Ellen Li

China Fast Becoming a Nation of Shutterbugs

A netizen named WildSidney shared this DSLR image online. (Via Weibo)

If you haven’t heard about Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR), just ask a young Chinese person. DSLR cameras produce clear and high quality pictures, and are often widely used by professional photographers around the world. But they are becoming ubiquitous in China, as more and more Chinese devote themselves to photography. With an exploding population of “professional photography amateurs,” many web users have concluded that a Chinese age of “Nationwide DSLR” is approaching.

Photography’s history in China

Chinese people have a long love affair with the camera. Photography has been welcomed by Chinese people since it was first introduced to the country.

Photography in China began with the arrival of European photographers in Macao. As early as 1840, the popularity of photography among metropolitan Chinese was so widespread that its fans included courtesans, who used photos as advertising, and even the Empress Dowager Cixi. Chia-Ling Yang, a lecturer in Chinese art history at Edinburgh University, explained to a CNN reporter that photographs were distributed “as a personal gift for social networking,” while others would be mounted as paintings and displayed in the imperial court and in people’s homes. In the twentieth century, photography in China, as in other countries around the world, was used for recreation, record keeping, and newspaper and magazine journalism.

A snapshot of China’s modern age

Some shots from a Weibo user’s now-viral DSLR photo collage. (Via Weibo)

As Chinese living standards improve, more Chinese have started to treat photography not only as a functional tool for documenting their lives, but also as a symbolic and spiritual pursuit. On major shopping sites such as Dangdang.com and Taobao.com, DSLR cameras and other accoutrement are often listed as “the hottest clicks.” Users of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, are also embracing the pursuit. When a Shanghainese user named @青简jane, a gastroenterologist and photography enthusiast, posted a collage showing lush Chinese landscapes during each of the 24 periods (jieqi) into which the lunar calendar is divided, it was reposted tens of thousands of times on Weibo and lauded for its “rich Chinese flavor”(中国气息浓郁). Other photography lovers followed by making a collage using pictures of their own cities taken in different seasons.

China’s burgeoning social networking sites have also fueled a boom in the DSLR market. Social networking sites such as Weibo and Renren, a Facebook-like site, allow young people to upload their favorite pictures and share them with their friends. Decorating their personal web pages with crisp well-balanced images produced by DSLR often attract more visits, which makes them feel popular among their friend circles. A search for “photography” on Renren yields more than 800 interest groups and public pages created by shutterbugs from all over China. The size of these groups varies from hundreds of members to tens of thousands, covering a wide range of discussion from photography tips to camera equipment exchange.

As the trend spreads, DSLR cameras seem to have become part of a certain class of Chinese youth identity. @vivian 米奇非常乖, a Chinese student abroad, writes: “My teammates asked me the other day if I had a professional DSLR camera to take pictures for fieldwork. They seemed surprised when I answered no, because I’m Chinese and all Chinese are well-equipped. A typical combination is MacBook + iPhone + iPad + professional DSLR camera! Well, really sorry I’m not a ‘typical Chinese.’”

Meanwhile, Weibo user @CoolRLH offered this handy reference guide: “It is often said that distinguishing Chinese, Japanese and Koreans abroad can be hard, but here is one way: If someone has a DSLR hung around his neck, he is definitely Chinese!”

Want to bankrupt your friends? Hook them on DSLR

There is a downside to this hobby: It’s expensive. Not only does first-rate camera equipment cost more than many Chinese make in a month, but high quality photography requires postproduction and in many cases travel to a promising subject. Other enthusiasts will travel simply to find cheaper equipment, particularly attainable in Guangzhou, Canton’s capital city. In an article published in the Yangcheng Evening Paper in 2010, Ouyang Quanmin, a college student in Zhuhai, Guangdong, summarized his experience: “If you want to push a man into bankruptcy, simply introduce him to DSLR.”

Ouyang’s experience is representative. He had never been exposed to photography before college, but when he first saw a classmate’s landscape photo, he immediately fell in love with the medium. With only three days before final exams, Ouyang woke up early the next morning and walked to a nearby bay to take pictures. Ouyang said he was so engaged that he did not eat all day. It’s small wonder that many Weibo users like to write, “Photography can impoverish three generations; DSLR can ruin your life” in gentle self-mockery. Web users have also created  hashtag #Beggar (#乞丐体) to describe how harsh life can be for a photographer unable to meet the hobby’s considerable expenses.

@王雷_叭叭呜,the Vice president of Century 21 in China, [a real-estate company], shared this vivid (and perhaps true) anecdote: “One evening while I was taking pictures of Beijing’s central business district …  a beggar came and sat down next to me. Feeling sorry for him, I gave him a dollar and continued with my work. Since there were only few people on the road, the beggar quickly got bored and started to watch me photographing. After a while, he said with a soft voice: ‘well, actually you gotta use a smaller aperture in order to have starlight appear on the picture.”

What it all means

One Weibo user posted this shot using “SONY DSLR-A900 + 35mm f/1.4 G” (Via Weibo)

A boom in the DSLR market reflects both the fast-growing prosperity enjoyed by Chinese consumers and the change in spending attitudes among China’s young generation. According to a report by McKinsey, 1.6 million Chinese households were “wealthy” by 2008 (defined as urban households with annual income in excess of 250,000 RMB, or about US$40,000). A growing middle class means more outbound tourists, further promoting interest in photography. Many of these mobile and middle class Chinese are young, and while their parents may have valued thrift, they are more likely to spend money on their hobbies.

But there’s something different about photography that goes beyond the other status symbols afforded Chinese nouveau middle class. Unlike cars, clothes, or designer handbags, owning a DSLR camera is a symbol of independence, freedom, and even spirituality. It means its owner has money and the wherewithal to go on road trips with friends, but it also means he or she nurses an artistic side. With China’s landscape constantly changing and physical traces of its rich history growing increasingly faint, it’s perhaps fortunate that so many young Chinese are now learning how to capture the past.

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Ellen Li

Born in Jinan, China, Ellen is now studying Economics and Political Science at Bryn Mawr College. She has a strong interest in journalism and law, and recently became passionate about microfinance and socio-economic development in developing countries. She also enjoys morning running, Chinese calligraphy, and traveling.
  • http://twitter.com/alanatpaterra Alan Engel

    Japan’s monopoly on DSLR cameras is also a cause for rage among many Chinese.