Stephanie Mei-Ling takes a sociological approach to photography

‘I care about the structure of society and the ways people are treated. … These things are in my soul.’

Stephanie Mei-Ling shadowed Nuratu (right), a doula, while on a 2019 International Women’s Media Foundation Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice grant to document Black maternal health. She photographed Destiny (center) giving birth to her first child with Nuratu at her side. “Nuratu is an amazing human,” Mei-Ling said. “She had six clients at the time and only one was paying. She is a mother herself and is trying to make it on her own. She was donating her time to Black women so that they could feel safe during childbirth. It’s an act of service.”

When photographer Stephanie Mei-Ling closes her eyes, she sees the stories she wants to tell — histories of those relegated to the margins of society. Drawn to people whose existence is an act of resistance, Mei-Ling uses the camera to produce counternarratives to the dominant ideology..

“I daydream in photo stories,” said Mei-Ling, who has been documenting Black and minority communities across the United States over the past decade in projects about LGBTQIA+ Pride, New York’s West Indian Day Parade and the Slauson in South Central Los Angeles. “With the rise of gentrification, so many spaces across the U.S. are experiencing aggressive shifts in the physical and cultural landscape. I understand that change is inevitable, but certain types of change really hurt me. When people are disenfranchised, losing their homes because of systematic inequality, that type of change is unfair. Once a place is gone, who’s going to remember it? To me that’s important.”

Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.

Growing up Black and Taiwanese in Los Angeles, Mei-Ling fell in love with photography in high school before going on to receive her bachelor’s in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. After moving to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a photographer, an unexpected twist of fate forced her to reimagine her definition of success. Mei-Ling’s work celebrates the bold and the beautiful on their quest for liberation, recognizing a fundamental need to explore intersectional identity, elevate invisible communities and reclaim cultural narratives from the status quo. Mei-Ling’s stories have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic and Vogue.

Here, Mei-Ling reflects on a journey that has taken her around the globe, discovering what it takes to not only survive but thrive in a world where she is always “other.”

Stephanie Mei-Ling has witnessed gentrification reshaping Black communities in Los Angeles and finds it important to document institutions such as the Slauson swap meet in South Central, where she photographed Brother Mohammed in 2018. “This is the start of a project I’ve been daydreaming about: the preservation, visual documentation and archiving of Black spaces in Los Angeles to keep a record of what they were and what kind of people went there,” she said.
“Pride fills me with so much love,” said Stephanie Mei-Ling, who has been photographing the annual LGBTQIA+ parades in New York City; Brooklyn, New York; Boston; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Philadelphia; Albany, New York; and Asbury Park, New Jersey, where this portrait was made in 2015. “I can just jump on a bus and explore because I’m curious about Pride in other places and see what they have to offer. Hopefully I can make it to some international parades, because it’s the best feeling when you are there.”

Could you speak about how growing up in LA shaped your perspective on community?

My mom moved to the U.S. from Taiwan with my dad after his time in the Air Force. They married, but things didn’t work out between them. When I was 4 or 5, shortly after my brother was born, we moved to Taiwan, where we lived for only a year. Later, I asked my mom why we moved back to Taiwan and she told me that one day I came home from kindergarten and told her that somebody was making fun of me because I looked different. She told me, ‘I couldn’t see myself trying to raise you guys here.’

When we returned to the U.S., we moved to Monterey Park, which was known as ‘Little Taipei,’ a Taiwanese enclave in Southern California. The building complex where we lived was mixed. When you’re a kid, you’re friends with everyone and you’re not superconcerned with race. Your worldview is so small but it was always comfortable, like having rituals with food. Asian culture is built around food; it’s a love language. So much of this time I associate it with memories of food and love.

We lived in Monterey Park for a few years and then moved to the Bay Area for a year while my mom pursued entrepreneurial endeavors. From there, we moved back to LA to live with my dad. We lived in the Crenshaw area, then in Inglewood, which at the time was mostly Black and Mexican. Through the move between my parents, the communities I lived in were predominantly POC [people of color], and my friend groups were always mixed. The socioeconomic status of the people who lived in our neighborhoods was the same, working-class. We shared common interests and there was a familiarity in terms of culture — shared music, shared norms. It’s always nice being around your own people because there is an understanding of the way that you move through life, the way that you do things and the way that you speak.

