Monday, 30 March 2009

Quê eu?

Pensei: tenho que dar essa historia, é a minha historia, quê minha? quê eu? que pretensão.
Vitor Ramil

Saturday, 28 March 2009

We are like music

We are like music. Music, after all, is a type of stream. Music exists only in constant flow and flux and change. Once the movement stops, the music is no more. It exists not as a particular thing, but as pure coming and going with no thing that comes or goes.
Steve Hagen. Buddhism Plain & Simple

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Pictures that I like (5)

Tây Ninh is a town in southwestern Vietnam, approximately 90 km to the northwest of Ho Chi Minh City and most famous for being the home of the Cao Dai religion, an indigenous Vietnamese faith that includes the teachings of the major world religions. The Cao Dai religion's Holy See church/temple, built between 1933 and 1955, is located around 5 km to the east of Tây Ninh's town centre and it was there that I took this photo, sometime in the 1990s. The little girl happened to be with her parents (and some relatives, I think) on the square in front of the church/temple. I had asked the parents for permission to take the photo and they in turn had encouraged their daughter to stand where I had wanted her to stand.

Copyright @ Hans Durrer

Why do I like this photo so much? Because it makes me feel like I am once again on this square in Tây Ninh - I remember it as one of these moments in which I felt fully in the present.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Photographic collaboration

One of my problems with photography, especially documentary photography, is that it is intrusive. To alleviate this problem, regardless whether it concerns press photos or portraits, photography needs the collaboration between photographer and subject.

"War Photographer", a documentary by Christian Frei about the work of the photographer James Nachtwey, was nominated for an Oscar (in 2002) and won twelve international film festivals.

Two mini video recorders placed on Nachtwey's camera allowed the viewers to see what the photographer was seeing. In Kosovo: a crying woman. People try to comfort her. She has just learned, one suspects, that someone close to her — maybe her son, maybe her husband? — was killed, or found in a mass grave? We are not told, we do not know, we are left guessing. Neither do we know what the photographer knows. We see what the photographer sees: a woman crying, her face full of pain, women who try to calm and comfort her. Nachtwey is getting closer and closer, he aims the camera at her face and ceaselessly presses the button. How is he able to do that? Doesn't he feel awkward, and embarrassed? Doesn't he have scruples?

On the website of this film, this quote by Nachtwey can be found: "Every minute I was there, I wanted to flee. I did not want to see this. Would I cut and run, or would I deal with the responsibility of being there with a camera?" In the film we can hear him more than once stressing the importance of having respect. He also says he understands himself as being the spokesperson for the ones he portrays.

I'm glad that Nachtwey's photos exist and remind us of things we would probably rather not be reminded of. I want to believe his good intentions. Yet, I also feel that there is something wrong with this kind of photography because the ones portrayed are used; they have no say in how they are depicted and later are put in pages of books, or hung on walls.

Let's look at Nachtwey's rationalizations.
I'm not sure what this is, "the responsibility of being there with a camera." Does that mean that because he is a professional photographer who goes to take pictures in war zones, he has an obligation to take these photos? According to whom? And if so, toward whom does he have this obligation?

Yes, respect is needed, it is imperative, but how does it translate into action? To hold a camera into the face of a grieving person is indefensible; it is the opposite of showing respect; it is the total absence of tact, courtesy and decency. Is he really their spokesperson? How can he be? How does he know that they need or want a spokesperson?

Photography is an intrusive medium. Quite a few photographers describe their business in somewhat aggressive terms as shooting pictures. One way of softening this intrusiveness — if one so wishes — is the collaboration between photographer and the ones portrayed. Such collaboration is not uncommon, just think of photo ops or portraits.

Want to know more? Go to photographic collaboration

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Alex MacLean: Over

Wieso dieser eindrückliche Fotoband von Alex MacLean mit Luftaufnahmen aus den USA (meine Besprechung findet sich hier) den englischen Titel Over trägt, ist ziemlich unerfindlich, denn die Texte in diesem Buch sind allesamt auf Deutsch. Nicht etwa, dass ich glauben würde, ein Buch auf Deutsch dürfe keinen englischen Titel tragen. So habe ich zum Beispiel mit dem Deutsch/Englisch-Mix im Untertitel - Der American Way of Life oder Das Ende der Landschaft - gar keine Mühe, denn der Ausdruck American Way of Life ist ja so recht eigentlich mehr als gängig, doch Over? (ich weiss, es ist dies der englische Originaltitel, doch auch der ist nicht besonders gelungen). Nun ja ...

