Friday, 31 October 2008

What you sow

Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
Sow an act, and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit, and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.
Samuel Smiles

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Games People Play

They are playing a game.
They are playing at not playing a game.
If I show them I see they are,
I shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game,
of not seeing I see the game.
R. D. Laing: Knots

Monday, 27 October 2008

Documentary Photography (2)

I felt attracted by the book title - Aftermath: War Is Only Half the Story - looked at a few pictures on the internet, and thought the project, and the pictures, interesting. I imagined it to be a work of documentary photography on the long-term fate of victims of conflict. And, in a way, it is but …

It starts with a text entitled “the journey is the destination” (I later found out that this wasn’t the title but the motto for the following text carried it too), the subtitle says: “Jim Goldberg was interviewed by Kirsten Rian”, there is however no interview to be found but a text that consists of two sentences that, when they end, immediately begin again and stretch over several pages: “Muzaffar ‘Alex’ Jafari writes about his journey on foot from Afghanistan to Greece via Iran. Now Alex is in school and supports himself by working in a call center’. These two endlessly repeated sentences are accompanied by a selection of photographs that, unfortunately, come without captions. Whatever the intention for this was, I’m not terribly interested to know. I liked however how most of the pictures were composed although I wasn't entirely sure how some of them were related to “the journey is the destination.”

Then comes a well-told and interesting story by Andrew Stanbridge about the hills with bomb craters in northern Laos. The craters are a legacy of intense bombing in the 1960s and 1970s. American forces dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War. The pictures, again without captions, that follow this text are however not of Laos but of Africans (?!).
Then once again comes the above mentioned text by Andrew Stanbridge. Then pictures of Laos, thankfully with captions, are displayed. One photo shows rebar. Why would anybody think a photo of rebar worth selecting for a book? Well, the caption says it all: "Rebar made from melted down bombs". A powerful message.
Then, for the third time, Andrew Stanbridge’s text, this time followed by pictures. I had no idea what they showed. No captions, no additional information, mostly scenes in black and white that seemed to show places inside, or nearby, buildings.

The book left me somehow at a loss. Then, on Google, I found a helpful text by Simon Winchester. Here it is:

“Founded by photographer and writer Sara Terry, the nonprofit Aftermath Project documents the long-term repercussions of conflict that are so often neglected by the popular media. Terry, whose work has been widely exhibited at such venues as the United Nations and the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, initiated this project after her extensive documentary work on postwar Bosnia. Through grant competitions and partnerships with other institutions, Aftermath disseminates reportage on postconflict rehabilitation and attempts to create new avenues for peace. War Is Only Half the Story presents the winners of the Aftermath Project’s first annual grant competition: Jim Goldberg, whose project The New Europeans records the struggles of asylum seekers and immigrants; Wolf Böwig, whose The Forgotten Island: Narratives of War in Sierra Leone (second place) is recounted through the eyes of five-year-old Morie, the sole survivor of an attack on Bonthe Island; and runners-up Andrew Stanbridge (postwar reconstruction in Laos), Asim Rafiqui (the hidden costs of war and peace-building efforts in Kashmir) and Paula Luttringer (a survey of sites in Argentina where women and their children were abducted between 1976 and 1983). The imagery in this volume represents some of today’s most challenging and diverse documentary work.”

Thanks for letting me know. It’s unlikely that I would have guessed that this is what my eyes showed me. I must however admit that the “attempts to create new avenues for peace” eluded me.

War Is Only Half the Story
Jim Goldberg, Wolf Böwig,
Paula Luttringer, Asim Rafiqui, Andrew Stanbridge
Aperture, New York, 2008

Saturday, 25 October 2008


Si pudiera vivir nuevamente mi vida.
En la próxima trataría de cometer más errores.
No intentaría ser tan perfecto, me relajaría más.
Sería más tonto de lo que he sido,
de hecho tomaría muy pocas cosas con seriedad.

