You may remember photographer Oleg Tolstoy from his wonderfully witty series, The Tourist Trap, which we covered a couple of years ago. He’s since been busy travelling across Asia, shooting everything from cab drivers in Tokyo to the Holi festival in Pune, India. But what caught our attention recently was his new series Silicon Beach, documenting the young crowds on Dameshina Beach outside the Chinese city of Shenzhen.
“I was fascinated by the idea of the world’s busiest beach and wanted to go on its busiest weekend of the year, which I did over Dragon Boat Day,” says Oleg. “The aim was just to capture what I saw. As I shoot so much, in such busy places, I like to edit as I go.” Each night Oleg sent a select back to his creative partner in London, Rob Watts, “to get a second pair of eyes” on the work. “It became obvious that all these people I shot on the first day were on their phones, so this became the core focus of the work.”
Shenzhen is known as China’s Silicon Valley, partly because so many smartphones are assembled here and partly because the city’s population has grown exponentially in recent years to match the country’s booming tech sector. Needless to say, the photo series overall offers a quizzical take on the benefits of connectivity and omnipresent technology. “It really shows that technology is taking us away from basic human interaction,” says Oleg. “The mere fact that visitors to the beach have gone with friends and family to enjoy time together but yet are communicating with people that are not present says a lot.”
Anyone who has spent an hour on a beach anywhere in the world, or in the park on a sunny day, or had dinner outside their flat (and often inside their flat, too) in the past year five years will know that this is not an issue specific to Shenzhen. Yet the fact that Oleg has shot the busiest beach in the world, crowded with young people on their (sometimes-multiple) phones, makes his sceptical point about technology crystal clear.
“Let’s not forget that a beach is also an unlikely place to have your phone out in the first place,” says Oleg. “It’s very hot, it’s wet and sandy. And this highlights the clash between the elements and how far we will go to keep connected.”
And this is where the humour of Silicon Beach comes in. Across the series, we see the sheer admirable ingenuity, skill and determination displayed by Oleg’s subjects, as they attempt to overcome the sand, heat, salt water and sunlight, and remain on their devices. We see a young woman squatting in the shade of an umbrella to see her screen, a man holding a clutch of different devices, and a group of teens avoiding the splashing shallows. “It’s important to me that there is an element of humour in some of my work,” says Oleg. “Much like The Tourist Trap, the humour comes from their expressions and the positions I capture them in.”
As for the process involved in creating the series, Oleg says it required a lot of trudging over the sands. “I spent four days walking the beach from one end to the other from 10am until 5pm. I find the way I work very addictive – if I take a break, I feel I’m missing out on something, and there’s always one more shot to get.” We, for one, are pleased he kept at it.