Sunday, 31 August 2008

Mein Glaube

Der Glaube, den ich meine, ist nicht leicht in Worte zu bringen. Man könnte ihn etwa so ausdrücken: Ich glaube, dass trotz des offensichtlichen Unsinns das Leben dennoch einen Sinn hat, ich ergebe mich darein, diesen letzten Sinn mit dem Verstand nicht erfassen zu können, bin aber bereit, ihm zu dienen, auch wenn ich mich dabei opfern muss. Die Stimme dieses Sinnes höre ich in mir selbst, in den Augenblicken, wo ich wirklich ganz lebendig und wach bin. Was in diesen Augenblicken das Leben von mir verlangt, will ich versuchen zu verwirklichen, auch wenn es gegen die üblichen Moden und Gesetze geht. Diesen Glauben kann man nicht befehlen und sich nicht zu ihm zwingen. Man kann ihn nur erleben.
Hermann Hesse

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Doing Photo Portraits

Yann Arthus-Bertrand, famous for 'The Earth From Above', an aerial portrait of our planet, in an interview on televison:

A good photographer is one who has ideas.

I photographed the farmer together with the cow because I wanted him to feel at ease. And to be together with the cow made him indeed feel at ease - because he is proud of her.

First I take a photograph for myself, then one for the portrayed.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Civilization & Garbage

Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn't discard, to reprocess what we couldn't use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics.
Don DeLillo: Underworld

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Environmental Photography

Recently I happened to come across a link in The Guardian that said "Environmental photographer of the year 2008". I didn't know that there was such a category, and I'm still not too sure what to think about yet another category. Anyway, I'm glad I clicked on the link for the photographs displayed are real eye-openers. My favourite is picture number one that, together with the caption, made me immediately emotionally connect - and that is, as far as I'm concerned, the very best a picture can do. Here's the link: environmentalphotography

The photos (probably because they were labelled "environmental photography"!) also made me think of an article in The Independent about "the world's largest rubbish dump". Would you have guessed that it is in the Pacific Ocean and "stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan"? Here's more: garbagedump

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Schweizer Eigenarten

In der Schule wird über's Kinderkriegen gesprochen.
Ein kleiner Italiener, ein deutsches und ein Schweizer Kind sollen erklären, woher die Kinder kommen.
Der Italiener sagt: Bei uns in Italien bringt der Storch die Babies.
Der Deutsche meint: In Deutschland gehen die Mama und der Papa miteinander ins Bett und dann machen sie ein Kind.
Der kleine Schweizer meint: Bei uns ist das von Kanton zu Kanton verschieden.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Not Pictures, Words Make One See

It is not pictures, it is words that make one see.
Consider this (from Steven Pinker: 'The Language Instinct'):

"When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped. He swims above the female and begins caressing her with seven of his arms. If she allows this, he will quickly reach toward her and slip his eight arm into her breathing tube. A series of sperm packets moves slowly through a groove in his arm, finally to slip into the mantle cavity of the female."

These words have created images in your mind. They have made you see. What exactly you have seen I’m not able to tell yet that there were images in your mind that had something to do with the words that told you about the male and the female octopus … of this I’m quite sure.

Now picture this (again from 'The Language Instinct'):
"Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an altar cloth? Apply club soda immediately. It works beautifully to remove the stains from fabrics."

I’m pretty sure you have just seen cherries jubilee on a white suit and (presumably red) wine stains on a (presumably white) altar cloth. I can’t of course know what suit you had in mind or what altar cloth or what kind of stains (big, small, round …?), so in order to make you see the same suit, the same altar cloth and stains that I imagine, I need to show you an illustration, a photograph for instance. Only now can your eyes see what my eyes see.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Helpful Approach (2)

A Sunday afternoon, some years ago, at the headquarters of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Bangkok. Ajahn Sumedho, an American Buddhist monk, lectures on mediation and concludes by saying:

Ladies and Gentlemen, should you have come to the conclusion that what I've been telling you sounds interesting to you, then you most probably have got me completely wrong. For a lot of things are interesting. From the love life of the bees to studying physics. But that is not the point. The point is that you need to ask yourself whether what I've been telling you was helpful. If it was, fine. If not, then look for something that is helpful.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Project of the West

Hanif Kureishi, "a writer that appreciates irony and can look at such a serious debate with humour" as Trevor Wilson, who is presently working on "Jihadist Islam to Islamic Revivalism", wrote to me from Melbourne, was recently (on 8 August 2008) portrayed in the New York Times. Trevor is right, here are two examples:

"The project of the West, the Nietzschean project, has been to drive out religion and to produce a secular society in which men and women make their own values because morality is gone. Then suddenly radical religion returns from the Third World. How can you not laugh at that? How can you not find that a deep historical irony?”