Sería menos higiénico.
Correría más riesgos,
haría más viajes,
contemplaría más atardeceres,
subiría más montañas,
nadaría más ríos.
Iría a más lugares adonde nunca he ido,
comería más helados y menos habas,
tendría más problemas reales y menos imaginarios.

Yo fui una de esas personas que vivió sensata
y prolíficamente cada minuto de su vida;
claro que tuve momentos de alegría
Pero si pudiera volver atrás
trataría de tener solamente buenos momentos.

Por si no lo saben, de eso está hecha la vida, sólo de momentos;
no te pierdas el ahora.
Yo era uno de esos que nunca iba a ninguna parte sin un termómetro,
una bolsa de agua caliente, un paraguas y un paracaídas
si pudiera volver a vivir, viajaría más liviano.

Si pudiera vivir nuevamente
comenzaría a andar descalzo a principios de la primavera
y seguiría descalzo hasta concluir el otoño.
Daría más vueltas en calesita,
contemplaría más amaneceres,
y jugaría con más niños, si tuviera otra vez vida por delante.
Pero ya ven, tengo 85 años y sé que me estoy muriendo.

Jorge Luis Borges: Instantes

Thursday, 23 October 2008

On Bureaucracy

The police post was manned by about fifteen gendarmes, all armed to the teeth. One was polishing a submachine-gun. The commandant turned out to be a big Southerner of about six foot five. He summoned me into his office and inspected my documents minutely. What was my reason for being here? I displayed my research permit, a most impressive document, covered with photographs and stamps. He was clearly very unhappy a I tried to expound the essential nature of the anthropological endeavour. 'But what's it for?' he asked. Choosing between giving an impromptu version of the 'Introduction to Anthropology' lecture course and something less full, I replied somewhat lamely, 'It's my job'. Subsequently, I came to realize what a highly satisfactory explanation this was to an official who spent most of his life in pointlessly enforcing rules that seemed an end in themselves.
Nigel Barley: The Innocent Anthropologist

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Money Democracy

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on Barack Obama and his intercultural competence:

Once it was published, I sent the link to the Obama-campaign. Ever since, I receive regular and informative emails from the campaign manager, David Plouffe, and from Barack, Michelle, and Joe, that never fail to encourage me to donate to the campaign.

Never was it so clear to me that democracy American-style is entirely about money. Democracy of the money, by the money, and for the money, Kinky Friedman (I think) once remarked.

As Horst Herold, the former head of the BKA, the German FBI, once said. I paraphrase: There is no democracy (where the people are supposed to rule) in capitalism, in capitalism it's the money that rules.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Ich weiss nicht

Ich bin, ich weiss nicht wer
ich komme, ich weiss nicht woher
ich gehe, ich weiss nicht wohin
mich wundert, dass ich so fröhlich bin
Meister Martinus von Biberach
(Fassung Hanno Kühnert)

Fürwahr, ich weiss nicht, was mich traurig macht
William Shakespeare: Der Kaufmann von Venedig

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Cultural Otherness

From Cultural Otherness: Correspondence with Richard Rorty:

The West has been learning about its racism, its sexism and its imperialism not from philosophers, but from people who give us detailed accounts of what these social vices have done to individual human lives.

We pragmatists hope to dissolve traditional philosophical problems by viewing them as disguised forms of practical problems. Our slogan is that if it doesn’t make a difference to what we do, it makes no difference at all.

To my mind, the best and most hopeful element in the high culture of the West is the Romantic desire to acquire ever new identities – not to get stuck with the one you started with.The Romantic-historicist notion of spiritual progress is not centered around the idea of understanding better and better something which is waiting out here to be understood, but rather around the idea of creating a larger, freer, self.

… the emphasis falls less on knowing than on imagining, more on freeing oneself up than on getting something right.

