I wanted a clear and unobstructed photo of the marble door in the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia. This is not easy, because a continuous stream of people go through it. After a long wait I decided that I should be taking photos of tourists instead. In any case, ambush photography is great fun: you take photographs of people who are being photographed by others. The Family and I had an argument a few days before about whether Chinese tourists outnumber everyone else.
I’m not terribly good at pinpointing nationalities, but by my count about two and a half photos out of the eight in the slide show contain Chinese people. A significantly larger number come from eastern Europe. Add in the west Europeans, Turks, and a smattering of people from across Asia outside of China, and I think you begin to get a picture of where the tourists come from. About half of them take selfies, a fourth have someone else take their photo, and the rest are not interested in their own photos. My survey was interrupted because I was spotted while taking a non-ambush photo. I had to go back to being a tourist interested in the marble door again.
If you thought literature doesn’t move society, you should think again. E. M. Forster’s words have been taken very seriously by almost every living human. “Only connect” is now an epigraph to live by. There is now a clear answer to the ancient question, “What does it mean to be human? What sets us apart from all animals?” A cell phone, and a burning desire to post instantly.
This photo was taken an aeon ago (by Instagram time) in the Hagia Sofia. Looking at it I wonder whether the definition of being human has really changed. Isn’t this just another expression of being a social animal? Each of the people you see here is connected to their social network. Connections grow stronger the more you connect.
The modern incarnation of Shamian island seems to have been built for street photography. We walked through it in the middle of the week, but the leafy roads were full of people clicking photos. The pair in the featured photo took themselves in various poses with the statue you see, and then sat down to look at the photos carefully.
This pair had found a much more interesting background, I think. Although the front camera is being used, it doesn’t look like the girl is taking a selfie. Perhaps the front camera is being used so that the subject can see herself in the screen and control her image better. What is better than taking a selfie? Have a friend take your selfie for you, clearly.
When people are so absorbed in taking their own photos it is much easier for a tourist to take photos of them. Did I feel like a voyeur? No. There were others equally busy documenting the modern Chinese need to put their photos on Weibo and Wechat. I’m used to my nieces taking each other’s photos for Instagram. They do not notice what I’m doing at such times. Sometimes they post the photo I took of them taking their own photos on Instagram. The meaning of privacy is much more nuanced now.
Whatever social medium is being used, some people are more professional than others. This pair could be creating portfolios: the woman as a model, the man as a photographer. But much more likely they will post it on Wechat. The pair noticed me, but did not care. Their portfolio/profile was much more interesting.
This guy was a serious amateur. If you look at WordPress, Flickr, or Instagram, you’ll see some really outstanding amateur photographers from China. This guy could be, or could become, one of them. I liked the fact that he was photographing a statue of a photographer. It gave me a chance to go another level meta.
And then there are tiger moms. The child did not want to pose any longer, but when mom says you have to do it, you have to. Not a hint of rebellion shows in her face or posture. Hard to believe that between shots she was complaining. This set is definitely going on the family Wechat group.
This has been going on for a while I guess, but I’d noticed it last year only among teenagers and movie stars. Now it has started creeping up the food chain. All the places which used to be called "scenic spots" are blighted by hordes of selfie shooters. This being India, a selfie is not complete without the whole neighbourhood. I’m tempted to join one of these selfie groups and smile at the camera. Will they notice a stranger grinning at the edge of the group? The alternative is to have the kind of visceral reaction which you see on the face of the guy moving out of the frame.
China is also full of people deploying selfie sticks at every place where tourists may go. You see a typical Chinese selfie being taken in the photo here: it is completely individual. The Indian selfie is much more communal. What does that tell us about the two countries?
Something weird has happened in the last decade. Very large numbers of people from Mumbai go and stand under a waterfall in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. I suppose they always wanted to, but the prosperity of the last decade has finally enabled them to. The photo you see here is of the Ashoka waterfall about a 100 kilometers from Mumbai on a weekend.
The waterfall was steep, and the path to the crowded pool was down a steep rocky face. It seemed as crowded as a suburban railway station at rush hour. We had gone to get away from the city, and turned away at the sight of crowds as dense as any we see on a working day. Such a density of humans would be dangerous in almost any situation. Fortunately, a car can only deliver you about a kilometer away on a slushy road, otherwise the place would be even more dangerous than it is. We remembered many recent newspaper stories about accidental deaths by drowning. From the statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau it seems that rates of accidental death by drowning in Maharashtra are high compared to the rest of the country.
On the drive back we noticed a few spots where cars and motorbikes were parked haphazardly at the edge of the highway near a stream falling over the side. People were clambering over the stones below to take selfies in the “waterfalls”. If a large number of people take similar selfies, it usually means a social-media buzz.
Why? The Family feels that more people have cars, they drive, and there are few places to drive to. This is true; most of the people we saw are young and newly affluent. But the same people could have done anything in the mountains. We did see some groups on open meadows, sitting down to a picnic lunch. A very few go trekking. Some probably go and have an impromptu dance. Could it be that some movies in recent years have kicked off a frenzy of selfies under cascading water?
Whenever I think I cannot be surprised any more by the Chinese habit of taking selfies all the time, in any situation whatever, something happens to jolt me out of this. Inside the forbidden city I saw this selfie being taken with a camera and a tripod. Come on guys: a selfie is a mobile phone thing. The auto function on cameras was meant to give you time to join a group photo. A selfie with a camera is really pushing the boundary.
If there is one image which I take away from me to symbolize the new China it will be the selfie stick. You see the twenty-somethings with cameras. You see the teens taking selfies with selfie sticks. No other country is half as obsessed with taking selfies as China. So, of course, there has to be a technical innovation associated with this. It is as inevitable as a tripod for a camera. Does this have something to do with kids who have grown up with six adults (two parents and four grandparents) doting over them, with no cousins or uncles or aunts to distract from their single-minded self-absorption?
If I were to say that the Chinese take more selfies than any other nation, someone would certainly point out that there are more Chinese than other nationalities in the world, so this is almost certainly going to be true. But it is more than that.
The Chinese seem to take more selfies per capita than the next ten nations put together. There is even an industry of selfie sticks: you can buy them from street vendors almost anywhere. At least in one place, the Olympic stadium in Beijing, I saw a person hiring them out. You pay a deposit equal to the price of the stick, and then when you bring back the stick you get some money back.