Friday, 30 January 2009

Haschischcafés und ...

"Bist du kein Amerikaner?"
"Cool." Es klingt wie ein Freispruch für den Ausländer.
Nach einer Weile sagt der andere Junge:
"Ihr habt doch diese Haschischcafés, oder?"
"Und Rembrandt", sagt Arkenhout.
"Jaja. Tut mir leid."
Michael Pye: Der sechste Mann

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Where do feelings come from?

I don't know this man, the father I've never lived with, but my loyalty to him is powerful and undeniable. Where do they come from, feelings like these: so strong and yet based on so little? The man, after all, is just an idea, a thought, existing before I have any experience of being his son, and yet I want to look after and defend him. I want to protect him from injustice. And I want to be looked after by him. I want him to teach me - things, everything: how to be like him. I want to be a son he is proud of. When, later, my real mother remarries while my father is still in prison, I explode with rage at the terrible unfairness of it all. I long for my parents to be together. How can she take up with another man, when her real man, her husband, my father, is still in prison …?
Hugh Collins: Hard Man

Monday, 26 January 2009

In the times of Photoshop

We live in the times of Photoshop. That means, among quite some other things, that photos that do not seem to look "natural" or "real" are often assumed to be photoshopped. Recently, this happened to me when I looked at the book cover of Peter Nitsch's "Bangkok" (see here). However, it was not photoshopped, as Peter Nitsch let me know. No retouching was done (and that applies to all the photos in the tome), he wrote, the photo was taken exactly as it is shown.

The problem is this: Without being told we can often not know what we are looking at for we can only see what we know, and a photo can only show what it appears to be showing. In other words, a photographer can limit unwanted readings of his pics by making it clear (in the caption, in the accompanying text) how the pictures came about.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

One Step Beyond

Some time ago, when reviewing a tome called "Photo Art" (that left me with rather mixed feelings), I came across the German photographer Lukas Einsele whose work on the victims of landmines ( impressed me. Here is how he introduces his project:

"One Step Beyond - The Mine Revisited (OSB) is an artistic project that tells of landmines and of landmine survivors and their visible and obvious relationship to one another.

People who have been injured by landmines recall their experiences for OSB and describe the course of events surrounding their accidents. Some of them have made drawings of the places where their accidents occurred.

Following our conversations, I took portrait photographs of them with a large-format camera, and in exchange for their accounts they were given a Polaroid version of the portrait."

The first portrait shows Celestina Hashihali, a 35-year-old mother of five from Cangumbe, Angola, who lost her right lower leg on 27 September 2000. What the picture shows is her face, you can't see her body. By the way, a portrait does not necessarily mean an image of a face or a head, it can also show a full body - as I was once taught at a photo exhibition in Merced, California.

The incredibly powerful photo of Celestina's face, together with her story, touched me deeply.
The night before she stepped on the mine, she had a dream "... a corpse was brought to me on a stretcher. I saw how afraid I was, and how I tried to run away from the dead. I woke up and was deeply shocked ... we walked towards the village, then I was lifted into the air - whooo! And I was dashed down - shocking! Then I was baffled when I looked down at my leg - my foot was missing!
Then I said, 'Eeeh, that's why I dreamt about a dead pregnant woman, whose innards were hanging out to here. I was dreaming about myself.' The others were upset that I hadn't said anything earlier. They said, 'If you had told us that, we would have forced you to stay at home and saved your life.'"

One could have hardly thought of a more telling portrait to introduce this moving and impressive tome.

Lukas Einsele: One Step Beyond, Hatje Cantz, Stuttgart

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Bangkok, Thailand

There are many ways of getting to know a city. Or, to be a bit more precise, to experience some parts of a city, especially a city of the size of Bangkok, for instance. The German Wikipedia speaks of a population of 6,859 millions (2006), a presumably more accurate number provides the English Wikipedia: "... approximately 8,160,522 registered residents (July 2007), but due to large unregistered influxes of migrants from the North East of Thailand and of many nations across Asia, the population of greater Bangkok is estimated at nearly 15 million people."

Although I spent - from 1988 to 1998 - many months in Bangkok, and explored many parts of the city, the only area that I'm somewhat familiar with is the lower Sukhumvit. Given all the changes that have meanwhile taken place (I was last there in 2007), I'm however not really sure that I would still recognise "my Bangkok".