… the modern West has created a culture of social hope, as opposed to a culture of endurance. By a culture of endurance, I mean one in which there is a consensus that the conditions of human life are and always will be frustrating and difficult, and the consequent assumption that either a religious affiliation with a non-human power, or a philosophical acceptance of the eternal order of things, is required to make life bearable. The high culture of a peaceful society which does not have a future utopia to work for will center around priests or stoical sages. By contrast, the high culture of a society permeated by utopian hope will center around suggestions for drastic change in the way things are done – it will be a culture of permanent revolution … it is a culture of experimentation, and nothing guarantees that the experiments will succeed.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Documentary Photography

In May 2008, there was an exhibition at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warszaw entitled: "She-Documentalists - Polish Women Photographers of the 2oth Century". The works of over fifty largely forgotten or unacknowledged Polish women photographers were shown. "There are two principal reasons why this extremely interesting material requires discovery and evaluation. Firstly, the status of documentary photography, until recently ill defined, and secondly, the professional and artistic status of women", the catalogue text reads.

the author unknown, "Maria Chrząszczowa", luty 1933, privat owner
Since I hadn't known that "the status of documentary photography, until recently (was) ill defined" (who would define that anyway?), and since I'm not aware that this should nowadays be less so, I looked forward to get enlightened. And I did - by a convincing, insightful, and well written text by the curator, Karolina Lewandowska, who, after stating that there have been as many concepts of documentary as there are authors, defines documentary, in regards to the exhibition, as "those projects, albeit selected ones, that required the photographer to go outside, to leave the studio and confront herself with people, projects that focused on documenting a certain phenomenon, or that, once realised, had to function in contexts other than the safe gallery context."
Elgas-Markiewicz Irena, „No more war”, ok. 1954,
owner - National Museum in Wrocław, Poland

Here are some of the insights that I gained from Karolina Lewandowska's
An Unconventional Map of the 'Documentary' :

"Two main tropes, or strategies, of representation are present within documentary - on the one hand, descriptive photography, which tries to remain neutral, and, on the other, photograqphy that is strongly involved ideologically, even propaganda-orientied."

"Photojournalism satisfies the universal need of curiosity, peeping, the need for enchanting reality, for getting to the 'truth'. That is why it 'spies' on and describes fragments of reality that most people do not usually notice - work in factories, a small-town market, a courtyard. However, when fitted into the form of a visually attractive photo story, even a very good one, these aspects of human life can often be reduced to nothing but aesthetical motifs alienated from reality."

"The fact that photographs so different are shown together, and in the space of Zacheta National Gallery of Art with its powerful context, does not mean they are all being elevated to the level of artistic objects - though the whole is taking place 'in the name of art'. Rather, the idea is to dissolve the radical division between artistic photography and non-artistic photography by demonstrating the fluidity of the qualifiying characteristics, which are dynamic and cannot be 'frozen' by the institutional context ...

The fundamental question is not whether the given photograph is art or not, but rather how it can influence the viewer and the reception of other photographs, whether it is an important element of culture, history, and the iconosphere, of our map of pictorial representation."
Rydet Zofia, "Heavy bread", 1958,
owner - Museum of Art in Łódź, Poland

Saturday, 11 October 2008

On Television

The makers of TV documentaries were the conmen and carpetbaggers of the late twentieth century, the snake-oil and fast-change salesmen purveying the notion that a raw nature packaged and homogenised by science was palatable and reassuring.

“Television doesn’t tell lies, it makes up a new truth. In fact, the only truth we have left. These sentimental wild-life-films you despise simply continue that domestication of nature which began when we cut down the first tree. They help people to remake nature into a form that reflects their real needs.” “And that justifies any intervention?” “No. It must chime with their secret hopes, their deep-held belief that the universe is a kindly place. Besides, everything is invented and then pondered upon …”
J.G. Ballard: The Day of Creation