“The antidote to Puritanism isn’t licentiousness, but the recognition of what goes on inside human beings.”

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Helpful Approach

She said matter-of-factly: "I've made a million errors. When I came here everyone said you can't touch people on the head, you can't talk to a man, you can't do this, you can't do that, and I finally said, this is crazy! I can't be restricted like that! So I just threw it all out. Now I have only one rule. Before I do anything I ask, Is it okay? Because I'm an American woman and they don't expect me to act like a Hmong anyway, they usually give me plenty of leeway."
Anne Fadiman: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Space for Propaganda

"Aid group suspends Afghan operation after three women are killed in Taliban ambush" titled the online edition of The Guardian today a report by Jason Burke from Kabul. Here's an excerpt:

"Three western women working for an American aid organisation have been shot dead in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. The women - a British-Canadian, a Canadian and a Trinidadian - were travelling by car in the eastern Logar province when they were attacked yesterday morning. One Afghan driver was also killed and another seriously injured.

The women worked for the New York-based International Rescue Committee, which has now suspended all its humanitarian aid programmes in Afghanistan.

A Taliban spokesman, Zahibullah Mujahed, claimed responsibility, telling the Associated Press news agency that the insurgents had targeted "the foreign invader forces".

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, described the attack as unforgivable. "It is not in our culture to kill women," he said in a statement. "This unforgivable incident without doubt was carried out by enemies of Afghanistan, by non-Afghans.""

Should Mr Karzai's choice of words imply that other cultures find killing women acceptable? Moreover, why distinguish, when it comes to killing, between men and women at all? Or between civilians and soldiers, children and the elderly? Victims are victims, whether they are wearing uniform or civilian clothes, whether they are men or women, young or old. Whenever I hear that an attack claimed "innocent victims" I can't help wondering whether there is such a thing as a "guilty victim" and if so, whether the killing would be then okay ...

Likewise unhelpful (if the goal is to avoid killing) is to say that the killers were "without doubt ... non-Afghans" since the Taliban (aren't they mostly Afghans?) claimed responsibilty. I know, I know, one shouldn't take the words of politicians too seriously ... but publishing such statements without questioning them is not journalism, it is offering space for propaganda.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Fear of Pictures

"4,000 U.S. Deaths, and a Handful of Images", read the title of a recent article in the New York Times (27 July 2008) about the censorship of photographs of dead American soldiers in Iraq. Here's an excerpt:

"If the conflict in Vietnam was notable for open access given to journalists — too much, many critics said, as the war played out nightly in bloody newscasts — the Iraq war may mark an opposite extreme: after five years and more than 4,000 American combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers.

It is a complex issue, with competing claims often difficult to weigh in an age of instant communication around the globe via the Internet, in which such images can add to the immediate grief of families and the anger of comrades still in the field.

While the Bush administration faced criticism for overt political manipulation in not permitting photos of flag-draped coffins, the issue is more emotional on the battlefield: local military commanders worry about security in publishing images of the American dead as well as an affront to the dignity of fallen comrades. Most newspapers refuse to publish such pictures as a matter of policy.

But opponents of the war, civil liberties advocates and journalists argue that the public portrayal of the war is being sanitized and that Americans who choose to do so have the right to see — in whatever medium — the human cost of a war that polls consistently show is unpopular with Americans."

Looks like a complex issue, doesn't it? So what is there to do? "Simplicity is the only thing that works in a complex world", says Carne Ross, a former British diplomat. Well then, plain and simple: War means to kill and to get killed. To show war like it is includes showing pictures of the ones who got killed. Without restrictions.

That the people in charge of the U.S. army do not want pictures of dead American soldiers being displayed is hardly a surprise for they know that what we will remember are images. And, since images are likely to set free emotions, that spells danger - for these emotions are beyond the reach of the military.

The issue is not complex, the issue is simple: Whoever will see what war is really like will not support it.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Intercultural Coaching

Why don't you offer intercultural coaching as an additional service? I asked Cristina, the owner of the "Instituto Intercultural" in Mendoza, Argentina, where, some time ago, I happened to work. What exactly do you mean by intercultural coaching? she wanted to know. Well, I tell my clients - anybody who is interested in foreign cultures - what they should do when being confronted with cultures that are different from the ones they are used to. That is impossible, Cristina said, you can't tell people what to do, you need to listen to them. Besides, they have to find out themselves what is good for them. Of course, I responded, but that is easier if they have some sort of orientation pole. I do not expect them to do what I tell them to do (they won't do it anyway), my goal is to confront them with what I deem useful observations in regards to cultural conditionings. Or with the mistakes that I have made. And, I tell you, they listen. Especially, when I'm talking about my mistakes - then they really pay attention for what they do not want is to make mistakes. Particularly not my stupid ones. Cristina was not convinced. And, as far as the acquisition of clients goes, she was most probably right. Well, what people want is one thing, what they need often quite another.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Movies in Santa Cruz

