Covid-19 The Geographical Journal

Visualising the self before and after the lockdown: stories from Chinese urban residents

By Chen Liu, Sun Yat-sen University

In China, more than 270 million smartphone users use a selfie app each month. The selfies are carefully curated, and then widely shared on social media platforms such as WeChat Moments, often alongside geotags pinning the location of the photo.

The practice of taking and sharing selfies has grown rapidly in China over recent years. It can be attributed to the rise of the Chinese smartphone business, the state promotion of digital and platform economies, the growth of in-phone photo editing applications, and the popularity of social media. Selfies are now so popular that they have become a ubiquitous form of visual communication, implying a new Chinese culture of aesthetics and social rituals.

I have been interested in selfie-culture for quite some time, and conducted research on young people’s selfie practices and their use of digital platforms, between August 2019 and January 2020, finishing just a few days before Wuhan’s lockdown on 23 January 2020. This research, recently published in The Geographical Journal, shows that for Chinese young people, selfie-taking is a highly mobile activity (see also, Bissell, 2019), which involves travelling to different places (often made famous by social media) to take selfies. In this way, young people construct their identity in a slightly superficial way, placing themselves in a variety of extraordinary scenes and producing an obsessive way of seeing.

These behaviours were also shaped by wider digital cultures, such as daka (“check-in”) culture, which encourages people to travel to take photos and videos and share these images on social media. Some have argued that selfie practices therefore present the embodied narcissism and alienation in digital society (Kennedy et al., 2019). This is true to some respects. But they also enable a more creative and visualised way of life for ordinary people.

Given the mobile nature of selfies, national lockdowns to supress covid-19 posed an interesting question about how selfie-culture might change. And so in early 2020, working with a graduate student, we sought to research exactly this. The project looked at the emotional geographies of home and how this was shaped by local quarantine policies in Hubei province (of which Wuhan is the capital city). We collected photos created by 36 Hubei residents, screenshots of their social media homepages (with permission), and weekly diaries written between 21 February and 22 April 2020 (two weeks after Hubei province reopened).

Figure 1 A man, aged around 40, shared this photo of a failed pancake, with the descriptions in his diary showing that ‘I am happy to cook with my wife and daughter. We bought noodles, rice, fruits and vegetables today. We can stay home for longer. Now, I am feeling a bit pressure about paying off my car loan’

Our findings indicated that, everyday visuality can be simultaneously mobile and (relative) immobile. Most of the images collected were unsurprisingly created at the participants’ homes, where they were forced to remain due to the home quarantine policy. These images showed people’s boredoms, anxieties and feelings of the inconvenience of being relatively immobile for weeks, as well as their happiness and joy of family gatherings in the ‘long spring holiday’ (Figure 1). According to our participants’ own words, they liked to post their lives during the quarantine on social media and sent some photos to friends and relatives to tell them that everything was fine and would get better. Some participants shared selfies with face masks during the lockdown and posted selfies without masks after the lockdown to tell the outside world that Hubei had made it through (Figure 2 & 3).

Figure 2 A photo taken by a woman, aged around 20, of wearing a face mask and protective cloths with a description of ‘preparing for going out’ (photo taken on 28 February 2020).

What these findings show is that people’s sense of self is visually created or performed. The disruption or destruction of physical mobilities, stimulated new forms of digital mobility, which sustained people’s habitus of constructing their identities online. It also created a hopeful network community online during a precarious and risky time. It was the digital, in particular social media platforms, that enabled these Chinese people to remain connected in playful ways during the painful lockdowns.

Figure 3 A man, aged around 30 shared this photo showing that he was getting a haircut in a local barbershop (photo taken on 5 April 2020). This photo was edited by the author.

Now in the second half of 2021, thanks to vaccination efforts, most cities in China have reopened. Pre-pandemic movement patterns within China have resumed and my WeChat Moment feed shows that people’s practices of performing distinctive selves in different places have also returned to normal.  

What this shows however is that taking selfies, in familiar and unfamiliar places, can socially connect people and places, creating a free and democratic way of expressing and performing the self. We can use selfies to tease out the most popular discourses, values, and norms in people’s everyday lives, no matter what the circumstances that surround them. Exploring selfie images and practices, therefore, can offer academics and policymakers a valuable way to understand how people live their lives and connect with other people, places and events physically and digitally and how hidden values of digital platforms are produced and reproduced in visible ways.

Feature image: Cristina Zaragoza – Unsplash


About the author: Dr. Chen Liu is Associate Professor of Cultural Geography in the School of Geography and Planning, Sun Yat-sen University. She has published widely on food consumption, popular culture and practices of home-/family-making in both English and Chinese. Her current project focuses on consumer cultures, everyday practices and platform urbanism in Chinese society.

Suggested further reading:

Bissell, D. (2009). Visualising everyday geographies: practices of vision through travel-time. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 34(1), 42–60. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2008.00326.x.

Kennedy, A., and J. Panton. (2019). From Self to Selfie: A Critique of Contemporary Forms of Alienation. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Liu, C. (2021). Exploring selfie practices and their geographies in the digital society. The Geographical Journal, 187 (3): 240-252. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12394.

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