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Cultural Insights

One of the books I'm using to learn Brazilian Portuguese is called: "Como dizer tudo em inglês nos negocios" (How to say all and everything in Business English). Since I assume that quite some sentences in it are probably never used in real life situations (in real life hardly anybody makes a grammatically correct sentence and most sentences are left incomplete anyway), I routinely ask native speakers if such and such sentence is used often. Needless to say, it depends on whom one asks - adolescents, for instance, have other ideas about proper language than adults. My source of reference is an educated man in his early thirties and his answers provide me with a lot of cultural insights. Expressions such as "Eu vou me certificar que as mudanças apropriadas sejam feitas" (I'll make sure that the proper changes are made) or "Eu vou dar o meu melhor para fazer as mudanças necessárias" (I will do my best to make the necessary improvements) are rarely used, I learn. What he however hears every day at work is: "Você está perguntando para a pessoa errada" (You're asking the wrong person).

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Money destroys all other values

Norman Mailer in a letter to Sal Cetrano on 28 March 1999.
Source:, 6 October 2008

Dear Sal,
. . . While the Democrats, and Clinton first, disgust me with what I call their “boutique politics”—a little bit here, a little bit there, and served with loads of bullshit slathered over it—the Republicans are a psychotic monstrosity. On the one hand, they’re God, flag, and family—although few of them would know Jesus Christ if he were standing at the next urinal pissing along with them—and an astonishing number never served in the armed forces nor heard a bullet, and being politicians, they cheat like jackrabbits on their wives and families. But all right, what’s the use of being a politician if you can’t make a living at being a hypocrite? The point is: the Republican Party is schizophrenic: on the one hand, they are, as I say, for God, flag and family, but on the other, they are for the unbridled expansion of capitalism, and thereby leave out something that might still be important to you which is that Jesus, like Karl Marx, thought money leaches out all other values. Indeed, it does. If the whole country is going to pot, and it certainly is, I think you could graph the decline not only in morals, but in a sense of social éclat and social standards—I think you could plot the decline right next to the rise of the Dow Jones—the higher the Dow, the lower the standards. Money destroys all other values. I can even respect the right wing Republicans for holding to a few standards, as they do, but they never take on capitalism which, unbridled, is the worst scourge of human value that we have right now. There may have been a time when Communism was a worse scourge, but now we’re the leaders, and I suggest you consider living with the notion that the party of your choice is paralyzed in its moral centers. . . .
Cheers, old buddy,

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Photographing Cuba

A convincing photo book is often based on a convincing idea – and this is the case of The Idea of Cuba: When in May 1998, the photographer and writer Alex Harris was on his first trip to Cuba, he observed almost everything on the island “from the perspective of the backseat of 1950s-era American cars. I went to Cuba that spring with a specific plan. I wanted to use my camera to explore how people in the United States and Cuba see each other, and the view through the windshields of these aging American cars seemed to be an ideal approach.”

Indeed, and an intriguing, and a persuasive, idea at that: to look at a new country through the windshields of the cars of one’s childhood. Most visitors to Cuba do it the other way ‘round – they have their picture taken with these old North American cars. There is of course nothing wrong with that except that it may strike Cubans as a bit silly – I at least thought it rather strange when my Cuban ex-wife, on her first visit to my native Switzerland, insisted that I take her picture next to a number of totally unremarkable (but new) cars. Until I realised that this is precisely what visitors to Cuba normally do.

Photo books usually show pictures without words, they rarely come with an accompanying text, often however without captions, or with captions we could easily do without – such as Mexico 1934, or Dog (when the photo shows a dog), for instance. While such an approach – “I do not want to influence you, trust your eyes, judge for yourself”, the photographers seem to say – might be okay for art photography (whatever that is), it is inappropriate for documentary photography or for press photography that should come with words that are not limited to (hopefully) informative captions but include narratives that inform the reader about the coming into being of the pictures. Thankfully, this is the case of The Idea of Cuba in which the texts help one understand what one's eyes register.

