Selfies. Filters. Sharing. Just how much time and thought do we put into our digital self-image? Snapshot to WeChat: A Migration of Identity explores the act of taking photos, of capturing the world in an everyday context and questions how crucial this role is in understanding ourselves and others. The exhibition observes Chinese society from 1985 to the present day across three different projects.
Through a series of images posted on popular social media platforms WeChat and QQzone, anthropologist Doctor Xinyuan Wang’s research grapples with social identity associated with the ‘floating population’ of industrial China, those who migrate for work. Wang states that she was wrong in assuming that social media use would focus on ‘retaining links to users’ places of origin.’ Her research forms part of an international study, Why We Post.
Instead she discovers pyjama selfies hoping to open up conversations with other users, romantic sentiments that are easier to express through a digital medium and images claiming political allegiance. Wang’s findings suggest that digital communication within this hardworking population is necessary in establishing real emotional connections and is used as a tool to simulate a feeling of regular society.
Alternatively, Thomas Sauvin’s ‘Beijing Silvermine’ provides a look into China from 1966-1978, a decade after the Cultural Revolution, a time when China was opening itself to foreign investment. The pictures, recovered photographic negatives, reveal a time when photography was not as readily available through mobile phones and photo opportunities were more select.
Sauvin presents a scene where families pose with television sets and refrigerators, creating a sense of identity based on materialism and perhaps revealing the path to today’s more capitalisticlimate. These images are not digital; they have tangibility, furthering this idea of consumerism being tied to personal success and happiness.
Spanning both China and Liverpool, Teresa Eng’s ‘Self/Portrait’ explores the dissonance between the idealised self we display to the world versus the self the world sees in reality, where she presents pictures of millennials through filtered selfies, then pairs these images against more candid, revealing photo portraits. In each piece there is a vulnerability and what seems like a sense of shame, clashing with the confidence from the original selfies.
Throughout the exhibition, there is a real sense of voyeurism, of peering into personal lives and relationships. There are moments where we feel involved in the situations depicted: we enter family living rooms, revel in high energy parties and explore stark historical sites. Above all, the exhibition invites us to simply look. However, by placing these pictures in context with each other, it asks us to look further than their original intentions of self-image and success and instead scrutinise them, to look past the superficial poses and filters and discover a society yearning, above all, for connection.
Snapshot to WeChat: A Migration of Identity, is on display at Open Eye Gallery until 17 June 2018.
Callan Waldron-Hall is a Liverpool-based writer studying an MA in Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.