Why do Chinese love photography

Family Stuff 家当. Huang Qingjun, 2012.
An engaged couple on-set.

An engaged couple on-set.

If you’ve ever been to China you should know how Chinese are crazy about photography. It’s not just a stereotype depicting Chinese tourists in Europe snapping thousands of photos in a day; it is the truth. In my college years in Tsinghua I was amused by the number of SLR cameras my classmates had, all of which costed at least twice the country’s average per capita income. With my 400 euros Olympus I was their joke. A few years back a meme appeared on the Internet: “摄影穷三代,单反毁一生” literally “third poor photographers generation, reflex cameras ruin lives”, and a photo of a beggar-looking middle aged man looking into the viewfinder of his expensive camera. These memes testify a real passion Chinese share about photography, and how they wish to spend a lot of their income in order to purchase professional cameras with good lenses.

Tiananmen Square in the 1960′s (Via Weibo)

Tiananmen Square in the 1960′s (Via Weibo)

I have been wondering for a while now at why is photography such a big thing in China and I came to the conclusion that since China is a fast changing country, people feel the need to fix their memories and stop for a bit the impetuous flow of time. Without time for reflecting, only with the dry sound of the shutter mirror. And this must be the reason behind the huge request for wedding photography in China. The 798 art district, the Shichahai Lake, parks like the one of the Summer Palace or Beihai, kitsch architectures like the european style Chateau Changyu, are among the most popular backgrounds of beijingers’ wedding shots. In the past thirty years the working and living pace has been growing faster and faster, and with speed a sense of precariousness comes along.

Family Stuff 家当. Huang Qingjun, 2012.

Family Stuff 家当. Huang Qingjun, 2012.

Everything is fading away. In Chinese mega-cities friends move in and move out, most of the young Chinese must themselves relocate for college, far from their parents and childhood friends, and then most likely move again after graduation. Here comes the need to stop the time flow. Back in 2011 while I was doing a workshop with some students from Swiss EPFL in 798, Beijing, [here and here] to understand people’s behavior within that area I had to conduct a small series of interviews to some couples that were going to marry and have a wedding photo-shooting in there. All the couples I interviewed stated that they wanted to keep a memory of their youth. Of course, this is the reason behind beauty and wedding photography in every culture, but the proportion of the phenomenon in China has reached a proportion that is well described by LVMH, the world’s biggest luxury goods conglomerate, investing in a Chinese wedding photography company.

New Landscape. Yao Lu, 2013.

New Landscape. Yao Lu, 2013.

When everything changes so fast photos can be riminescent of a long forgotten past. This is what happened when an old color photo of Tiananmen Square was uploaded to Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-alike social platform. This is why many Chinese photographers felt the moral duty to go to the countryside and capture the last faces of a rapidly disappearing rural China.

Panda Zoo 熊猫动物园. Xu Bing 徐冰, 1998.

Panda Zoo 熊猫动物园. Xu Bing 徐冰, 1998.

But besides the need for recording today’s memories, in a country where pollution, savage industrialization and wild urbanization are threatening the concept of beauty, there is also the need to [re]create a forgotten beauty. Like in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities Marco Polo says [quite ironic isn’t it], “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space”. This second way can be pursued through the lens of a camera, leaving all the daily ugliness outside, while only keeping what fits the viewfinder, maybe further improving it through postproduction.

Chinese leaders have always put a big emphasis on photo retouching, from Mao’s era to the 18th National Party Congress, and so do Chinese youngsters. The market for selfie-retouching apps has grown so big that real-life make-up companies have started to market themselves after them. If life is memories and we rely on photos to remember, photography can be a powerful tool to dramatically change our lives.

All this can be real fun, but sometimes reality suddenly comes back, slammed on our faces, and photography can still be there, reminding us not to believe what we see at first glance, but to dig deeper. The panda-looking pigs of Xu Bing’s Panda Zoo [熊猫动物园, 1998. 徐冰] and the Chinese-traditional-landscape-looking trash of Yao Lu’s New Landscapes are here to remind us that everything is a mere illusion, but we must cope with that.




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  • Zuuya

    Hey, I found your blog through laowaicomics. I think this is an interesting observation. I think the reason why so many people have this hobby is basically to have one in the first place. Traditionally, Chinese people don’t have much going on when it comes to leisure. The most beloved pastime is eating – obviously. Then maybe go to karaoke, or clubbing, or some other gathering. Alone time is not really spent very meaningfully, especially not outdoors. So Chinese young people are trying to improve their lifestyles by picking up hobbies, especially outdoorsy ones. But of course they don’t want to break a sweat, and artists are so hip anyway, so this is the closest they can get to that. Actually taking up photography as an artistic outlet is a very global phenomenon. I think the Chinese characteristic is that they use pretty state-of-the-art stuff, whereas in the States or in Europe, hipsters like to use oldschool machines.

    • MG

      Hi Zuuya, it’s nice to see my guest post on LWC got some people reading my articles and even giving me feedbacks! I agree with the fact that many Chinese, especially of the post 80-90s generation, are randomly picking up hip hobbies and it’s indeed interesting to see how they tend to choose outdoor activities. I have mentioned a relationship between travel and photography in the longer version of this article hosted at http://www.co-mag.net/2014/why-do-chinese-love-photography/
      Anyway, in my own experience Chinese hipsters are also into old school machines, or at least old-looking cameras: see the success of Lomography among urban youth.
      Thx again for the feedback, keep reading!

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