When I asked a teenager during class (while teaching English in Santa Cruz do Sul, Brazil) when she had last seen a movie, she said: Today. It was early afternoon and I must have looked incredulous for she quickly added: Not in the cinema, in school. In what class do you watch movies? I inquired. Physical education, she said. Really? A movie about what? Sports, she said. And how was it? I don't remember, I fell asleep, she smiled.

A young adult student, when asked what her favourite movie was, said: "O massacre da serra eléctrica" ('the chainsaw massacre'). Her classmates roared with laughter. When, a few days later, another student was teasing the young woman by mentioning the chainsaw massacre movie, she smiled and turned to me: "Do you know what his favourite movie is?" And, when I did not volunteer an answer, added: "A volta dos que nunca foram." (The return of the ones who never left).

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

No Pictures, please -- we're KIA

Every now and then I read somewhere that we are living in a world dominated by pictures. And that we are getting drowned in them. Well, that's pretty obvious, isn't it? I'm however not too sure what that means except that it seems to somehow insinuate that there are too many images around. Are there? No idea, really. But let's assume there were too many: Should we get rid of some? And if so, which are the ones that should disappear? And, who would decide that? Well, I guess we're better off to assume that there aren't too many images around. Besides, and this brings me to the point I want to make here, despite the abundance of photographs surrounding us, there are still far too many we do not get to see. That, come to think of it, is actually the only problem I have with the quantities of pictures around, namely, that they seem to suggest that we can see all the pictures that we want to see. That however isn't the way things are. An example is the present US government's "attempt to hide from public view the returning war dead", as Dana Milbank in the Washington Post (10 July 2008) pointed out. The article was emailed to me here in Santa Cruz do Sul, Brazil (praised be the modern means of communication!) by Vietnam vet Jim Michener from Vientiane, Laos with the subject line "No Pictures, please -- we're KIA!" Just in case: KIA stands for Killed In Action. Here's an excerpt:

"When Gina Gray took over as the public affairs director at Arlington National Cemetery about three months ago, she discovered that cemetery officials were attempting to impose new limits on media coverage of funerals of the Iraq war dead -- even after the fallen warriors' families granted permission for the coverage. She said that the new restrictions were wrong and that Army regulations didn't call for such limitations. Six weeks after The Washington Post reported her efforts to restore media coverage of funerals, Gray was demoted. Twelve days ago, the Army fired her."

Saturday, 2 August 2008


Stanley Fish is a professor of law and author of 10 books. I do not feel tempted to read any of them. Here is why:

On July 27, 2008, the New York Times published an article by Fish entitled "Travel Narrows" in which the author confesses to be a bad traveler for he doesn't care to go and see sights. Well, neither do I. But what has this to do with traveling, I wonder? Does traveling, as Mr Fish seems to think, really consist of doing what quite some tourists do?

He elaborates:
"But behind the lack of interest in sightseeing is something deeper and more unsettling. When I ask people what they like about traveling, they usually answer, I enjoy encountering different cultures and seeing how other people live. I am perfectly happy with the fact of other cultures, and I certainly hope that those who inhabit them live well; but that’s as far as it goes. By definition, a culture other than yours is one that displays unfamiliar practices, enforces local protocols and insists on its own decorums. Some of them even have different languages and are unhappy if you don’t speak them. To me that all spells discomfort, and I don’t see why I should endure the indignities of airplane travel only to be made uncomfortable once I get where I’m going. As for seeing how other people live, that’s their business, not mine."

Despite the humorous tone, it sounds like Mr Fish means what he writes. An astonishing lack of curiosity, and a remarkable unwillingness to consider things beyond the familiar, for, according to Wikipedia, "one of the most recognized academics in the United States". Poor United States.

Likewise astonishing is that The New York Times, "a national newspaper of record" (Wikipedia), provides a platform for such thinking. Well, come to think of it, maybe not.

I lately spent two weeks traveling in Uruguay.

My starting point was in Brazil, in Santa Cruz do Sul; my first stop was Tapes, a small town on the shores of the "Lagoa dos Patos", a giant freshwater lagoon, south of Porto Alegre. I spent the first night in the "Pousada da Lagoa" where the following note was posted on the wall of my bathroom: "Por favor: Não utilize a toalha de rosto ou de banho para limpar os sapatos." This seemed to indicate that guests of this establisment routinely used the towels to polish their shoes. Where do your guests mostly come from? I asked the receptionist. I was the only foreigner in the six months that he had been working here, he said. Probably a regional custom, I concluded.

