Tiantouzhai day 15

Thoughts on photography 

We live in a culture where we cannot function without taking photos, and I am not immune to this. I have the daily chore of trying to create space on my memory card by deleting “less good” photos. But what does that mean? My pictures tend to be of people in places behaving in ways that seem to be representative of their culture; of places alien to what I am accustomed to, and of pleasing views. They are some kind of documentation but not a record of what I have done or reflection of who I am. The more fascinating people and moments have passed almost before I have processed them. I am not sufficiently embedded to work with my subjects. So perhaps they are superficial. Taking them does give me a purpose. I think I would feel unfulfilled by not doing so.

I’ve been trying to understand what it is other people do with photography. I reckon most tourists have conditioned themselves to perform when they are at designated tourist sites. It could be by taking it in turns to pose by some old piece of wood with an inscription and adopt a default wooden pose and expression. I don’t think the creation of a record that says I was here is the core to this. It’s more about having something to do at a view point or historical building. The curators of a site or the tourist agencies even helpfully indicate by signage that these are the places you should go to, this is the object you should stand next to. A photo of a view is meaningless unless you are in it….These are all stages which are given to us for our ritualistic performances. The selfie stick is a handy accessory and quite honestly a ridiculous appendage. An extension to your arm and on the end of it is live feedback, like a mirror. Watch the Chinese girls walk around a tourist site clutching this anti/social object viewing themselves and their backgrounds. Seems impossible to turn around and look at the view with your own eyes. Mothers pull their kids into shot for a group selfie. The kid on cue shoots up the Asian two fingered salute, then runs off to explore reality as the mother scrutinises the picture, before calling the child back to try and produce a picture where she is happier with her appearance. This may take several attempts and a range of false smiles. Two fingered smile. 
As people are taking selfies so frequently it seems that everyone has thoroughly practised and perfected a repertoire of expressions that show them to be eternally happy and confident. This is how they want their friends and family to see them. This is their avatar. It’s shaping life through technology. It’s rejecting reality in favour of hyper reality.
In China there is a phenomenon which involves renting costumes, eg ethnic dress, often cheaply made and looking like a pantomime costume, which you may rent for 30 minutes or so in order to adopt more poses and be photographed. The more I think about it the less I understand what this performance means. Why do people need to do something? Why not simply enjoy one another’s company and appreciate the beauty of a place. The world is becoming a theme park.
I saw a sign on the path near viewpoint number 2 “No photograph when walking”. A warning as the paths are narrow and you could drop into the paddie terraces. I notice that people take selfies and shots of their friends often in the middle of paths, even with the sun I their eyes? Why I’m thinking that there is an irresistible compulsion to take a photo every couple of minutes, regardless where they are. My walk up the mountain today was frequently interrupted by these impromptu halts by others. Then there is the posing with the environment. Attempting to interact with something they have no connection with. I saw two urban Chinese guys holding stalks of rice, like they were farmers. 

Perhaps the Yao women have got it sussed when they turn away from the cameras we point at them like hunters shooting cornered animals. The smarter ones ask us for money. A more cynical approach is the man with the huge tortoise trapped in a box, unable to lumber off, charging tourists for the photos we inevitably want to take.

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