Kaunas, Lithuania before the Second World War. The studio was called Foto Germano, Lithuanian for Herman.
Foto Germano specialised in family portraits. Herman recognises her own work in the portraits that her grandfather made in the 1920s and 1930s: the composition, the still faces and subdued looks. The discovery was the starting point for an investigation into the pre- and post-war history of the Germano family. During a stay in Kaunas, Herman conducted archival research and explored the places where her family members lived and worked.
In 2016, she visited Tonia Levin (1925-2019), the daughter of her grandfather’s eldest brother. At that time, she was the only living family member who had personal experience of the photo studio. Levin barely survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel after the war.
Levin’s memories are central to this installation. Using archival documents, letters, multimedia elements and recent family portraits, Herman has composed an ode to Levin and the strength with which she rebuilt her life after the war.
Julian & Jonathan, 2017
The jury report on Sarah Mei Herman’s winning portrait:
‘In principle, a double portrait is complicated. Is it actually a portrait? After all, this is not about a single person. Your eyes constantly go from one to the other. Yet everything comes together in this picture. The photo is subdued, the timing is exceptional. It is clear that this picture is about the mutual relationship between the two people portrayed. The photo calls for an insight into the relationship between these people. The tension between both is palpable. The photographer also plays an emphatic role and squeezes, as it were, herself between them. This creates a triangle relationship in which everyone has taken their position. The father looks towards the camera, the photographer’s half-brother looks away. Ultimately, there was the photographer who observed and ruthlessly captured the situation. The light and the view that you are granted through the net curtain reinforce the confrontation. In a time of superficial scanning and quick judgment, this is a portrait that invites you to look closer.’
Jury Philippien Noordam (chair, Head of Art Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs); Bart Rutten (Creative director Centraal Museum, Utrecht); Jitske Schols (winner Dutch Photographic Portrait Prize 2016); Koos Breukel (portrait photographer and curator); Narda van ‘t Veer (Van Ravesteijn Gallery / UNIT) and Sabine Verschueren (art director).
Shortlist Sarah Mei Herman: Julian & Jonathan; Dana Lixenberg: Lil’ Kleine; Hellen van Meene: Sophie and Lola; Carla Kogelman: Benthe; Wouter le Duc; Marieke Polderman.
By Darcie Imbert
Sarah Mei Herman's images traverse the precious vulnerability of adolescence, using imagery to explore questions associated with the tender period that spans from youth to adulthood.
‘Between Us’ is an ongoing series of photographs by Sarah Mei Herman from different projects sewn together with the same red thread, each image confronting the transitionary space of youth and illuminating the role of familial relationships in the construction of one’s own identity.
Growing up as an only child, Herman developed a curiosity for sibling-hood and her photography led her in pursuit of a greater understanding of what sibling intimacy meant, she comments, “by photographing them throughout their youth, it seemed I could be a part of it.” The sibling relationships she documents symbolise the multi-faceted meaning of “home” as a concept that extends beyond the four walls that frame your existence.
The use of everyday objects that provide the backdrop for her powerful portraits represent the mudaneness of inanimate items when separated from the individuals that breathe life into them. The intangible entity that transforms a house into a home is demystified by the symbiosis between the subject and their surroundings in Herman’s work. She notes the stains on the carpet that were made by the two brothers photographed in the series, serving as a reminder of their childhood. The surroundings of your upbringing play an important role in the consolidation of personal identity; memories are cued by the physical environment. “For my long-term projects, I choose to photograph inside their houses, because that’s where they share the intimate space of their home,” she remarks. This series unintentionally challenges the boundaries between who we are and where we are. Home is a human construct that refers to the sights, smells and sounds that cultivate emotional connection.
Not only is Herman intrigued by the intimacy among her subjects, she also explores her own emotional connection to them as the image maker. She describes the meditative process of creating photographs and the symbiotic relationship between them: “I work with analogue film and a medium format camera, therefore the process is quite slow.” This approach allows space for contemplation: “a quietness, a stillness, like the sound has disappeared for a moment and that’s why it’s the moment between us. It’s a moment in which someone turns their gaze inside.”