Could you share some of the wisdom your parents imparted upon you growing up?

Growing up, I watched the way my mom maneuvered through life. She is a doer, and I embodied her hustling spirit, sense of adventure and survival skills. She always worked very hard to keep a roof over our heads. She made sure my brother and I traveled often to expand our worldview. She gave me a lot of latitude to be independent and learn through trial and error. My mom has always been supportive of every dream I’ve had. She encouraged me to take advantage of being in the moment and to always listen to my heart. I’ve borrowed her optimistic outlook on life and it has taken me to high places.

My dad was very old school. There was a definite separation of parent and child. There were rules and you couldn’t overstep your boundaries. Although he was really strict, he was a really fun dad. If you felt something was on your heart, there was always a safe space to express and talk about feelings. We stopped talking when I was around 15 and he passed away in my late 20s. We never had a chance to talk or make up for lost time, but I often reflect on his strong sensibilities, confident point of view and deep lovingness that is so much a part of me.

When did you discover the relationship between photography and sociology?

Very recently! As I’ve gotten older and farther along in my career, I’ve begun to connect the dots by talking about my work. I’ve always moved intuitively. There isn’t a grand, overarching thought process where it’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to stick to the theme.’ The theme is something that exists within me. It’s the way I feel and look at life. As you begin to look at your work, you start to realize, ‘Oh, wow, this is my theme!’

I moved to New York in 2007 to be a photographer, but I wasn’t clear about what type of photographer I wanted to be. Luckily, my first roommate was a photographer and brought me into the very niche market of high-end event photography for agencies that wanted photojournalistic-style work for brands like Nike. I got into this mode where I was hustling to pay rent but I wasn’t really nurturing my personal work and my voice. When you’re in survival mode, it’s harder to create because you’re just trying to make sure you work.

Then in 2018, I lost all my clients. It really made me think about who I was as a photographer, what I wanted to say, what things are lasting and what I will leave as my legacy. It was such a pivotal moment in my life and career, and it taught me to become this version of myself. Throughout my commercial career, I’ve always kept a mild personal practice of things that interested me, and now it’s just more visible. At my core, I’m a sociologist. I care about the structure of society and the ways people are treated. I care about justice and equal rights. These things are in my soul.

“I’m not West Indian but I just love being at the parade and the way it makes me feel,” said Stephanie Mei-Ling, who photographed New York’s legendary West Indian Day Parade in 2019, the last year it was held on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. “It’s a day of freedom. Over the past two years, it’s gotten smaller because of COVID. I hope they bring it back to the parkway.”
“When I first arrived in New York, my friends brought me to the Pride parade and I was blown away by it all,” said Stephanie Mei-Ling, who has been photographing Pride since 2009. In 2017, she shot this portrait of Jase (left) and Chauncey (right) at the parade. “You meet people who tell you that this is the first time they’ve shown up as themselves or this is the last day they are this version of themselves because they are getting surgery. It inspires me to always try to live authentically.”
“I’m from LA and we don’t have a big Caribbean presence,” said Stephanie Mei-Ling, who photographed revelers at New York’s famous West Indian Day Parade in 2018. “It’s so Brooklyn. I love hyperlocal experiences where all these different communities come together to celebrate. I’ve been thinking about fashion as an act of resistance. I admire the preparation, care and pride people take and plan throughout the year. They show up on this one day to make a statement.”
Stephanie Mei-Ling accompanied Destiny (left), her newborn and her doula Nuratu (right) at a routine doctor visit in 2019 as part of a larger project documenting Black maternal health. “When I tell you, Destiny did all her research!” Mei-Ling said. “You have to prepare for childbirth, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that. It’s important to research your health and hospitals. Destiny was very educated in all things maternity and post-maternity.”
“You never used to see white people at the Slauson swap meet. It wasn’t a ‘destination.’ It’s not on Yelp,” said Stephanie Mei-Ling, who photographed Noreaga and his girlfriend there in 2018. “I started seeing the presence of white people shopping there, buying their gold, and it triggered me a bit. It made me think more deeply about Black institutions and the history of erasure.”
“Photographs play a role in shaping how people see and think, but we don’t see a lot of images of the intimacy between a Black father and child,” said Stephanie Mei-Ling, who is working on an ongoing series of photographs of Black fathers and their children. She photographed her friend Rasu with his son Asene in 2019. “In my life, I got to experience that for a little bit of time with my father, but then I got to see the other side, where he was completely gone. Sometimes I take photos so I can heal.”
Can you speak about how centering the ‘other’ is a powerful act, and allows you to create a counternarrative that centers integrity, authenticity and compassion?

