Michelle Sijia Ma is a visual artist from Shanghai, China, and is based in Massachusetts, US. Michelle has worked to develop image-based projects and used the language of photography to explore the complexity of today’s Chinese identity more subtly. Her photography has been included in publications such as the American Photography Annual Award Book, F-Stop Magazine, Burn Magazine, and others.
In her project A Hundred Stories, Michelle explored the juxtaposing environment she was born into, a “paradoxical presence of popular culture elements and ambiguous symbols of globalization, mixed with our mundane lives”. China is torn between tradition and modern capitalistic attitudes. While economic and social reforms transitioned the country from Maoism towards market capitalism, not all regions of China followed this transition — “not everyone abandoned the old ways of living”.
What is A Hundred Stories?
In my project, A Hundred Stories, I photographed dwellers, strangers, and relatives living in Southern China to regions of north bordering Russia. I also intertwined modified images with family archives. Taking photographs of my hometown has given me a chance to reflect on people whom I have not valued. I found that these people, who live in a different time from the real world, and those who live in a fast-developing city, share the same mindset. The silent wind of time has continued to blow. The process brought me a strange feeling of satisfaction, which only a hundred stories can reveal.
Why choose photography as the main medium to tell these stories?
Coming from a quantitative economics and studio art background, I am interested in exploring China’s socioeconomic landscapes mixed with our contemporary lives. Therefore, photography became the ideal medium for me to explore both the fictional and real aspects of modern China. In this ongoing project, I intend to construct semi-fictional stories of people living in the land where the old rules once dominated. A Hundred Stories mixed staged self-portraits with documentary photography, a process which I hope to break the conventions of how people normally comprehend Chinese photography, overturning the traditional viewing mode and narrative logic, to question the authenticity of photographic media by inserting young narratives.
How did you choose who to photograph? What drew you to specific people or scenes?
When working with digital photography, I am often drawn to the poor village landscape I’ve come to know as home since moving to the US in 2019. Digital photography has been a way to meet interesting strangers and investigate previously nostalgic terrain. I carried my camera from Watertown villages near a metropolitan city like Shanghai to the poorest region of northern China near Russia.
I photographed relatives, dwellers, and strangers whom I found approachable as I meandered from one town to the next. Most people I photographed were elders operating in the small family-owned enterprises located in villages. Yulian, whom I photographed, worked in a small candy shop in Xinhua town. She told me that she wanted to become an artist if she did not have any financial burden. I saw myself in Yulian’s story – this project is all about where we find ourselves through these images. I hope my audiences are challenged when they look at the images and see China through a new lens.
What was your favorite aspect of working on this project?
My favorite aspects of working with semi-documentary projects are: traveling, construction and deconstruction. I never loved to travel until I started my project, which pushed me to go outside of my comfort zone to explore uncharted landscapes and villages. In terms of construction and deconstruction, it is fascinating to play with staged images and collage them with documentary photographs.
In this image Portrait of Qinglian, I collaged three types of burned prints with a self-portrait staged as Grandma Qinglian. I combined family stories with current social issues. For example, I dressed in Burberry in this image to allude to the Xinjiang cotton incident, where major international apparel brands decided to stop using Xinjiang cotton in suspicion of forced labor. I hope the appearance of Burberry shirts within my environment would speak to the entanglement of our lives with globalization. I further want to explore what it means to be a Burberry buyer among both the old and young generations.
Do you have a piece you are most proud of?
The most exciting piece is Scan It, where I collaged QR code circulated among social media with a self-portrait. As part of A Hundred Stories, Scan It is inspired by China’s contemporary digital economy and social media landscape. Whether I was aware of it or not, my ideals of race and identity were shaped by and linked through social media content. In this image, I unravel the experience of being connected, marginalized. The QR code is a perfect symbolization of our modern life. I hope to further investigate the ways our identities have been connected to societal expectations by combining self-portraiture with QR codes.
Is there anything you’d change if you got the chance to restart this project?
Since A Hundred Stories is highly time and location-sensitive, I wish I had more time to work in China before I returned to the US. While half of the project took a documentary approach, I realized the relationship and connections my photographs built between strangers and dwellers are not as deep as I initially projected. I think it would be very interesting to continuously interview and interact with those strangers I photographed, where hundreds of stories are recorded and written down, where their voices were heard.
My photography practice largely encompasses non-fiction and constructed images, often in combination. I do feel that the location of images contributes significantly to its narratives, I feel that it is important to reconsider the kind of locations that might be distinguishable to my audiences and integrate this into my work.
When you were working on this project, did any part of it change you or your world views?
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
After I completed A Hundred Stories in spring 2021, I was unable to write down a statement to describe the scope of this project until I found this quote by former US president John Adams. As a young Chinese person, I have the privilege to study art because my parents had fought for a secure life through studying engineering and commerce. I found that the people and strangers I photographed, who live in a different time from the real world, and those who live in a fast-developing city, share the same mindset. How did A Hundred Stories change my world views? I guess the ultimate answer is the realization of a privilege that’s built upon generations of labor and economic hardship, and the power I have as an art student.
Check out more of Michelle’s work at