Herman’s photography could be described as documentary, a visual representation of the evolution of self. The formation of identity is intrinsically linked to the “other”; the identical twin sisters act as an interesting example of this in Herman’s work, addressing the taboo of familial intimacy. “They were almost one body, they kissed and hugged each other in a really beautiful way,” she says. Her work boldly traverses the grey area of kinship in adolescence, surveying the boundaries between passionate love eros and brotherly love philia. Adolescence provides a terrain ripe for experiment, granting the experiences that help to construct your relation to “the other” later in life. She comments on this phenomenon as a natural exploration: “I photographed two teenage girls in Ireland that I saw walking hand in hand in the street. They could have been lovers or best friends, yet for me personally, that does not matter. In my practise I do not seek answers, I merely try to capture the moment.”
Adolescence is marked by a constant state of becoming and Sarah Mei Herman captures the fleeting beauty that is amalgamated by the perpetual changes endured in youth. Her images show both resilience and loneliness, comfort and uncertainty. A period of uncontrollable ephemerality, grounded by the relationships and ordinary objects that quilt together a patchwork of self.
Meditations on portrait
by Tatiana Rosenstein
When I first saw the work of the 33-year-old photographer Sarah Mei Herman I was impressed by her skills as a narrator, the quietness of her protagonists – a father and a son, a boy and a girl in love, siblings, teenagers and kids – and they seemed to talk to each other and to me in a silent language. Surely in front of the camera people show different degrees of vulnerability and the photographers decide to reveal the special moment with an appropriate visual response. Herman’s narration unfolds after a series of portraits, photographs of people she watched for years, and sometimes she tells a story in a single image. Sarah Mei is fascinated by a period of the human being's life, which one can define as “transition”. Her protagonists are children, teenagers, young adults who seem to be caught on thresholds: a child to become a teenager, a teenager on the threshold of the adult world.
Some of her photographs remind us of the French artist Edouard Manet, who lived in Paris in the 19th century, when the French capital was considered to be a center of world art. Manet knew how to capture his subjects’ faces and expressions in just a few details, with a few brushstrokes. He was also one of the first artists who noticed alienation of people from each other. In his famous work “Breakfast in the Studio” the characters are at the same space but hardly pay attention to the surroundings and to each other. In the same way the protagonists of Sarah Mei, seem to be together, sometimes very close, building a noticeable bond between each other, but they still live in their own world. Following the philosophy “less is more”, she shows the portraits of people in a very ‘un-staged way’: they are natural without any sense for self-presentation, dressed ordinarily, matching the bare settings. The background is neutral and nothing distracts from the portrayed.
Sarah Mei Herman belongs to the generation of the most promising young portrait photographers in Europe. A graduate of the prominent Royal College of Art in London, she had – shorty after receiving a Master's Degree – her first solo exhibition in the Soledad Senlle Gallery in Amsterdam, the city where she was born and where she is based now. In the same year one of her portraits was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Herman was honorably mentioned at the Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward award and was selected to publish her portfolio in Foam Magazine Talent 2010 edition. Most recently she had a solo exhibition at the prestigious Le Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse and at Kahmann Gallery, which shows her works.
Artist to watch
By Jill Miller
A photographer and video artist, Herman portrays the unspoken but highly noticeable bond between family members, especially siblings and twins. As she states, "The most fragile and elusive things between people often seem to exist beyond the reach of language. I am fascinated by relationships between people, the physical closeness between them or what sets them apart and the necessity of this physical proximity to others. Following a less is more philosophy, her photographs and videos are quiet and subtle. Her subjects are at ease and dressed ordinarily without primping, matching the bare settings that are obviously comfortable or familiar to the participants. the scenes are common and un-staged, adding to the overal natural tone the scene. This tranquility is by no means dull or pedestrian. The images grab your attention and emit an intense psychological sensation. Upon first seeing her photograph of Jana and Feby in the press release on artily.org, I was immediately drawn to the serene, powerful look in Feby's eyes. My mind immediately leapt to the awesome expression in Dürer's Northern Renaissance masterpiece, Self-Portrait at 28. He portrays himself Christ-like and wearing a fur-trimmed coat with a riveting gaze that makes you unable to look away, as if you are being drawn into a staring contest with him. Herman in remarkably proficient in capturing this type of psychological connection in nearly all of her portraits. Also, the photographs do not cross over into saccharine sentimentality, a difficult task to accomplish when your entire oeuvre is centered on children and adolescents.
