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Q+A with @blackinshanghai
We talk with Bidemi Palmer about her instagram chronicling her experiences as a black tourist being photographed by strangers in Shanghai.
Last semester while studying abroad in Shanghai, China, Bidemi Palmer noticed an uncomfortable phenomenon: wherever she went, the flashes and clicks of cellphone cameras followed. Sometimes the cameraperon was difficult to spot, posing in faux-selfie stance with a bright smile and misdirected eyes. Other times they would stand tall with their elbows out, phone covering their face or lowered just enough so that they may regard their subject: Bidemi.
This happened so often that she began to expect the inevitable wall of phones and cameras pointed in her direction. So, she decided to flip the script. Bidemi’s Instagram account, @blackinshanhai, documents her encounters with the strangers snapping her picture. Some are captured from afar, a few from up close–almost all feature expectant smiles.
Photography by: Bidemi Palmer. Interviewed by: Remy Usman. Article originally published in January, 2018.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was born in Nigeria and moved to New York before I was a year old. Nigeria has many cultures, and I’m a blend of a few. My dad is Yoruba and my mom is Igbo. After a few years I moved to New Jersey which is where I am still currently based. My family always valued education through travel so I’ve been fortunate to visit over 23 countries. I believe that many of the experiences that I’ve had abroad have shaped my personal views on different issues.
How did @blackinshanghai start?
@blackinshanghai started during my study abroad trip to China. As a black woman in a quite homogeneous country, I attracted a lot of attention. When I first arrived in Shanghai, my group and I visited a lot of tourist sites. However, as I was taking pictures of the monuments and scenery, I immediately noticed people taking pictures of me without my consent. It was initially funny, but I became irritated after a few days. I was always a fan of Cole Sprouse as a kid, and I recalled his @camera_duels where he posts pictures of people taking sneaky photos of him. I thought it would be a great idea and decided to give it a try. It made the entire experience less awkward and eventually exciting.
Before studying abroad, were you anticipating any reactions in response to your appearance?
As a child, I grew up in a predominantly white area so I was very used to standing out among my peers. China is not really a popular destination among Westerners and people of color, although it’s starting to change now. Before leaving the country, I tried to read as many blogs as possible that were written or recorded by people of color who had visited China. They often recalled many incidents of receiving special treatment by being mistaken for famous people of color (such as Michelle Obama or Kobe Bryant). I was also aware that people were going to take my photo. But, there’s really no way to prepare for that. It’s a completely different situation when it’s you in the center and crowds of people surrounding you shamelessly pointing their phones and cameras in your face. It’s almost as if I was in a zoo or circus.
When did you decide to take pictures of the people taking pictures of you, and why post them?
I am a big fan of photography, so I take pictures of just about anything. It was only natural for me to take a picture of my subjects. I took my first picture in the middle of Yu Garden in Shanghai. An elderly man was taking my picture despite me telling him not to, in Mandarin. As a way to make him feel as awkward as I did, I held my camera up to his face and snapped a photo. He thought this was very funny, and his smile came through in the photo. When I was looking through my photos that night, I came across that particular photo and it struck me. It was such a beautiful photo that was full of character. Also, from a photography perspective, the photo was clear and centered. I then realized that I could use my photography skills to start this photo project.
Did any of your subjects react to you photographing them? How did you deal with that?
I was extremely surprised to see that my subjects smiled and laughed when I took [their] picture. This really captures the warmth of Chinese culture. People did not see my actions as offensive, and they didn’t expect me to either. It comes down to a genuine curiosity. Shanghainese people are very accustomed to foreigners, given Shanghai’s history as a port city. In fact, there are areas in Shanghai where I heard more English and French than Mandarin. However, the people taking my picture were people visiting Shanghai from small villages and have never seen a non-Chinese person before. What I found very interesting was that they were willing to engage with me and that they genuinely wanted to get to know me. I found this to be a learning opportunity to educate them about my culture and [to] show them that I am not much different from them.
What did you hope to accomplish in flipping the
camera on your subjects?
I did not expect to accomplish anything when I first started. It was really just a way for me to adjust to the situation while practicing portrait photography. However, the first night I created the Instagram, I received over 40 followers. I had no idea that it would become as big as it did. Once I had a steady follow base, the purpose was purely for comedy. Posting these pictures was a unique way for me to share my experience abroad and make people laugh. Lately, I have been very busy in my senior year and have not kept up with it. But, I still have many pictures from my trip that I’d like to post. I do plan to return to China, so hopefully, I can create more content while I am there.
Did your feelings on being photographed change at all throughout your time abroad?
While being photographed was initially fun and eventually exhausting, I started to accept it once I started the blog. Since then, I made the experience more enjoyable for myself.
"People did not see my actions as offensive, and they didn't expect me to either. It comes down to a genuine curiosity."
I actually discovered your Instagram page during my own time abroad, and it validated my own feelings of otherness in a foreign, fairly homogeneous city. When you created @blackinshanghai, did you hope to reach others in similar situations or were you mainly using it as a personal outlet?
It was a little bit of both. I was first using it as a personal outlet to deal with a difficult situation but that changed over time. People loved how “real” the photos were and I think that people could identify with them whether it was about race or not. Everyone has had times where they felt like the elephant in the room no matter the reason.
How did your study abroad peers react to @blackinshanghai?
My peers loved the idea. In fact, my peers often notified me when people were taking my picture so that I could seize the opportunity and take a photo as well. Everyone was really supportive, even the program staff. I also received tremendous support from my peers at home and in Boston. I also think a lot of people supported me because it was funny and different because who doesn’t love to laugh?
Did you learn anything about yourself throughout this
I learned that photography truly is a world language that surpasses all barriers. Instead of uncomfortable stares, my subjects and I exchanged pictures and laughter. My project defined my experience of cultural exchange, and my subjects and I will forever have photos of one another, each of us belonging to a culture incredibly different from the other’s.
Do you plan to continue @blackinshanghai?
I see a lot of potential with this account and I would love to develop it more. However, getting content is difficult since I no longer live in China. Since I have more free time now, I will continue to upload the remaining pictures that I have from my trip. As I previously mentioned, I do plan to return to China so hopefully I can continue.
Bidemi Palmer is a recent graduate from Boston University where she studied business, law and management information systems. Born in Nigeria from parents of two different cultures and raised in America, she considers these influences a huge part of her identity. Bidemi currently resides in New York City, where she works as a technology consultant and continues to develop her creative interests.