Recently, I came across two photo books that I thought would refresh my memory: Thailand. Same same but different by Thomas Kalak, and Bangkok by Peter Nitsch. Both were published by Rupa Publishing in Munich.

The photos in Thailand. Same same but different, despite the book title, were, according to the preface, all taken in "Bangkok's streets and backyards" and they do give indeed, as Remo Masala states, "the impression of sculptures and installations". Not all of them, no, but quite some. Thomas Kalak has a good eye for the odd and sometimes bizarre: several big green umbrellas, assisted by a much smaller one in violet and gold, for instance, that cover the entrance of a drugstore against the rain and/or the sun is a wonderful find as is the sign in the shape of a tooth that indicates a dental clinic. And, there are many more. Needless to say, most visitors to Bangkok come across such sights but give them hardly more than a passing look, Thomas Kalak however collected them. Are these shots worth a book? No idea, really, but I thought it an interesting project.

Bangkok by Peter Nitsch is a very different kind of book although the two tomes have one thing in common: both come with an accompanying text by Jochen Müssig that has nothing to do with the photos. To be fair: the last paragraph of Bangkok (the text as a whole provides interesting infos) attempts to link the words to the photos but does it so cliché-ridden ... "he captures brief, unique moments" (well, moments are by definition brief, and they are also by definition unique) ... that I could have easily done without them.

So what about the photos? Some I thought excellent - the woman on her knees handing over food to the monks whose heads are invisible (but why call this shot "Lumphini Park"? A thoroughly superfluous information), the elegantly composed shots of the Marble Temple at Wat Benchamabophit, and of Wat Phra Kaeo, for instance; others were not exactly to my liking - the book cover in particular, a brightly lit skytrain station with even more brightly lit streets below (an over-use of photoshop, it seems) that could be just about anywhere. There were however also some that I would love to put under glass, and into a frame, and hang them on my wall. The shot from Soi Thong Lo that shows a casually dressed young woman going in one direction and an elegantly dressed young woman on the moving stairway above going in the other, or the black and white composition of a building front with a man looking down from one of the upper floors, or the look of the young man on the red bus on Thanon Ratchawithi. Very well captured moments, I'd say.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Cultural time (2)

I had a good laugh when I read how Lícia, who teaches in Brazil's Northeast, reacted to the concept of cultural time that I described in my last post. Not only that the kids in her school are usually some minutes late, she wrote, and that there are parents who want to pick them up a few minutes before the class is over, but also this: ten minutes before the class ends, the school secretary comes to her classroom to remind her that the lesson should soon come to an end!

My impression is that where time really matters, be it because of a medical emergency, be it because a lot of money is at stake, cultural time differences are not an issue. They only appear to come into play when people deem an activity unimportant, uninteresting, and/or superfluous.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Cultural time

To be sure, time does not really exist, except in our minds. It is one of the tools that help us organise our lives on this planet. And, like most of the tools that human beings employ in order to not get lost, the concept of tîme has been turned into a lucrative business by some ... watchmakers, for instance.

We all know that the concept of time is understood differently around the globe. I used to believe that people in warmer climates do not know what time is. Swiss time, I mean. Now imagine my surprise when one day in Santa Cruz do Sul, where I was teaching, I found the school door locked at three minutes past twelve. Okay, I did know that the school was officially closed from twelve to one but ... I simply assumed that Brazilans would not adhere to my rigid notion of time. I asked Ricardo, the school owner and always a valuable source when I needed Brazilian things explained: Well, he said, Brazilians might not be on time when coming to school but they are always on time when leaving.

Tracy Novinger, in her recommendable Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide (University of Texas Press, Austin 2001), demonstrates how to deal with cultural time - by taking things lightly, and with a smile, that is. Here's one of her wonderful examples:

"In the end, one should maintain a sense of cultural relativity, as well as a sense of humor. As one story goes, an Arab discussing cultural differences with a Mexican friend asked about the meaning of the expression mañana. On hearing the explanation, he nodded in understanding and replied, 'That is like the Arab bukara, but bukara does not have the same sense of urgency.'"

Friday, 16 January 2009

Painting with light?

To photograph means, literally, to paint or to draw with light. I must admit that I've never really understood what that means for I've always thought that one paints with a brush or that one draws with a pencil - but with light?

Needless to say, light is crucially important when one is photographing. So what is the photographer doing with light? Using it, and getting used by it, I'd say. And that, to my mind, is different from painting.