Herman was born in Amsterdam, studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague and then earned an MA in Fine Art Photography from London's Royal College of Art.
She is represented by Soledad Senlle Art Foundation, which exhibited her premiere solo show in November 2010, the same year her work was selected and displayed at the National portrait Gallery, london, for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Her Photographs were also exhibited in Singapore International Photography festival. - MJP
Interview by Marc Feustel
Your work focus mainly on stages of childhood and adolescence. What is it that draws you to these phases in particular?
I’m drawn to the fleetingness and vulnerability of these stages. The constant changes that occur during them. In these stages our relationship to others is constantly evolving.
A child has the ability to escape from the everyday into an endless world of imagination. I think this is one of the most enviable aspects of childhood. They can experience an endless wonderment about things. Children just are. Pure and real. I love their directness. In their being they can seem totally separate from the adult world.
The transitions from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood can be a time of extreme loneliness. These transitions can make closeness impossible during certain stages of life; like a young girl suddenly losing closeness and intimacy with her father because she is not a child anymore, or a boy feeling miles apart from his older brother. On the other hand incredibly close friendships can exist at a certain stage in life, before relationships are formed with partners from outside… like the twins Jana and Feby who I have been photographing for the last 5 years. I’m also very interested in the ambiguity that often exists between femininity and masculinity. Up to a certain age, these boundaries have not yet fully set and can sometimes still be blurred.
You grew up as an only child. When you gained your half brother Jonathan, when did you first decide to start photographing him and his relationship with your father?
I started photographing Jonathan when he was about four years old. The first series I did of my father and half-brother (and grandmother) was during a trip to South Africa. I started photographing them in a very intuitive way, without really asking myself why. In the past two years I have become more focussed on the triangular relationship between the three of us. The series is as much about the relationship between a relatively older father and his younger son, as it is about my relationship to them and my memories of being a young child which are now in a way mirrored in my half-brother Jonathan. Not being my father’s only child anymore, taking these photographs was also my way to relate to my half-brother, who is 20 years younger than me. A way to get closer to him.
You have done several series involving your family members. Do you always work with family or friends, for example in the case of the Siblings series? How different is it for you to work within the intimacy of your family versus working with strangers?
I don’t always work with my own family: my father and half-brother are a very important subject in my work which I will pursue, but apart from that I work with people outside of my family who I have slowly got to know by photographing them. The projects on people outside my family started from the point where we were total strangers. Trust builds up slowly over time with these projects and visiting the same people again and again becomes almost like a ritual. Of course there’s a difference between photographing my own family and people from outside my family. But in both situations moments of intimacy are created between us. This all depends on how close they allow me and my camera to get.
In the series Jonathan, and indeed in all of your series, there are virtually no images that portray joy or laughter. This strikes me as slightly unusual for images of children. Is this a conscious decision on your part and if so why do you avoid this kind of image?
It’s not so much a conscious decision, but I search for a certain stillness and withdrawnness which one can’t get to when capturing laughter. The people I photograph are physically present, but often mentally absent or in another space. For me, by capturing these moments of stillness, the delicate and tender things between people can be revealed.
For my brother his seriousness and stillness is very much how he is. I try to get a bit closer to his inner world... children can be extremely serious, and these are the ones that I’m drawn to most. When I photograph I’m concentrated and close to my subjects, and so are the people I portray. I never tell them not to laugh.
