Overexposed, A Photo Diary
Beijing and Shanghai social media news feeds are overtaken by selfies: youth at Tiananmen with arms in the air ‘supporting’ a massive floral arrangement in the background placed there to celebrate the upcoming party congress; group photos at the Bund with backs turned to Pudong; dinner date quick snaps of meals and V signs at the 5th floor mall Hai Di Lao; stealthy subway photos of us laowai at Cuigezhuang, while pretending to be reading with the phone held high up; sunset pics from the roof of The Olympic Bird’s Nest, standing on the elevation circular walkway and waiting for the lights to go up on the Oriental Pearl to take that family shot. Everywhere you look there is photo snapping like there is no tomorrow.
Many popular social practices in China seem much more exaggerated than in the West, and photographing and posting on social media is no exception. As a matter of fact, it is so present that it appears to be the only way that one goes about visiting sites in China and documenting the everyday life. It was a stark reminder of a burning contemporary issue: how we tend to photograph more and experience less.
The random sample of population I encountered is far from providing a conclusive quantitative report, but I believe that Chinese sight-seeing habits allow a glimpse into daily practices of contemporary city-dwellers of Beijing and Shanghai. One would see them much more on their phones that Westerners; would that be because they technologically ahead with their 5G or are they technologically conditioned? Is navigating 20 million plus cities impossible without the help of the network? Does a phone with its camera provide a perfect personal communication bubble for a culture in which physical display of affection is not a common practice, at least publicly?
Our digitally dispersed patience had difficulties focusing on one activity at the time. I am typing these lines while I am simultaneously switching between two VPNs to get access to Gmail and chatting via WeChat (no VPN luckily) about the next week’s meet up.
We are somehow always in a rush, even when having a day off to enjoy ourselves at a gallery. There is no time to slow down – there are too many things to experience. With every photo we take we subconsciously rely on the camera to remember the details for us. With every click, the record of a memorable moment is outsourced to an external framework. Digitalised. Stored. Shared. Safe.
One can see it in the quick pace of visitors at the Forbidden City as they snap photos on the fly, not stopping, not knowing how long it will take them to cross the expanse of this vast historic site…because there is Jingshan Park, with a pagoda on the hill, to visit after they are done here…
Absurdly, we sacrifice being us in the present to make shareable memories for others. But the assumption that we can digitally and truly share the experience with absent friends is a flawed one. The digital account of an event is, ultimately and incorrigibly incomplete, as it is lacking means to convey emotion to all our senses, thus turning itself into a deceitful record of what went on.
One misses to absorb what one observes.
And by doing so, an opportunity to truly share an experience with the person next to us, with all our senses, and establish a genuine human connection is lost forever. (Unless, of course, the experience shared is the very act of posing and posting)
The trouble is that during such persistent documenting our genuine drive for self-expressing becomes inseparable from the relentless commodification of everyday life. The design of our phones makes it really difficult to make this distinction, and this is actually the intention behind the design of their fancy features. And how can a single massive platform, such as WeChat, offer any chance for genuine self-expression? In search for attention, recognition and acceptance from others we normalise and overexpose ourselves and forsake the desire to dive deeper into ourselves and the unknown.
But then again, can one truly stand out from the crowd in an overcrowded city?
It proves exceptionally difficult to accept that the places we visit and our phone cameras cannot alone make our experiences of them exceptional or make them look better than everyone else’s online. Regardless of how well we frame that background, how many filters we apply, how personal is the twist we give to the photos or selfies, we are all trapped by using the same tool, at the same selfie-stick distance, sporting the same models, eventually offering a very limited number of outcomes. In addition to it all being moderated by an invisible censorship body running the apps. Nothing new of course, but the sheer amount of selfie-hunters inhabiting Beijing and Shanghai makes these thoughts recurring more frequently.
And the cities, endlessly spreading out, filled to the brim with historic sites, industrial settings, fancy malls packed with art, palaces surrounded in greenery, feats of engineering provide perfect backgrounds, settings, reasons and excuses for taking selfies.
But eventually all the backgrounds turn into an amalgam of photo stream sceneries, deprived of idiosyncrasy. Cameras wear them out, peel the paint off them, equalise them, pacify them, gentrify them and eventually overexpose them.
And there I am with my own camera, taking photos myself.
However, snapping photos of edifices and monuments quickly loses all appeal, as hundreds of identical shots are taken all around me at the same time. The impressive structures in front of me, overexposed by camera sensors and restless gazes, merge with the hazy sky – air quality index 228. The only thing that is palpable is the frantic activity around me, people moving about on their own or in large groups, pointing their phones in all direction.
And, while I am being surrounded by countless smaller and more agile phone cameras, I am dragging around my neck a massive Nikon. It feels like a competition; we are on the same photographic mission. Perhaps with different goals, but the mission is all the same. But then again, I cannot post online immediately from my camera, I cannot apply filters and the camera requires to be set manually to operate. Which might be a good thing, I say to myself, as it allows for a critical reflection on both the photos taken and experiences gathered. In fact, it allows me to change the game, to change the goal, not be online and feel obliged to broadcast. Disadvantage turned into an advantage, I say to myself again, momentarily realising that I am still competing.
The tourists and I move about avoiding collisions with each other, but do not stop to see each other. They do not see me approaching them from behind with my camera peering over their shoulders stealing the shots from their screens. They are too busy to decide to notice. And suddenly I fall into the gaps in between their selfie bubbles and a new field opens. I have made a game for myself. And games are immersive, and always take place here and now. I move in closer, using my camera as a vehicle to approach them and take photos of them in their bubbles before they burst. They last for a very short time, just enough for them to compose a frame and press the button on the screen. I have to move quickly. And then we are both on our way looking for another photo opportunity. Or we have a good laugh whenever my game gets revealed.
Beijing – Shanghai, October 2017