Why do you use social media? Do the photos you upload reflect your real life? Have you, whether intentionally or not, constructed an alternate identity online? These are some of the questions that are posed by SNAPSHOT TO WECHAT: A MIGRATION OF IDENTITY, which is the Open Eye Gallery’s latest exhibition to interrogate the intersection of photography and social media. In a world of smart phones and wi-fi, photography has become a part of our daily lives; approximately 30 billion photos are uploaded to social media every day. Snapshot To WeChat brings together three projects that explore the meaning of photography in contemporary China. Despite the focus on Chinese culture, I leave the exhibition with the feeling that social media pervades all of our lives regardless of culture or country.
The first project is by anthropologist DR XINYUAN WANG, who spent several months living in a small factory town in southeast China, documenting social media usage among Chinese industrial migrants. She has brought together photographs posted on WeChat, which is a popular social media platform in China. At first glance, the photography lacks aesthetic appeal; multiple photographers and different cameras create a disjointed narrative that is hard to follow. But social media tells multiple stories, not just one. With posts ranging from aspirational images to criticism of the tourist industry, Wang presents WeChat as an adaptable platform that reflects the individual user. Her initial suggestion that Chinese industrial migrants use social media primarily to keep in touch with their countries of origin is proved wrong. This project gives an insight into how Chinese industrial migrants use social media, and it is in just as many ways as we do.
The highlight of the exhibition is THOMAS SAUVIN’s Beijing Silver Mine, which is a collection of over half a million anonymous photographs taken between 1985 and 2005. Sauvin collects photographic negatives from a recycling plant outside Beijing, which he then sorts, scans and archives. Images show people on dates, at the beach and on bikes; some are posed, others blurry and accidental. This is a snapshot of everyday life in China and it feels like I am peeking into a private family photo album. In contrast with Wang’s work, Sauvin’s photographs do not feel disjointed, despite the many photographers and subjects. There is a sense of continuity in the slight grain of the 35mm film, the vibrant colours and the absolute normality of the subjects going about their daily lives. Together, they appear nostalgic for a past where photography could be anonymous and not digitally imprinted on the internet forever – the irony being that these anonymous photographs are now archived on Sauvin’s Instagram. The evolution from Sauvin’s unedited and discarded negatives to the carefully constructed and heavily edited photos found on WeChat is clear. Social media has had a profound impact on photography.
Upstairs, TERESA ENG’s Self/Portrait explores the gap between the manufactured selfie and real life. In 2012 and 2015, Eng was an artist in residence at a shopping centre in Chongqing, where she approached millennials and asked to take an on-the-spot photograph to compare with their online selfies. She repeated the process in Liverpool and the portraits and selfies are presented side by side. Each selfie shows how the subject wants to be seen, while the portraits reflect the reality of that exact moment. In the former, subjects are hiding behind their hair or hands, behind makeup and filters and lenses; in the latter, they are exposed and vulnerable. The prevalence of edited photographs online points to the fluctuating identities of young people today. It is a sad fact that many of us have constructed an idealised version of ourselves to present to the world. From Liverpool to southwest China, social media has become intertwined with our identities.
Snapshot to WeChat did little to improve my love/hate relationship with social media. I left impressed by the infinite possibilities brought about by social media, but angered by the unrealistic, aspirational photographs that seem to dominate these platforms. As the latest exhibition from this year’s China Dream season, Snapshot to WeChat most accurately depicts everyday life in contemporary China. For better or for worse, it seems we are united by a total dependency on social media.
Maya Jones / @mmayajones