Your photographs often seem to focus on moments of physical or emotional tension between people. What attracts you to these moments? Do you intervene when you are shooting to stimulate tension or do you take more of a 'fly on the wall' approach?
I’m drawn to the things between people that are hard to put into words. Sometimes gestures and body language can reveal so much, and make things very palpable. I’m interested in the boundaries of the body, the closeness and distance between individuals, how people relate to each other, how they respond to the other’s presence, the importance of our physical proximity to others. By isolating my subjects from the rest of the world for one moment, I explore the thresholds between them, both physically and emotionally.
I try to find the delicate balance between staged photograph and snapshot. There is no single way in which I always work. Sometimes I have a certain image in my head, but most of the time it’s an interaction between the subject and I. Sometimes I see something happening which I then ask them to act out or perform again.
Photographing children has always been a controversial issue, as can be seen in the lengthy discussions that surround the work of Sally Mann or Elinor Carucci. What is your reaction towards those that see photographing children as exploitative?
I think Sally Mann and Carucci are able to make these photographs because they are the mothers of these children. In my opinion Sally Mann has photographed the sensual beauty of fleeting childhood, in a very direct and honest way, without trying to make it look any more or less beautiful then it just is.
I don’t think photographing children is exploitative as long as your intentions are honest, genuine and loving. I never feel that I’m exploiting children or young adolescents. I am very careful and never put any pressure on them. It is a collaboration between them and me, and I take them very seriously.
Are there any photographers or movements that have influenced or inspired you?
I draw inspiration from many different fields: cinema, photography, painting, literature. Cinema is an important source of inspiration for me and I’m particularly drawn to the subtle magic-realism in certain Spanish and South-American films. In terms of photographic inspiration I’ve already mentioned Sally Mann, but, although his work is very different to mine, I’m also very intrigued by the way that Philip-Lorca diCorcia is able to get close to people. I also discovered the Victorian photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden’s portraits of her two adolescent daughters. These images, mostly of the girls posing together, are very intimate and seem to speak of adolescence, eroticism, sibling- and mother-daughter relationships.
bio & artist statement
Sarah Mei Herman (b. 1980, NL) holds a BA in Photography from The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, and an MA in Fine Art Photography from London’s Royal College of Art.
Herman’s work has been exhibited internationally, at institutions and festivals such as The National Portrait Gallery, London; The Benaki Museum, Athens; Photo Elysée, Lausanne; Le Château d’Eau, Toulouse; The Jewish History Museum, Amsterdam; and the JIMEI x ARLES International Photo Festival, Xiamen. Her projects have been recognised by a range of prizes and awards, including the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, the Hyères Festival of Fashion and Photography, and the V&A Parasol Women in Photography Prize. Her work is found in several public and private art collections, whilst her images have been published by the likes of iD, Vogue Italia, Foam Magazine, Paper Journal and Dear Dave. In 2024, Herman’s second photo book – Julian & Jonathan – will be published by the London-based GOST Books.
Throughout her practice, Herman explores relationships, loneliness, longing, intimacy and the human urge for physical proximity. Probing gently at the things that bridge and divide her subjects, her projects pay close attention to the vulnerability of transitory life stages – from the trials and fleeting beauty of adolescence to the grey areas between friendship and romance. At times, Herman’s position is that of a relative outsider: she comes to know her subjects through the act of portraying them. Elsewhere, Herman's placement is closer to the story, training her lens – for instance – on the complex dynamics of her own family.
The notion of time is of equal importance to Herman’s work; photographing the same subjects over many years, she charts fluid cycles of transition and evolution, as well as what remains unchanged and unmoving. The approach reflects the artist’s own preoccupation with the passage of time – or the fear of what’s lost in the process. Immersed in image-making, time feels slowed down or even briefly suspended, turning up a chance to crystallise both a moment and a memory.
Herman's work is generously supported by Mondriaan Fund
lives and works in Amsterdam, NL
For prints and other enquiries please contact me at:
+31 6 42 20 09 33