On street photography in China

Some thoughts on street photography in China

Update: Thanks to Jonah, Jens, Imansoe and budak for your comments. Blogger Ren Yue, whom I mentioned in the post has also responded via her blog (in Chinese). My response to your thoughts after the jump. Please keep them coming.

Liu Mao has kindly translated the below post into Chinese which can be read here. 朋友刘淼很好意的把这博科的文章翻译成中文。请看他个人的博科

A few weeks ago, my friend Adam Minter over at Shanghai Scrap interviewed me about photography and collecting Shanghai Street Stories. I always appreciate people’s interest in the blog which in the course of writing, has resulted in new friends and collaborations, and endlessly fascinating conversations. One of which has been about street photography in China.

Most recently, Ren Yue, who is a prominent Chinese blogger of 1416 教室 on photography but more impressively, a professor in Beijing, raised some questions about street photography in response to my interview and the blog. I had mentioned that while I like the diversity of photo essays, street photography is a style I aspire to.

Citing an October article in China Photography magazine (中国摄影) which lists Shanghai and Shenzhen as the most popular cities for street photography, Ren Yue wonders how Beijing will ever make the list, given the city spends over four hours trapped in traffic each day, and much of it shuts down swiftly past 9pm? She also mentioned the frenetic nature of the streets in Beijing, which I would counter as hardly a bad thing, and how different is that from Shanghai?

She also probes the difference between street photography and just “shooting in the streets?” – a question that remains mired in discussion in the street photography community till this day. There are endless ramblings on how one should categorize street photography but I’ve never figured them to be hard and fast rules. On the street yes, candid, and very much in the moment. But what really defines the entire genre, are the style and the emotions it stirs.

The work of street photographers like Trent Parke, Elliot Ewitt and Moriyama Daito just to name a few (more in my blog roll) evoke a great sense of poetry, elegance, wit and creativity. Others like Matt Stuart, who was recently featured in New York Times’ Lens, composes his photos in a way that makes you laugh out loud or furrow your brow to pick out that one or two details that forces people to double back on the photo. And smirk some more.

But back to street photography in China. The genre (and style) is not yet as widespread in China’s cities as you find in Western cities especially London, New York and Paris. In a brief email exchange with Ren Yue, she acknowledged that street photography as a genre remains unfamiliar to most Chinese photographers even if they are aware of its reputation, or as she puts it, “熟悉的陌生概念”.

Why is that? After all, one aspect of street photography is about capturing man in their element and China is ripe with commentary waiting to be made. And we’ve yet to experience the overly strict privacy laws that have begun to hinder street photography in the West. In many ways, the density of China’s many cities would serve well as a blank canvas for street photography. Is the style uninteresting to the Chinese photographer, or is the act of observing human interaction through a viewfinder overwhelming by the sheer size of the population and the density of China’s cities?

Of course there are always exceptions, like Shanghai-born street photographer Tang Ying who was also interviewed here on the blog. There is also an active group of avid street photographers in China who find the genre very appealing, and worthy of note.

I recently met up with a few Chinese photogs, all of whom contribute to an aptly named photoblog called ZaiJieTou (在街头) – literally “in the streets” in Chinese – which has tens of contributors generating streams of street images reflective of varying styles and perspectives.

Over Xinjiang food one night, these Chinese street photographers ruminated about the photography industry in China, shooting in Shanghai, their relationship with Shanghai as a city and how it influences their images, and their varying styles.

I learned a great deal that night and hope to continue the conversation across languages by presenting interviews with these few photogs slowly over the months.

Of course, I’d like to hear more from you if you have any thoughts on the matter, be it street photography in general or specific to China. Let’s see where this takes us. Cheers.

Updated in response to comments (10Nov) below:

– The ever-perceptive Ren Yue offered an elegant answer to the question of why street photography just isn’t that popular in China. My paraphrasing may not do her prose any justice …

“以上说得太玄虚了?也许有一个非常简单的答案,这个“没有街头摄影”的问题,就当下我们的生存环来说,关键并非不是没有“街”的存在,而是因为在本雅明时代,街头摄影师其实质是一个街头漫步者,中产阶级有闲绅士在街头游走,以溜乌龟的速度缓慢观看四周,孤独,优雅……而对于生活在重压之下,对于那些还在担心家里米缸不满的年轻人来说,能有这个闲心么?”