The other day I came across this approach to which I can relate more easily:

"In Japanese, the word for "photograph" is "shashin". It is made up of two ideograms, "sha" meaning "to reproduce" or "reflect" and "shin" which means "truth." The Greek etymology of the word "photograph" is to write (graphein) with light (photos). Therefore, in the Japanese mind, the process itself consists in capturing the truth, or the essence of the matter and "making a copy" of it on a surface. Consequently, the result will always contain a certain element of truth. Since the advent of photography, this way of seeing things has become commonplace throughout the world, but in very few languages is the concept expressed with such clarity."

This excerpt stems from the essay "Photography in Japan" by Mariko Takeuchi. The full text you'll find here:

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Thai time

Many Thai have never heard of Albert Einstein, but they know for sure that time is relative; bad time is supposed to be short and good time long and lazy. To the Siamese time is a vast and mysterious ocean in which interesting things swim by and happen to them.
Carol Hollinger: Mai pen rai means never mind

Monday, 12 January 2009

Matthias Zschokke

Vor kurzem besprach ich Matthias Zschokkes ganz vortreffliches Buch "Auf Reisen" (Ammann Verlag, 2008) für Und so fing mein Text an: "Es sei gleich vorweg genommen: Dies ist ein ganz wunderbares Buch: differenziert, elegant, witzig, eine Anleitung für intelligentes Reisen, besser als jeder Reiseführer." Neugierig geworden? Hier ist der ganze Text:

In der Folge erhielt ich einen Brief von Matthias Zschokke aus Berlin. Er hatte sich gefreut über meine Besprechung. Und ich freute mich jetzt, dass er sich gefreut hatte, doch ich konnte ihm das nicht sagen, weil sein Brief ohne Absender kam. Und so gebe ich es eben hier bekannt. Und empfehle dieses Werk gerade noch einmal: Wer von einem Buch gescheit unterhalten werden, wer beim Lesen schmunzeln und lachen, wer angeregt werden und/oder was lernen will, der soll dieses Buch kaufen. Und vor allem: er/sie soll es lesen.

Übrigens: Ich habe schon einmal über Matthias Zschokke geschrieben. Der Text findet sich unter dem Titel "Henri und die Buchbesprechung" hier.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

There goes my ass

As Stan (her father) walks up to the counter, I notice that his butt looks familiar; I am watching him and I'm thinking, There goes my ass. That's my ass walking away. His blue sports coat covers it halfway, but I can see it broken into sections, departments of ass, high and low, just like mine. I notice his thighs - chubby, thick, not a pretty thing. This is the first time I have seen anyone else in my body. I am fascinated. I stare as he turns and comes back to me. I look down at his shoes, white loafers, country-club shoes, stretched out, fading. Inside the shoes, his feet are wide and short. I look up; his hands are the same as mine, square like paws. He is an exact replica, the male version of me.
A.M. Homes: The Mistress's Daughter

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Communicating with Brazilians

Returning from an extended stay in Brazil, I started to read Tracy Novinger’s Communicating with Brazilians: When „Yes“ means „No“ (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003) with great interest. Already after the first few pages I decided to like this book. Because of sentences like these:

„Beyond focusing attention on a nation’s characteristics that seem exotic and foreign to outsiders, to communicate successfully across cultures it is sometimes important to just rely on common sense. Small towns in both the United States and Brazil, for example, are more conservative than are large cities, as is generally true throughout the world.“

„Most of us think that we act through our own free will. But think again. For the most part, we do not.“

„Culture is the logic by which we give order to the world … Put simply, culture is the way we do things around here.“
Given that, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" (in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions) this is a refreshingly succinct and useful statement.

Now let’s have a look at the Brazilians who Darcy Ribeiro characterises as „better than others because bathed in black and Indian blood, a people whose role from here on will be less a matter of absorbing European things than of teaching the world how to live with more joy and more happiness.“ I think Darcy Ribeiro is right, I do indeed believe that Brazilians live with more joy and happiness than others. All others? No idea, really, but definitely with more joy and happiness than the Swiss. Needless to say I can already hear some protests so let me hasten to add: save for one or two exceptions.

I do not intend to point out how the book has to be seen in context of all the other books written about Brazil. Anyway, how could I? I only know Stefan Zweig’s Brasil. Um país do futuro and Peter Kellemen’s Brasil para principiantes and both of them are not mentioned in the bibliography (I highly recommend them). What I want to do here is to highlight some of the things I liked about this tome.

