The Chinese are obsessed with their phones.
Day and night, plugged-in people swarm the streets, heads bent over the tiny porthole in their hands as they incorporate an oddly insectoid spatial sense – much like that of thronging ants – to avoid bumping up against one another and the real world. Given that these perky pocket rockets are used for everything from over-the-counter payments to gaining access to public places and indulging the local obsession with social media, instant messaging and the incessant streaming of all kinds of gummy fluff, one can’t really blame them.
Over time, you get used to it. But it took me a while. Before coming to the Middle Kingdom a year or so ago I was still using a Blackberry, for fuck’s sake. In the end, of course, I had no choice but to get with the program and buy a brand new, radioactive little tablet humming with all the latest bells and whistles. It was a rather anomalous case of adapt or die.
All being said, what freaked me out the most during those early days (country bumpkin that I am) was watching folks on the subway. It was fascinating to see people so isolated in their individual screen-lit worlds, especially in a static, tightly-packed space where everyone was forced into close animal proximity with one another.
Hell, I figured, if you can’t beat them, join them. With my nifty new gadget resting cosily in my lap – same as everyone else’s – I suddenly realised that I was now free to explore the voyeuristic impulse that lurks in the heart of every red-blooded photographer. Blending in perfectly with the distracted crowd, I started taking stealthy touchscreen photos of the commuters sitting across from me.
Looking back at these intimate, oddly alluring semi-portraits now, I am grateful to have captured the shadow of humanity that still haunted those addled faces on the daily descent into zombiedom.
If nothing else, I’ve done my part for posterity. With face masks now being mandatory for all forms of public transport, a physical layer has been added to the virtual veil, adding even more tack to the cell walls of the Hive. Sad as it may be, I miss being able to stare at the dulled features of fellow travellers on the rickety road to nowhere, and have my own disguise reflected back at me.
Nowadays, I’ve gone off phone photography and back to the cumbersome glass and metal magic box of yore. I’ve come to realise that there’s simply no point in trying to be a fly-on-the-wall kind of shooter in these parts, seeing that I stand out like a sore trigger finger wherever I go anyway.
Which makes me wonder: while I was framing metaphysical mirrors on my Huawei’s screen in the bowels of a surveillance state, how many of my would-be subjects were sneaking pictures of me on the sly?
I guess we’re not so different after all.
© Jac Kritzinger 2020.
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