The next day, I moved to a resort hotel outside of town. The room rate was a bargain. However, the young lady at the reception informed me, the restaurant was closed due to a local holiday. Could I get a sandwich? Of course, she said. I was convinced they would charge me excessively for it - I'm Swiss, this is what I'd expect in Switzerland - yet they didn't. When, some time later, I told one of my Brazilian students, a business man in his late thirties, how this had impressed me, he smiled and said, "Well, in Rio or São Paulo that would have been different."

In the Uruguayan town of Maldonado, the receptionist asked whether I wanted the room with or without breakfast. What is the price difference? I asked. 520 Pesos without, 650 Pesos with. Aha, I said. Breakfast is only 60 Pesos, she said. 60? Didn't you just say 520 repectively 650? Yes, 60 Pesos. I was baffled. And asked her to please jot down the numbers.

$ 60.-, $ 520.-, $ 650.- she wrote, and then, inquisitively, looked at me. Well, the difference is not $ 60, it is $ 130.- I said. Unmoved, she kept on staring at me. I haven't the foggiest idea what went through her mind but I settled for the 'without breakfast' version.

In Minas, a town surrounded by rolling hills, I buy Juan Antonio Varese's "Historia de la Fotografía en el Uruguay" that informs me that the daguerrotype, that was publicly demonstrated for the first time in Paris on 19 August 1939, reached the then small town of Montevideo already by the end of February 1940. How come? A group of Belgian and French businessmen decided to send their kids, who behaved badly and did poorly in school, on a trip around the world - the kids should practise commerce, navigation, and languages. One of their instructores was the French abbot Louis Compte, who had been personally instructed by Daguerre in the use of the machine, and who, apart from his religious functions, was in charge of taking pictures of the places they visited.

In a pharmacy in Piriápolis, on the Atlantic coast, I found myself in an animated exchange with the owner who eloquently described how supermarkets destroy whole neighborhoods and how he now patronises the small shops nearby. Whenever in the following days I entered a supermarket I did it with a bad conscience. Also in Piriápolis, the owner of a restaurant that didn't look like much but served good food told me all one needs to know about journalism: the journalists' job, he said, is to keep the media owners happy. And that's it. It had never occurred to me that a restaurant owner would give much thought to the workings of the media.

In Nueva Helvecia (or Colonia Suiza as it is also called), a small town of 11 000 inhabitants and, as the tourist brochure says, "una limpieza en sus calles que ya es proverbial", the young saleswoman in the bakery wondered where I was from? Switzerland, I answered. Tell me about it, she said, I love to hear about foreign places.

In a restaurant in Colonia, a journalist in his early forties wanted to do a cartoon of me (my part time job, he said), for 50 Pesos. It took him 10 minutes.
In Mercedes, the lady at the reception charged my visa card $ 650.-. Only after I had signed it did I remember that the receptionist of the night before had said that the room was $ 550.-. I informed the lady at the reception. In this case we have to do it once again, she simply said. And did it. In Switzerland, I'm certain, this would have been impossible. In Switzerland, the receptionist would very likely have said: How can I know if what you are telling me is true? And I would have agreed. For this is how I was culturally conditioned. In order to free myself from my cultural conditionings (yes, this is precisely why I travel) I need to experience other cultural realities.

Between Salto and Artigas, it rained heavily. The roof of the bus was leaking, the woman in front of me had to change seats twice until she found a dry spot. A young woman from Vancouver Island on a school outing in Costa Rica came to mind. It had started to rain and we all ran for cover when the young woman (no, she was not on drugs) dreamily said: I just love weather.

Then I was back in Brazil. In Santa Maria, I asked a taxi driver for a good hotel. He showed me one and asked to give him a call if I needed a taxi. Well, I need one tomorrow, at twelve o'clock, to go to the bus station, I said. He was there on time. And charged me 12 Reais. Didn't you tell me yesterday that the fare would be 10 Reais? I inquired. Twelve, he said, but then, without further ado, gave me change for ten. "Never ever could that have happened in Switzerland" I told one of my private students a few days later. "I mean he knew that most probably he would never see me again but ..." My student, a young Brazilian woman, smiled and said: "The same thing happened to my boss when he was recently in the US. He had paid too much for lunch and the waiter returned him the money. This however would never happen in Brazil." Now I smiled and said: "But in my case it did happen in Brazil." "Well" she said, "maybe it did because you are a foreigner here."