Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: Camera Shy: China's New Middle Class

There is an interesting phenomenon going on China with regards to picture taking. For the most part, China is a photographers dream. It would seem that you can't miss when looking for nice images here. In fact, all of Asia is fairly camera and image friendly. But that is not the whole truth.

With China on the rise, vast amounts of Chinese people are beginning to make some serious money, and privacy is slowly becoming a very big issue in the larger cities of Mainland China. Let me explain this further.

In China publicity and exposure are almost never a good thing, privacy seems to reign king these days. For example, in 2002 Forbes Magazine came out with a 100 Richest People in China. Immediately after the list was published the Chinese government followed with a crackdown on tax evasion and criminal charges for various folks who were "lucky" enough to be one of China's top 100. China is opening up fast, and for people to take advantage of the break neck speed of development, a significant number of people are making millions in the "gray" economy. With that being said, one can see how people who are making money and enjoying a luxurious living prefer to stay out of the media and keep their money hidden. I think there is a Japanese proverb that explains this behavior, it goes something like: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down".

The upper class and the newly developed middle class are acting in much the same way, both are incredibly camera and publicity shy. While the growth and development of China's middle class could be one of the biggest and most important stories of our generation, I am constantly asked by photography editors to try to document examples of the middle class. This is a task that, as a photographer, always creates problems for me. Shopping that sell luxury brands, luxury apartment complexes and luxury car showrooms all have signs that say "no picture taking", and most signs are often backed up with absurd amounts of security guards who have one mission - to kill any photographic opportunity. With that being said, there are ways around this but they can be painfully tedious. I can often respect someone's wish to enjoy their life instead of being part of some photographers dreams of piecing together a great feature, but recently I have been caught off guard by people's responses to why they don't want me to take their pictures. One woman in a teahouse a few weeks ago asked me not to use "photoweb" to cut and paste her head on to pornographic pictures used for the internet; this was after I spoke to her explaining that I was working for a well know magazine in the UK. In fact, it turns out most people I ask to photograph, get denied and then try to reason with have little or no idea about the western media's interest. Often the most common response is that "I'll get in trouble", but the from whom, by who and afraid of what never seems become a definitive concrete person, association, group or thing.

While I am a China watcher of sorts, I am by no means a Psychologist or a Philosopher. Many people could interpret this in many different ways, but I still see plain and simple fear. I see this type of behavior as being a hang over to the Cultural Revolution and China's backwards education system. It is truly a reaction to being uncomfortable, and I am still amazed at how uncomfortable some Chinese people are with the thought of other people knowing too much about what they do, where they live or what they look like. Of course their are exceptions to the rule, but often people are just afraid for the sake of being afraid - big brother still looms large in this part of the world.........and "they" aren't going to relinquish their grip anytime soon.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

1 comment:

  1. Throughout my China travels I have always found it difficult to photograph people in Hong Kong and larger mainland cities. Meanwhile, in less developed parts of China, the locals seem a lot more accepting of having their photo taken.

    I would imagine if you walked around downtown Toronto, New York or London it'd probably be the same..not sure if it has to do with Chinese education or the Cultural Revolution but it is something that I will discuss with my Chinese friends...interesting topic.



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