Jedenfalls: es ist ein ganz tolles, ja ein empfehlenswertes Buch, sogar der Klappentext ist informativ. Hier ein Auszug:
"Aus einigen hundert Metern Höhe und mit den Augen des Fotografen Alex MacLean gesehen, erweist sich Amerika, 'das Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten', einmal mehr als Vorreiter - auf dem Weg in die ökologische Katastrophe. Da werden Golfplätze, Reihenhaussiedlungen und ganze Städte mitten in die Wüste gebaut, immer neue Ferien-Hochburgen entstehen unmittelbar an ansteigenden und orkangefährdeten Meeresufern, Kohle- und Kernkraftwerke gewaltigen Ausmasses beziehen ihr Kühlwasser aus natürlichen Gewässern und schicken es auch wieder dorthin zurück ... Seit über 30 Jahren verfolgt MacLean von seiner Cessna aus, wie sich die Landschaft unter ihm verändert, wie sie mit Strassen zubetoniert und wuchernenden Vorstädten verbaut wird, was die häufiger und heftiger werdenden Stürme anrichten und welche fatalen Folgen Bodenspekulation, ein bedenkenloses Freizeit- und Konsumverhalten und der ebenso unbedenkliche Umgang mit Energie und natürlichen Resourcen für die Umwelt haben."

Alex MacLean
Der American Way of Life oder Das Ende der Landschaft
Schirmer/Mosel, München 2008

Friday, 20 March 2009

Pictures that I like (4)

Copyright @Johanna Brådd

This photo by the Finnish photographer Johanna Brådd was taken in 2008, in Germany, and is called “tillsammans” (together).

For Johanna it shows the unnatural way in which we human beings deal with nature: we tend to create a world that is a bit too perfect by, for instance, planting trees that stand in rows and make them thus fit into the human made order.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Cultural Conditionings

I walked to the center of my front lawn and lay down, spread-eagled. I looked up at the stars. How did I end up in a place where doing such a thing marked you for crazy, while my neighbors dressed concrete ducks in bonnets at Easter and in striped stocking caps at Christmas but were considered sane?
Alice Sebold: Almost Moon

Monday, 16 March 2009

Sleeping as a hobby?

"We Thais have our own favourite cure for emotional exhaustion. No pills, no alcohol, no dope, no therapy - we simply hit the sack. Sounds simple, but it works. In fact, in survey after survey we have admitted that sleep is our favourite hobby. (We know there's something better on the other side.)", I recently read in John Burdett's Bangkok Tattoo.

It is not the first time that I've come across this Thai notion of sleeping as a hobby and I still keep on wondering. I mean, doesn't a hobby imply some kind of real action? In other words, some doing?

Or, could it be that this is just another demonstration of how creatively some Thais use language? A guy comes to mind who, instead of saying that he needed to go to the loo (pai hong nam - literally: go room water), grinningly stated: go Waterloo.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

From Transmission to Grayday

I recently read one of Hari Kunzru's fine novels, in German. Its title was Grayday. Since this did not sound terribly German (was it maybe the original English title? I asked myself) I looked up the title of the English edition - it was: Transmission. I suppose that quite some deep editorial thinking must have gone into this "German" version.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

On Organizations

In tribute to the levelling powers of Organization life, it may be said that a staff member wearing a sari or kente was as recognizable as one in a dark suit, and that the face below the fez was as nervously, as conscientiously Organizational as that beneath the Borsalino. The nature - what Mr Bekkus would have called the 'aim' - of the Organization was such as to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, that there was no room for personalities, and that its hope for survival lay, like that of all organizations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures. No new country, no new language or way of life, no marriage or involvement in war could have so effectively altered and unified the way in which these people presented themselves to the world. It was this process of subordination that was to be seen going on beneath the homburg or turban. And it was Algie's inability to submit to this process that had delivered his dossier into the hands of Mr Bekkus at the Terminations Board.
Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Western Values (3)

The great weakness of the West is that it has nothing with which to inspire loyalty except wealth. But what is wealth? Another washing machine, a bigger car, a nicer house to live in? Not much to feed the spirit in all that. What is the West but a gigantic supermarket? And who really wants to die for a supermarket?
John Burdett: Bangkok Tattoo

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Bangkok, Thailand (4)

Should you plan a visit to the Thai capital, I recommend The Bangkok Survivor's Handbook by Robert Hein, a treasure trove of useful insights, and fun to read, not least because this author has the right attitude: "Living successfully in Bangkok is a matter of adjusting your attitude, exploring your imagination, and keeping an open mind. It may be complicated at times, but it is rarely boring if you look at the experience as an adventure and arm yourself with plenty of patience, tolerance, and goodwill."

