Adichie Tweaked: The Danger of the Single Instagram
By Sofia Maugham
Indifferently browsing Instagram, I came across the user @eyesonchinaproject, which is a collaborative of Western and Chinese photographers taking pictures in China. Having spent the summer in Beijing, I excitedly thumbed through photograph after photograph to see if I could recognise any landmarks or street setting, to assuage my nostalgia just a tad.
What I assumed would be snapshots of famous places and easily recognisable scenes was actually much more comprehensive. Intimate portraits of people and places, an 82 year old man showing off his dance moves in a park, a close up of a young muslim Chinese woman and her baby were almost reminiscent of the in-your-face style which the blog Humans of New York takes, albeit not always with the personal stories or direct quotes.
Instead, other Instagram users provide these commentaries, and I viewed the pictures influenced by not only the initial caption, but primarily by the opinions of these strangers. Most comments are innocuous, “Great!” says one user, under a picture of two schoolboys eating dinner at an aquarium sleepover in Shanghai. “Beautiful!” says another, referencing a photo of a man swimming in the Yangtze river at dusk, framed by the city skyline.
Not all photos are so tame. Several images of China’s “left behind children”, young children whose parents leave their hometowns to find better work, leaving their children behind in the care of grandparents or elder siblings, garner harsher responses: “So awful”, “Wow. Disturbing.” “This is so sad”, “People should stop having children. It breaks my heart.”
Comments become more aggressive as a result of the subject matter. In response to a video of factory workers in what appear to be very clean and safe working conditions, the sole comment “Just get CCP out of the country peace emoji”. The comments under a photo of female chinese soldiers marching in unison for September 3rd’s military parade alternate between “Slightly disturbing..” and “How can they all possibly have the same bust size?” A photo of a woman selling large dead brown dogs for meat in Guangxi unsurprisingly, elicits the responses of “I’ve heard about this sad story un(sic) China” “Unbelievable” “F*ing disgusting” “Ewwww”
The project has a primary goal of creating “a diverse, dynamic and objective view of the world’s most populated country through the images and storytelling of both Chinese and foreign photographers”, with the caveat that “the work of each contributor is self-curated and presented the way they would like you to see it.” The photographs do align with this mission, with no one theme, photographer, or viewpoint dominating photos of old men grinning in swimming trunks alongside that of a Shanghai university student thrown on the ground, covered in sludge, as part of a protest against river pollution. There is no one China which is being illustrated through these photographs, no agenda which is being pushed.
The one drawback with @eyesonchinaproject and any similar undertaking in any part of the world, that of opening a window into a world with which many people are not familiar, is the “danger of the single story” against which author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us. In this specific case, each photograph presents us with not even a narrative, just a glimpse into a life or a moment, without any strings attached. There is no explanation for why, or how. Any sort of speculation is left up to the viewer, and on Instagram, this speculation is also influenced by all the other viewers, the vitriolic and the encouraging alike.
I would like to think that the few photographs which received a negative response, singling out the government or individuals involved, would remain anomalous, or seen as part of a bigger picture of the country. But that is not how things work. In today’s world, shock value, negativity and tragedy are much more of a selling point and ultimately adhere themselves to the general psyche much more easily than their upbeat counterparts.
We live in a world which is, for all intents and purposes, connected via social media, news, and the internet. Especially in a country such as the United States, where speech, expression, and means of exploring knowledge are not as carefully regulated as in other parts of the world, the claim of ignorance of other countries and cultures, sticking to offensive stereotypes and aggressive rhetoric should be a quickly disappearing phenomenon. Instead, we are still hopelessly stuck in a cycle and a mindset of subtle but omnipresent xenophobia and racism, where the foreign is more often than not more than foreign, it is dangerous and unnatural.
If people are not already pre-programmed with a precedent to question, to look at the why behind the actions, the why behind the photos of small children sleeping on the ground because their parents have gone to find labor elsewhere, to the structural failures and social inequities both nationally and internationally which gave rise to such a sad picture, will they even bother? Or will people, despite the amount of information available, the opportunities to look beyond the tragic single story to see a more complete whole, continue to harp on the negative, continue to see China as a country where people sell dogs for meat, children without parents sleep in the dirt, and factory workers are exploited?
If an approach as all-encompassing and comparatively unbiased as @eyesonchinaproject still elicits the strongest responses in the negative and treads the path of the dangerous single story which has echoed in our American ears since the Cold War, what has to be done to change this approach to range across both the positive and the negative? How can we see happy old men in bathing suits and a “left behind child” as equally contributing to the same country, albeit in vastly different aspects of life? Most importantly, how do you shift from ignorant criticism to learning about cultures and societies with which you might not agree?
Sofia is a sophomore at Duke University.