As a Black and Asian woman, I have an awareness of being the other in a society dominated by white men, but I don’t allow for that to dim my light or make me feel any less than when I’m moving forward in life. I see the people that are otherized and gravitate toward them instinctively. I find strength in the fact that we aren’t the dominant group, although part of me feels a sadness in the way it plays out; sometimes it can be brutal, and it results in death. The other part of me understands that because we are ‘other,’ we offer something different and worthwhile.

The first time I went to a Pride parade in New York, I fell in love – the diversity, the fashion, the energy, the spirit of resistance and the celebration of individuality. I felt so inspired witnessing so many people showing up as their authentic selves, I went back a few years later to document Pride. It spoke to me. It’s a reflection of the otherness in myself and the strength in how it shows up in the way a person is walking or the look in their face. Sometimes just being a woman, being Black, being gay — your very existence is an act of resistance.

Could you speak about your work documenting reproductive health, rights and justice for Black women?

I applied for a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2019 because of all the news about Black women dying during childbirth. At first, I didn’t understand the problem. Then I realized the issue is racial bias that exists in the medical field. I don’t have kids yet and I was wondering if this is the reality I’d have to face. It has been well documented that doctors are less likely to believe Black people, Black women when they bring up their medical issues. It has also been well documented that doctors believe Black women have a higher tolerance for pain.

As a photographer, sometimes we choose to dive headfirst into things that frighten us, like death and mortality. Birth is already a traumatic experience, but I didn’t realize how scary it was until I was invited to document live births. I remember one time I was sitting with a doula named Nuratu and one of her clients. She was telling Nuratu about how scared she was to give birth because a friend of hers, who had given birth two weeks prior, went back to the hospital to complain about the unusual loss of blood, and without much of a checkup they told her she was fine and sent her home. She died because of severe blood loss. I’ve learned over the years, this happens more often than its documented.

Can you speak about working with Black photographers/curators like Adama Delphine Fawundu and Laylah Amatullah Barrayn — and the importance of being part of a community that centers the work of Black women?

Historically there hasn’t been a place for Black women in many spaces and it’s important to have people who can help carve out a space for you to be seen. It makes a difference — just one small opportunity could snowball into so many more things. The first time I went to the National Geographic Storyteller summit, Laylah was the one that invited me and so many relationships have grown from that one event.

In Conversation: Visual Meditations on Black Masculinity at The African American Museum [in Philadelphia] in 2019 was my first exhibition, and the curation was amazing. Laylah and Delphine do a very good job of uplifting and allowing many of us to be seen. To have your photos amongst a group of other Black women makes them more powerful and solidifies how I felt when I made the photograph.

Stephanie Mei-Ling is a Taiwanese-Black American documentary photographer based between Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles. Through her work, she explores the complexity of intersectional identity, elevating the narrative of invisible communities, society’s fetishization of marginalized subcultures, the universality of otherness through a global lens, and the appropriation, reappropriation and reclaiming of cultural narratives. A largely self-taught visual storyteller, Mei-Ling’s photographs have been featured in The New York Times and Vice. She’s a 2019 International Women’s Media Foundation Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice in the Americas grantee. She received a sociology degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Story text by Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, and Dazed, among others.