… but the key gist is that maybe the element of street just simply does not exist in China. The essence of street photographer involves an individual meandering at length and observing his/her surroundings. But looking at the pressures weighing on Chinese society today, for dissatisfied and burdened young people, who can afford that leisurely state of mind required for street photography?

It is a very valid explanation but that is also saying that the arts in general would be unpopular because not enough people would be able to spare the time and emotion for it. China’s arts scene is very vibrant and its motivations are diverse as they are endless. So perhaps this is something very unique to the genre of street photography and how it is perceived or even known in China (or in general, ‘a beleaguered’ genre where photogs toll in obscurity, according to Nick Turpin)

– Jonah is right that we’re seeing more cameras, and expensive ones in China. Like Americans with their cars, bigger is better for Chinese consumers where cameras are concerned and DSLRs rule. In Shanghai, I see many local tourists wielding L lens on Canon 5Ds. In Xinjiang, so many tourists had complicated set-ups (and enormously long telephoto lens), you’d think they were shooting for National Geographic. Of course it is encouraging that we have more photographers who are growing into their own points of views through their work and in magazines like 中国摄影. The prevalent styles are still nature-oriented, ethnic-minorities interest, and individualistic (edgy, introspective and ultimately, young). If more Chinese are taking to photography, then it’s not unreasonable to expect more street work and unique street styles to emerge in China, I think we need to bide our time but I know I won’t be disappointed.

– On the issue of the general warmer reception to being photographed in China which the commentators have rightly pointed out. There are no cultural (unlike in the West) or religious (some Middle Eastern countries) taboos in  being photographed here in China. In general, people here are more curious about cameras as they become more ubiquitous and more expensive (hence coveted as a material object).

But a stronger reason is that people in China do not yet have a developed sense of the concept of privacy rights. It’s not a criticism, it’s just not feasible in large and populous cities and historically, not a priority for Chinese people. Embracing that as a photographer, there is less fear that your subject may feel violated and/or call in the police.

Yet after conferring with some local photogs, I realize that as foreigners, we have a certain leeway. Locals are more willing to accommodate our curiosity and sometimes, the language barrier works in our favor when people are unable to communicate their displeasure at being photographed. In many cases, they raise a hand or walk away rather than confront a photographer.

But photogs (local and foreign) have had trouble in the past (as have I), getting yelled at for shooting and in general, having people walk out of the picture. Their first reaction is, why are you photographing me, what is the point of it? As cities become developed, people will have a greater sense of their “rights” and need for personal space. We will then see greater resistance to having a lens trained on them.

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8 Comments

  • Reply November 8, 2010

    Jonah Kessel

    While I don’t see too many actual street photographers on the streets of Beijing, I do see a lot of cameras. Regardless, I find the population of China to be overwhelming comfortable with the art form. I’ve lived in a large variety of places around the world and the Chinese are certainly more open to it.

    Compared to Algeria, where people might scream at me, New Zealand where people didn’t want to be photographed (sometimes), or North America where people can be simply scared to be photographed – this is a refreshing change.

    While street photography isn’t as big as it is in New York, San Francisco or Paris, the camera culture is growing rapidly. While the streets are changing so quickly I hope more Chinese go out to record the metamorphosis that’s taking place.

  • Reply November 8, 2010

    Jens Schott Knudsen

    I’ve had a similar experience to Jonah doing street photography in China. At first I thought it would be more challenging that in the West–especially as a foreigner who might stand out in a crowd. But I was really positively surprised and even met a few aspiring Chinese street photographers in the process.

    There is so much to capture and street photography could definitely play an important role in documenting the change China is going though.