Let me illustrate this with two excerpts:

“In my first days in Havana I wondered how Cubans felt as they drove through their daily lives inside these symbols of capitalist triumph. Whatever can be said about failed U.S. policies toward Cuba, surely the continued existence of these cars on Cuban roads was a testimony to the North American way, to the success and durability of our political system. Yet the more time I spent in Havana, the more I realized that every car I rode in had been completely rebuilt from the inside out. Many of the parts were borrowed from Russian or European models or manufactured by Cuban mechanics who could not legally import anything from the United States. These 1950s-era cars may have had North American shells, but the fact that they continued to run was proof of Cuban ingenuity, determination, and the kind of sacrifice that José Martí admired.

Under the May Havana sun, I might as well have been working in a sauna. Sweating inside these cars with my view camera, film holders, tripod, battery pack, and lights, I sometimes worried about my sanity. And as I saw the richness of life on Havana streets unfolding outside my window, it seemed crazy to limit myself to this narrow view of the city. But as a photographer I recognized that the greatest depth of field is achieved by setting the smallest aperture on a lens. After almost thirty years of making pictures in the American South, New Mexico, and Alaska, I knew another kind of depth could be achieved by narrowing the subject of my focus as well. For the time being, I would continue to photograph Cuba from inside cars.”

Alex Harris had never heard of José Martí when he first set foot on the island but soon became interested in him (("I traveled to Cuba to make landscapes, and discovered José Martí") for photographers sometimes travel with open eyes (and – in this case – with an open mind) and Martí is difficult to avoid in Cuba for his statues are everywhere. “Martí had a kind of nobility. He was stoic and wise. He seemed to know a secret I wanted to learn.”

By describing how he went about his work, what he experienced, where he went, and why, and what went through his mind, Alex Harris lets the reader participate in what he learns about Martí, and about Cuba.

“My larger problem was how to begin to encompass in a photograph something as complex and cerebral as Martí's idea of Cuba. Near the end of his life, in the early days of photography, Martí anticipated my dilemma in a question jotted in one of his notebooks: "Who could photograph thought, as a horse is photographed in full gallop or a bird in flight?"
As I made my first photographs of his memorials, I saw Martí's words at the base of many statues. These aphorisms had been extracted by Cubans themselves as the essence of Martí's idea of Cuba, then chiseled into stone or stamped onto copper plaques. In one of the first I read, Martí seemed to predict his own future role. A nation that honors its heroes strengthens itself. I began to copy every Martí adage I saw. These words of wisdom read like agnostic Cuban cousins of Solomon's proverbs. With all and for the good of all; To be cultured is to be free.
Of all Martí's writings, these brief sayings became a kind of compass I used to find my way around the island. If I couldn't photograph Martí's thoughts, at least I'd have his most important ideas in mind when I decided to snap the shutter. This seemed a way for me to look at contemporary Cuba through the lens of history, to see the present in relation to Martí's imagined future.”

Documentary photography, the way I understand and like it, is about making discoveries. And this is what Alex Harris’ Idea of Cuba is: the document of a personal discovery that transcends the personal - for the more personal an approach, the more universal the result often becomes.

“I know much more about Cuba now than I did when I made these photographs. But I do not believe that I could now make better pictures. This book is an act of faith in myself as a photographer to discover something in my pictures I didn't already know or feel, something I wasn't already looking for.”

Friday, 3 October 2008

Bridging cultural differences

When considering ways of how cultural differences may be bridged, one needs to bear in mind that not all difficulties that may arise when individuals from different cultures interact have to be “cultural.” As Michael Agar in Language Shock pointed out: “Sometimes, the reason they do things differently has to do with who owns the store and who has the guns, not with what languaculture they grew up with”.

Or, as the two Californians in Bali after pondering at length the question why the Balinese prepared their food always using chilli (does it have to do with tradition, mythology, health?) – eventually concluded: “It might well be because chillies grow here.”

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Two Lives

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth -- such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his "lower race," his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities -- all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
Anton Chekov: Lady with Lapdog