With customizable backgrounds able to (re)create almost any experience, consider how the Photoshop-enabled “flexibility” of reality changes the value of an authentic experience in the Chinese context. Consider the extent to which the desirability and status of behaviors follow typical demand curves and associate with high-status behaviors. As the means of capturing become more linked to status, the status awarded to an owner of a $3900 camera may trump that given to the owner of a more affordable camera that was used to snap what may be considered by some to be “superior” photographs. As the son of a wealthy businessman told me when I asked why he had purchased his first camera, an expensive model that he barely knew how to use, he presented the backwards-version of a slogan of spendthrifts, “不要对的，只要贵的” (“I don’t want the right one, I just want the expensive one”). Indeed, as camera-equipped phones become more ubiquitous, the extra expense in terms of both purchase cost and the effort needed to carry a separate camera can bestow the air of a connoisseur, one not content with relegating the important duty of capturing memories to their iPhone.
Noting how people record experiences across cultures is a favorite of mine. Besides showing whether spontaneity or prepared posing is preferred for capturing memories and experiences, it also tends to reveal what is most valued within a given context: what do people stand in front of or next to, to what do they point, do they stand individually and so on. There seems to be a shift underway in travel photography across China, as while once the emphasis was solely upon having oneself captured within a perceived “foreign” scene, now the emphasis is shifting to the scene itself. Notably, it isn’t just about being “foreign” anymore.
While working out of a café in a tony district of Chengdu “restored” to resemble how it appeared during imperial days, I was struck by the sheer number of individuals stopping to photograph some element of the adjacent building (naturally, I couldn’t help but document them documenting whatever it was that caught their attention). Employing everything from cellphones, to point-and-shoots, to iPads, to top-of-the-line DSLRs, clearly something had attracted their attention. I also wondered about the degree to which someone seeing another individual snapping a picture made them in turn also want to capture the very same image – by the images above, a seemingly common occurrence. In this context, nothing seemed better at stopping a potential photographer in their tracks than seeing another photographer already at work. Consider whether such a behavior would manifest in your context, or if “individualist” norms would dictate that a scene already being captured by someone would be of little value for yet one more person to record.
While the practice of “group photography” (all the members of a group photographing the same view using different devices) could be chalked up as a testament to the difficulty of sharing photographs, behaviors signified that there were more social dynamics in play. Perhaps a “sanctioning” of sorts was occurring, with one individual stopping to take a photograph being interpreted by other group members as a decision point about whether to implicitly “agree” with the photographer’s assessment of a given scene being worthy of spending several seconds (and megabytes on an SD card) to capture.
Upon completing my work I descended to investigate the scene being so earnestly captured. Given my “foreign” perspective, however, I could not manage to “see” what the previous several dozen photographers had. With the cost of one more photograph so low, I captured the below scene for posterity. Confirming that I hadn’t missed any temporary element of the scene, I loitered a few feet away and watched as several more passersby stopped for a picture. More context-specific food for thought: thinking back to those previously mentioned “individualistic” norms, would the merits of capturing a given scene be diminished if that scene were (as this one is) clearly a contrived, “staged” version of reality as opposed to a spontaneous, “authentic” scene?