China in Photos / Thoughts

China: Land of the Ginormous Camera

Chinese amateur photographers

A (poor) picture of someone taking a picture of someone taking a picture.  You got all that?

I’m always really hesitant to write these posts about my observations of Chinese society.  I feel like I am not embedded deeply enough in the culture to say things that are correct or relevant.  My Chinese is horrible, I have only a few Chinese friends.  After nearly two years in China, there are still many basic facts of life here that perplex me.

On the other hand, I try really hard to be empathetic, to imagine why things are they way they are.  I’m the ultimate justifier of “strange things.”  So when I empathize and I research and I try to justify and I still don’t understand something I see, it becomes a subject of fascination for me.  Hence, this post.

So let me ask, what is up with all of the huge, high-end digital cameras around the necks of wealthy young Chinese in this country?  And what’s up with all of the portrait photography?

Before I go any further: I’m not writing here about your average Chinese person, I’m writing about extraordinarily wealthy young people.  It just so happens that China is massive and so the population of well-off young people is also massive.  The things they do tend to attract a great deal of attention and scrutiny from the rest of us mere mortals, Chinese and expats alike.  I’m sure many of them are quite lovely people, but love them or despise them, its impossible not to notice them.

End of disclaimer.

In the States lots of people have DSLR cameras.  They are practically as much a part of the metro-area upper-middle-class uniform as a reusable Trader Joe’s bag and a yoga mat.  We regularly spend $500-700 on a cameras we don’t really know how to use.  If you are the sort of person who finds this practice absurd then, with all due respect, China would blow your mind.

According to my highly unscientific Amazon research, the number 1 and number 2 best-selling DSLR cameras in America are the Nikon D40 and the Canon Rebel–both the most basic, entry-level DSLR models for their respective brands.  I too have a Canon Rebel XS that hubs got on sale for me a few years ago.  I shoot with my kit lens and my nifty-fifty (the best photography bargain you will ever find, by the way).

We Americans might not always know how to really use our fancy cameras, but perhaps to our credit, we don’t seem to be kidding ourselves about it by shelling out for the top models either.

In contrast, according to my highly unscientific anecdotal evidence gathered at Chinese tourist sites, wealthy Chinese photogs don’t mess around with entry-level cameras.  Instead they buy the biggest, most expensive machines they can find, outfitting them with expensive-looking telephoto and wide-angle lenses and always a giant lens hood-always attached backwards for some reason.

By my estimates, these cameras cost at least $2,000 plus another couple grand in lenses, plus at least a few hundred dollars worth of Chinese import taxes.  These are not “fake” cameras, these are the real thing.  There are lots of extraordinarily wealthy people in China, but even so, the number of fancy cameras around town seems a bit disproportionate.

At first I thought maybe China was just full of professional photographers.  The more I studied these photographers though, the more I realized they looked a lot like me: amateur…amateur and shooting in full automatic mode on cameras so big and powerful that they could eat my camera for breakfast.

Additionally, rather than using these wonderful machines to capture street scenes or anything that would seem remotely interesting to me, these cameras seem to be used mostly for people to take lots of pictures of themselves and their friends holding up ‘V for Victory’ fingers in front of tourist sites.

Or posing dramatically in display beds at Ikea.

Or on street corners in trendy neighborhoods.

Or in the middle of a narrow staircase halfway up a mountain (blocking the path for hundreds of people).

Interestingly enough, its also seems quite popular to have your friends take pictures of you taking pictures with your giant camera.

I’ve asked around about this phenomenon, why do we see such massive cameras and why are the people using them not taking advantage of all of the amazing power they have at their fingertips?  Some people tell me they think that a giant camera is a little like a Louis Vitton bag or, for some families, an American college education.  They are highly visible luxury goods, they are status symbols.  Knowing what to do with the camera isn’t necessarily the point, it’s being seen out with one.

You could argue perhaps that there are many other consumer goods that could convey status just as well or better than a fancy camera, and yet they are everywhere.  Hiring a professional photographer to take photos seems almost as popular as having a big camera.  I’d love to understand why.

In many ways, Chinese and Americans are the same, we love our wedding photos, we love photos of our kids, we love taking pictures.  In both countries, photos with the people we love are priceless.

On the other hand, it does seem like personal portrait photography is much more the cultural norm here than in America.  In the U.S. if you see someone with a photographer out in public they are likely taking engagement photos or family photos, they are rarely by themselves.  Here it is somewhat common to see an individual being fussed over by 3 or 4 members of a photography crew doing a professional shoot.  Why?  I’m not sure?  Maybe just because?  It’s a little like senior photos, I guess, but watching from a distance, it seems different in some way.

Or maybe I’m just too close to my own culture to see that it’s the same.  Maybe I just notice the big fancy cameras because someday, down the road, I’d like to have one.  Maybe when I go back to D.C. in a few months I’ll notice just as many cameras being used in exactly the same way.  And maybe everyone likes having photos taken of themselves and some cultures are just more open and matter-of-fact about it than others.

What do you think?  Is this a China phenomenon or a world-wide thing?

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