  • Reply November 8, 2010

    Imansoe

    I never go to China yet, but I believe it would be wonderful there, since i never see all things in China.
    For me, basically it’s all the same when you try to take a street photography everywhere in the world. And more more interesting, if we go to some new places.
    And for the people, we can’t do the same trick to make people believe to capture their activity.
    Here in Indonesia, if you’re take a photo of them, they always smile. But sometimes i met people who don’t want. Yeah.. depend on your treatment :D

  • Reply November 9, 2010

    budak

    Hi Sue Ann,

    I am a Malaysian Chinese based in Singapore and just came back from my virgin trip to Shanghai last week. There, I stayed with a friend in Puxi and spent most of my 6 days in the city on foot or via the Metro checking out the neighbourhood markets, alleys and residents. I do mostly nature photography, but while in Shanghai, I wanted to capture a visual sense of what the city is like, how its people see and interact with each other and their home, and record how they dressed, rode, shopped, ate and strode.

    One thing that struck me is the relative sense of blase most people in Shanghai have in the presence of a DSLR; streetside mahjong players, vendors, bikers, diners, children playing in the backlanes etc… compared to Singapore, where (perhaps thanks to the ubiquity of cameras and the insidious influence of gotcha websites like Stomp!) people seem to instantly recoil or put on a facade when they see a camera in their vicinity and it’s much harder to document what people are really like and do out in the streets without a reflective sense of artifice and self-consciousness from both parties.

    In Shanghai, save a handful who quickly raised a hand when they saw the camera, most people were downright uninterested, carried on their affairs or games, or genuinely friendly, like a couple at a small insect market (not the big famous one) who explained the intricacies of cricket rearing to me while I shot them and their customers. The results, I would think, blend tourist and ethnographer, though I must say I know very little of the craft of street photography; I simply lugged the cam around and shot at whatever grabbed my eye. If you have time to critique the shots, I’d be grateful :)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/budak/sets/72157625305262448/

  • Reply November 10, 2010

    Jellyfish

    Here are my thoughts although I am new both to Chinese and street photography ;-)

    I have read some essays/comments on how the trend in Chinese contemporary photography has shifted from politically and/or socially motovated to personal (also called private) photography. People document their surroundings only insofar that they are relevant to themselves. Maybe one couls say it’s not really for information but rather communication purpose with other fellow shooters who share the same imagery/symbols/motifs.

    @Jens: I think it may be quite different to photograph people depending on whether the photographer him/herself is a local or foreigner. It may be that Chinese are (e.g. after the Olympics) more aware of the image foreigner’s have of them, more aware of their appeal to them. On the other hand, Muge for example says being a Chinese when photographing other Chinese made thngs easier for him, because people were less apprehensive about him than they would be about a “stranger”…

  • Reply November 10, 2010

    Jellyfish

    Here are my thoughts although I am new both to Chinese and street photography

    I have read some essays/comments on how the trend in Chinese contemporary photography has shifted from politically and/or socially motivated, to personal (also called private) photography. People document their surroundings only insofar that they are relevant to themselves/their own experience. Maybe one could say this trend is not really for information but rather communication purposes with a community that potentially identifies itself with the same motifs.

    @Jens: I think it may be quite different to photograph people depending on whether the photographer him/herself is a local or a foreigner. It may be that Chinese are (e.g. after the Olympics) more aware of the image foreigner’s have of them, more aware of their appeal to them. On the other hand, Muge for example says being a Chinese when photographing other Chinese made thngs easier for him, because people were less apprehensive about him than they would be about a “stranger”…

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  • Reply November 12, 2010

    budak

    I think it will be quite hard to sift out the effects of a developing ‘sense of privacy’, the growing ubiquity of cameras (especially entry level DSLRs) and distinctions between photographers (local, foreign, foreigners who look local etc). At a Singaporean hawker centre where I was part of the local scene, hardly anyone batted an eyelid when a Western couple with a dslr barged through to gawk at the wares of each stall as it we were a museum gallery. I’d wager it would have been quite different if a guy like me were to go up to the stalls and try to capture candid moments; people would likely think I am from the press or trying to snoop. That said, most people, I’d think, don’t distinguish between street photography in sensu stricto and casual snapshots (whether by tourists or locals). What prompts them to alarm, artifice or continue whatever they were doing (if rapport wasn’t initiated between the photographer and subject) could well be a near-instinctive assessment of the ‘threat level’ of the shooter, situational issues (e.g. the subject is rushing, not wanting to be interrupted, harbouring a guilty conscience?) or personal dynamics like an inherently hostile/aggressive personality….

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