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. Rushing 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.
Many popular social practices in China seem 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.
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.
Does a phone with its camera and content-sharing features provide a perfect personal communication bubble for a culture in which physical display of affection is not a common practice, at least publicly?
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 documentation routine 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. 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?
Regardless of how well we frame that background, how many filters we apply, how personal is the touch we give to the photos we take, we are using the same recording tool eventually offering a very limited number of outcomes.
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 ultimately overexpose them.
And there I am with my own camera, taking photos myself.
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 cameras’ 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 DSLR. 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.
Other 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 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