Here's an excerpt:

"Thais believe in Karma and reincarnation; that they will not die before their time and then they will be reborn. This faith is clearly demonstrated in their driving style ... Here, how close people come to having an accident doesn't count. A vehicle cutting in front of another vehicle is not a reason for road rage. As a taxi driver explained it: "He must belong there since he is there." Karma. You are where you are supposed to be or you wouldn't be there ... If, when crossing a street, a vehicle passes within inches of you, don't get angry at the driver. He's long gone and thought of you as only an obstacle. Instead, feel grateful that you weren't hit. When you are crossing a street, anger is a luxury not a survival instinct ... As an unwritten rule, the ranking order of fault in an accident is determined by the comparative sizes of the vehicles involved using the premise that the larger vehicle is at fault. A truck or bus that runs into a car is at fault. A car that runs into a tuk-tuk is at fault. A tuk-tuk that runs into a motorcycle or bicycle is at fault. Anything with wheels that runs into a pedestrian or an elephant is at fault."

I surely wandered with a changed mind through the streets of Bangkok after reading this helpful book.

Robert Hein
The Bangkok Survivor's Handbook
Expat Publications
ISBN 0-9740502-1-0

Friday, 6 March 2009

Bangkok, Thailand (3)

The other day, in Pattaya, I came across Bill. We know each from Bangkok, from years ago, where we used to talk about writing. Presently, Bill is busy with a truly interesting photo project called "The Death and Life of Great Asian Cities: Bangkok". Here's what it is about:

"Though these are photographs of a slum in Bangkok they are about a town in Arizona.

I live in a village in Arizona halfway between Cottonwood and Sedona. That is halfway between a working class town and a Bourgeois one although these terms aren’t used in America. They prefer distinctions such as Red America and Blue America, political ones, as if ones class, social standing and geography were nothing more than a bunch of opinions and notions one picked up that morning with about the same pause one gave before choosing the morning paper or what brand of coffee to drink. As if the sum of their being, their education, job, religion were an opinion, a conclusion that one came to after watching the evening news. And that none of that had any real bearing on how one’s life is lived anyhow, what it consists of, what it means. That the choice of Wall Mart over Neiman Marcus was a matter of taste, nothing more.

The two classes don’t mix. Other than on the job site. The Cottonwood people supply the trades for the Sedona people. The Cottonwood folk tell stories of how weird and strange the Sedona people are (and they are) but oddly the Sedona people rarely refer to the Cottonwood people unless it’s to talk about what kind of job they did, as an electrician say or a carpenter. The working class believe that class is determined by luck, and that there is the constant possibility that theirs may change – so please don’t reform the tax laws that favor the rich just yet, because ‘I’ma comin’. The bourgeoisie on the other hand believe that their relative wealth is a matter of intelligence, education and guile.

None of this unusual in America. What make these two towns of interest is Sedona. Specifically the spectacular beauty of the place. It’s red rock mountains and spectacular ruby Desert is probably the most photographed geography in the world. From the early photos of Ansel Adams to the movies of John Ford, the images of Sedona have been in popular culture since the beginning of popular culture. It’s interesting that for a few years just about every SUV television commercial seemed to feature one of those monstrous Detroit beauties set against the spectacular back drop of the mesas of Red Rock Country.

Sedona became associated with this thing Americans call spirituality, and it is easy to see how. Upon seeing the natural beauty of the place whether for the first time or every morning, one is overpowered with the feeling that if God ever touched earth he touched it here. A person just somehow knows, like a primordial knowledge that if one could freeze that moment spent among those chiseled red rocks set against the endless blue Arizona sky in time that everything, everything in one’s life, now and for always, would be fine. It’s just feeling one gets immersed in this impossibly intense natural beauty. There is nowhere like it on the planet.

Hence the sprawling suburbs."

Fascinating, isn't it? Want to know more? Go to

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Bangkok, Thailand (2)

Ever sat in a taxi, the traffic light was green, and then red, and then green again but there wasn't any movement to be seen or felt for quite some time (and I do not mean minutes)? That is rush hour in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2009, although it didn't feel much different in 1989 (around that time, a Thai politician suggested to keep all traffic lights in the city permanently on green) when a taxi driver, who had picked me up at the airport, on approaching Sukhumvit Road said: welcome to Bangkok parking. Now memories come back and among these a joke I had once heard: Want a lift? shouted a car driver to a friend he had spotted on the sidewalk. No, thanks, but I'm in a hurry, the friend replied.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Swayed by the first story we hear

In Kurosawa's movie Rashomon, we're told different versions of the same story by different characters. First we see the event through the eyes of a woodcutter, and we think we know what happened. But as the story unfolds we meet up with each of the remaining characters, and each tells his or her version of what happened. And each character tells a different story. One of the things that comes across in this movie is how easily we're swayed by the first story we hear.
Steve Hagen: Buddhism Plain & Simple