Jeremiah Rogers

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Smiles in Beijing

I don’t like photographing in Beijing. China is more difficult than other countries for me: people follow me with their eyes as I walk around the street, are hesitant to have their picture taken, rarely respond to smiles, and there is a lack of public beauty1.

Things like this make me afraid. At the surface Beijing doesn’t feel inviting. But it is inviting, it just takes a bit of work to break the surface. Of seven recent times I’ve asked someone directly if I can take their picture in Beijing these have been the responses:

  1. Five people said yes
  2. One person laughed and said no, covering her face in embarassment
  3. One person loudly screamed “no photo” (in Mandarin) over and over again until I walked down the street out of sight.

That third type of interaction is scarring. Negative interactions feel worse, and heavier, than positive interactions. This happens digitally as well: A bunch of people can tell me how much they love my photography but one douche on Facebook can leave a nasty comment and all I can think about is the negative comment2.

This kid was cool with me taking his picture. Sitting on a red couch in the street eating ice cream is a honeypot for photographers.

This woman actually said I could take her picture then never looked at the camera.

This kid also was fine with me taking his picture but got back to his video game as soon as I pulled the camera up.

In Beijing, just as online, it’s hard to ignore the negatives. What I’m doing now is just going out with the camera out for a bit every day, asking politely if I can take a picture or smiling and holding the camera up, and trying to ignore any negative responses.

The positive responses are totally worth it. I get a picture to remember them. The negative responses aren’t ever recorded as images — and I’ll forget them in time. This is also why I delete negative emails and comments immediately but keep the positive emails around. It isn’t worth keeping a record of nastiness when I can focus on the positives.

This man explained to me what his badge means — volunteer police officer — and was happy to pose for a picture

This guy was talking to himself and passersby making him easy to approach.


  1. Buildings are gray and there is almost no graffiti. A lot like Washington, DC. A local friend tells me that buildings are only designed to last for 20 years. I don’t know if that’s true — certainly some of the hutong buildings have been around for over 500 years — but there is something about the Beijing aeshetic I can’t put my finger on and I find lacking in beauty. [return]
  2. I don’t know why we overweight negative feedback. Producing content for the web is mostly a labor of love — there isn’t much money. Many bloggers talk about how much negative feedback they get and how painful it is. There is a reason this blog doesn’t have comments, if people really want to give feedback they can e-mail me. [return]