First and foremost: the abundance of telling anecdotes. Contrary to academics in the communication field who routinely dismiss them („of anecdotal value at best“), I love and treasure them for they teach me the essentials.

„A young woman who is an engineer hired by Schlumberger to work on oil platforms said that when she goes home to São Paulo, she and her sister no longer go out at night without their parents because the city has become so dangerous. One evening the two women went to a movie and were followed when they drove home. They called their house by cell phone. Their parents immediately turned on all of the outside lights, they and their gardener stationed themselves visibly to observe the arrival of the two sisters, and they ensured that the two young women had immediate access to the enclosed garage area.“

I heard numerous such stories when travelling for some months in the Northeast in 2006 and I heard again numerous such stories when teaching English in Santa Cruz do Sul in 2008. In other words: „Personal safety is an issue of primary public concern in Brazil.“

In the chapter „Racial Fusion“ the following story, under the headline „Only in Brazil“, can be found:

„Recently, three years after the fact, it was discovered by chance that two babies had been switched at birth in the hospital. Each family loved the happy little boy it was raising. Despite daily news coverage and avid public interest in custody considerations, no reports remarked on the fact that one of the boys was black and was accepted at birth by white parents and that the other boy was white and was raised without question by dark-skinned parents.“

So, there is no racism in Brazil? „Of course there is“, says Ricardo (of Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas in Santa Cruz do Sul), „and it is a problem but we’re not as neurotic about it as the Americans.“ Indeed.

And then there’s the jeito:
„The most significant, pervasive, and typical national filter through which the Brazilians see the world is that of jeito or jeitinho – the concept of finding a way … For Brazilians, there is always a way, some way, any way, to accomplish what one needs or wants to accomplish.“
I especially warmed to this wonderful definition here:
Jeito is a product of an intelligent, inventive, free, and creative attitude that one should take the initiative of acting in opposition to rules.“

But isn’t that ethically problematic? Of course it is, sometimes, but what isn’t?

So much for now. I will soon come back to this inspiring work.

Tracy Novinger
Communicating with Brazilians
When „Yes“ means „No“
University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Politicians & Interviews

After sitting on the sidelines and watching her (Cory Aquino) fall into one trap after another set by Bob Novak, Malloch Brown stepped in. He explained what an interview is for a politician: not an obligation to answer the question but an opportunity to get your message across. (As Henry Kissinger once put it to a group of journalists when he walked into a press conference: "Now, which of my answers do you have questions for?")
James Harding: Alpha Dogs

Sunday, 4 January 2009

On Reading Photographs (3)

In February or March 1936, during the Great Depression, the photographer Dorothea Lange took her probably most famous photo: the "Migrant Mother". It showed Florence Owens Thompson, then 32, and her children. Lange was at the time travelling through Nipomo, California, on assignment for the Resettlement Administration to take photographs of migrant farm workers.

Katherine McIntosh
Copyright Gregg Canes / CNN

Katherine McIntosh is the girl to the left of her mother; she was four when the picture was taken. She said to CNN (3 December 2008) that it brought shame - and determination - to her family. "She asked my mother if she could take her picture -- that ... her name would never be published, but it was to help the people in the plight that we were all in, the hard times ... So mother let her take the picture, because she thought it would help ... The picture came out in the paper to show the people what hard times was. People was starving in that camp. There was no food ... We were ashamed of it. We didn't want no one to know who we were."

This is one of the dilemmas of the socially inclined photographers: their subjects often do not want to be shown as the photographer wants them to show. Walker Evans, who, like Lange, worked for the Resettlement Administration, took photos of sharecroppers in Alabama. He portrayed them in their daily lives, at times with worn-out clothes, dirty feet, uncombed and unshaven for he also wanted to document the circumstances they were living in. That seems however not have been to their liking for there exists one photo (that Evans however never used in his publications) which shows the family clean and combed and in their Sunday best. One can safely assume that it was taken at the request of the family.

Despite my deep sympathy for socially inclined photographers, when the ones portrayed feel ashamed about their portraits then there clearly is something wrong with this kind of photography.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Nützliche Studien

Ich behaupte allen Ernstes, dass nur die "unpraktischen" Studien wirklich nützlich sind. Es gibt nur wenige Dinge in meinem Leben, über die ich so glücklich bin wie über das unschätzbare Privileg, dass ich in den besten Jahren meiner Jugend ausschliesslich so völlig "unpraktische" Gegenstände studieren durfte.
Ernst Krenek: Im Atem der Zeit