China Street Photography and the Chinese

Chinese Street Photographer or Tourist?

Street Photography in China, among Chinese, is not widespread, it’s almost non-existent compared to Western cities, such as London & New York, especially considering the population of China; today 20% of the world calling China home.

Today Street Photography remains unfamiliar, perhaps a dull category to most Chinese photographers. On the street in China you’ll see plenty of high-end cameras, but rarely see a mainland Chinese person out panning in traffic or capturing daily life scenes.

It’s no wonder locals sometimes don’t understand why we’re taking pictures of them, or tour guides say… ‘really, that alley, the alley?! OK.’

Excluding Hong Kong, the closest I’ve come to seeing mainland Chinese engage in street photography is a wedding photographer in an alley, shooting a couple, which actually is not street photography at all, but at least he appreciated the street scene, and the amazing light in the alley.

According to the China Photography Magazine 中国摄影, Shanghai and Shenzhen are the most popular cities tagged with China Street Photography.

I know many Chinese pro photographers, pros that run tours, run workshops, and teach photography throughout China. Out of all these pros, some are extremely talented, but none of them enjoy street photography. As talented as they are, they just seem to find this style of photography uninteresting. When I show some of my images, they don’t really get it, they’re just not moved by street scenes.

However, street photography in China does exist. I use to follow a website called 在街头, which translates as “in the streets” ZaiJieTou, where a community shares their street photography images. It’s a site that seems go up and down like a yoyo, so here’s the founders Flickr, just in case the site is down. However, this is still a tiny percentage of the Chinese photography community. Street photography in China is very much an infant.

To me, China is the perfect place for street photography; its interest dense, rich in culture, and offers a frame filled with story and humanity. So why this disinterest?

Why are Chinese Photographers Not Really into Street Photography

Why are Chinese photographers not interested in China street photography? Over my years in China, I’ve observed the Chinese doing business, in their homes, on holiday, and made true friends with young and old. I’ve avoided the expat community as much as possible, to focus all my time  on befriending and understand China, and the Chinese. Even with years of experience living in China I struggle to answer this question.

I believe it’s possible because theirs a need to shoot for others, rather than to shoot for oneself. After all, the viewers are non-photographers, friends, and the general public. The typical viewers (who give the Chinese photographer face) are not interested or moved by a scene of a man’s face framed by windows in an alley with nice light, as they are by a scene of a Tibetan mountain with rarely seen blue sky!

Hundreds of Chinese photographers I’ve to meet over the years get super excited with a red ball sunset, the zero cloud type. But when an interesting storm starts to develop the local Chinese photographers start to leave, mean while…. I’m running all over the place, starting a time lapses on one camera, adding filters…. getting out my big ass hammer and starting a rain dance to Thor.

There’s also a group mentality to decision making in China, in business, personal life, and travel. If all the photography clubs and workshops group continue to focus on group photo tours to ’get this shot’; with pros walking around and telling people ‘no! You need to compose it like this, the same as him!’, then it’s no wonder people seldom break out of the prescribed ‘right way to take photos’ and enter the realm of street photography, an art rich in fluidity, flow, and feel.

For those who go out shooting street photography in China, there in for a treat. China has a lot going for Street Photography, as it’s void of the UK’s and US’s paranoid security jobsworths. You know the type, the rent a cop that call the police because you took a photo on a public street, despite it being totally legal to do so. Thinking about it, never once have I been told to stop taking pictures in China.

When my US friends visit China they nearly always tell me, ‘hey… I’m not interested/comfortable with street photography’. Once I take them out they love it. Their real concern was people’s reactions, confrontations and police and security issues. They thought it was the same situation as the US. China is free from all that; it’s rich in subjects and waiting to be framed.

China Street Photography Challenge

Please don’t visit China and leave without spending at least an afternoon doing some street photography. If you have a Chinese friend who’s into photography, please take them with you! Get photos of them in full flow. We’re love your story and see the result!

What do you think about Chinese and street photography?

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