Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Photography & Truthfulness

There is a terrible truthfulness about photography.
The ordinary academician gets hold of a pretty model,
paints her as well as he can, calls her Juliet,
and puts a nice verse from Shakespeare underneath,
and the picture is admired beyond measure.
The photographer finds the same pretty girl,
he dresses her up and photographs her, and calls her Juliet,
but somehow it is no good -it is still Miss Wilkins, the model.
It is too true to be Juliet.
George Bernard Shaw
Wilson's Photographic Magazine, LVI, 1909

Monday, 27 April 2009

Intercultural Coaching (4)

One element of my intercultural coaching is talking about the mistakes that I have made in foreign lands. Here's one:

In Thailand, the concept of standing in line is not exactly widely understood. Once, I angrily asked a guy who had just jumped the line what the Thai word for "standing in line" was. Queue, he said. That's English, I retorted, what is the Thai word for it? Queue, he repeated. Aha, I thought, that explains it - no word, no concept.

Years later, during a conversation with a Thai student at an Australian university, I said mockingly: no wonder that in Thailand people always jump the line, you do not even have a word for standing in line. Of course we have, she retorted. A Thai word? Yes, a Thai word. But is it used? Some people are using it, she said.

My conclusion? Be careful whom you're asking if you want to learn about another culture.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Paint your paradigm

People decide with or without the facts - if you don't get out there and paint your paradigm, someone'll paint it for you.

My what?

Pa-ra-dime. You never heard of paradigm shift? Example: you see a man with his hand up your granny's ass. What do you think?


Right. Then you learn a deadly bug crawled up there, and the man has put aside his disgust to save Granny. What do you think now?

Hero. You can tell he ain't met my nana.

There you go, a paradigm shift. The action doesn't change - the information you use to judge it does. You were ready to crucify the guy because you didn't have the facts. Now you want to shake his hand.

I don't think so.

I mean figuratively, asshole, he laughs, punching out six of my ribs. Facts may seem black and white by the time they hit your TV screen, but professional teams sift through mountains of gray to get them there. You need positioning, like a product in the market - the jails are full of people who didn't manage their positions.
DBC Pierre: Vernon God Little

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Ich glaube, ein Feldforscher sollte so wenig wie nur möglich in Erscheinung treten. Der beste Feldforscher, den ich kenne, ist meines Erachtens der Berliner Professor Hartmut Zinser. Als ich drei Monate nach seinem Aufenthalt in dem Dorf Belogili auf Flores nach ihm fragte, konnte sich niemand mehr an ihn erinnern.
Hans Peter Duerr: Auf dem Zaun oder zwischen den Stühlen?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

J.G. Ballard

On Sunday, 19 April 2009, the author J.G. Ballard, 78, who grew up in Shanghai in the 1930s, died after a lengthy illness. Here are some excerpts from his autobiography, Miracles of Life:

In Shanghai the fantastic, which for most people lies inside their heads, lay all around me, and I think now that my main effort as a boy was to find the real in all this make-believe. In some ways I went on doing this when I came to England after the war, a world that was almost too real. As a writer I've treated England as if it were a strange fiction, and my task has been to elicit the truth, just as my childhood self did when faced with honour guards of hunchbacks and temples without doors.
The American gunboat, the USS Wake, was captured without a shot being fired - almost all the crew were ashore, asleep with their girlfriends in the hotels of downtown Shanghai.
I take it for granted that if the war had continued for much longer the sense of community and the social constraints that held the internees together would have broken down. Moral principles, along with kindness and generosity, are worth less than they might seem.
The faith in reason and rationality that dominated post-war thinking struck me as hopelessly idealistic, like the belief that the German people had been led astray by Hitler and the Nazis. I was sure that the countless atrocities in eastern Europe had taken place because the Germans involved had enjoyed the act of mass murder, just as the Japanese had enjoyed tormenting the Chinese. Reason and rationality failed to explain human behaviour. Human beings were often irrational and dangerous, and the business of psychiatry was as much with the sane as the insane.
I am sure that a large part of the enduring mystery of the Renaissance masterpieces in the National Gallery was due to the absence of the explanatory matter that now drains away much of the strangeness and poetry of the Old Masters. I would stare at Crivelli's Annunciation, charmed by the peacocks, loaves of bread and other incongruous items, the passer-by reading a book on the bridge and the Virgin in her jewel box of a house. I was forced to use my own imagination to stitch these elements into a master narrative that made some kind of sense, rather than read an extended wall caption and be solemnly told that the peacock was a symbol of eternal life. Perish the thought, and let the exquisite bird be itself, and nothing more or less than itself. What could be more natural, and more mysterious, than a peacock and a loaf of bread appearing on the scene to celebrate the forthcoming birth of the Saviour?
No one in a novel by Virginia Woolf ever filled up the petrol tank of her car. No one in Sartre or Thomas Mann ever paid for a haircut. No one in Hemingway's post-war novels ever worried about the effects of prolonged exposure to the threat of nuclear war. The very notion was ludicrous, as absurd then as it seems now. Writers of so-called serious fiction shared one dominant characteristic - their fiction was first and foremost about themselves. The 'self' lay at the heart of modernism, but now had a powerful rival, the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses. It was this rather sinister realm, a consumer society that might decide to go on a day trip to another Auschwitz and another Hiroshima, that science fiction was exploring.
Sadly, he was one of those literary writers who receive a glowing review in the Times Literary Supplement, believe every word of praise and imagine that it will ensure them a prosperous career, when in fact such a review is no more than the literary world's equivalent of 'Darling, you were wonderful ...'

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Trust the media?

Do I trust Fox News? Of course not. Does anybody? What about Asia Times Online (ATol)? More likely but, well, it is probably not a good idea to make definite statements in regards to any media for they are usually not monolithic systems. Anyway, I do not read ATol every day (and watch Fox only in hotel rooms) but I very much liked this brief summary from 25 November 2008:

"When Iraqi parliamentarians vote on Wednesday on whether or not to endorse a security pact with the United States, many of them will not have had the opportunity to study the finer points. Perhaps all they need to know is that the Pentagon and President George W. Bush are very comfortable with it. "

I also have a tendency to trust the New York Times. However, I'm not too sure that I should for, some time ago, I read David Brock's Blinded by the Right and it made me think (no, not for the first time but once again). Brock was a right-wing hitman and is the author of The Real Anita Hill. Yes, that was some time ago but quite some things often do not change that much. Brock writes:

"In time, I came to understand precisely what I had done in The Real Anita Hill. Clichés are based in truth, and one of the oldest of them is that writers can write well only if they are writing about what they know, what they see, and what they experience firsthand. The conspiracy theory I invented about the Thomas-Hill case could not possibly have been true, because I had absolutely no access to any of the supposed liberal conspirators ... all of my impressions of the characters I was writing about were filtered through their conservative antagonists, all of whom I believed without question. Therefore, the case made in the book was not only wrong and false, it was almost precisely the opposite of the truth."

Want to know how the New York Times saw it? Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the then senior reviewer, called the book: "well-written, carefully reasoned, and powerful in its logic ... must reading for anyone remotely touched by the case."

Friday, 17 April 2009

Island Life

A few weeks ago, I decided to spend some days on Ko Samet, an island about three hours by bus from Bangkok. After my first night, I fled to the mainland for I had found the place over-priced and a bit too international - the Thailand that I like it was not. Anyway, the mainland nearby had long and sandy beaches, and lots of cheap restaurants by the sea - exactly the Thailand I am fond of.

Apart from the fact that we all are constantly looking for reasons to justify our decisions after we have taken them (in my case: arguing why my fleeing Ko Samet was a good decision), I've also started to wonder what makes so many human beings (including myself) so keen on island holidays? I mean, why look for confined spaces far away from everything and think of them as paradise?

What would you take with you to the famous island? some so-called celebrity (it was a man but, sorry, I do not remember his name) was once asked. A boat to row back, he said. Smart guy.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Brazilian Identity

Tracy Novinger's Communicating with Brazilians (University of Texas Press, Austin), as I mentioned in previous posts, is a book worth spending time with. The other day, I came across these ponderings on Brazilian identity by Lauro Moreira, a Brazilian career diplomat, that Novinger sums up like this:

"The Brazilian is psychologically mercurial, alternating easily between euphoria and depression. This is neither good nor bad. It is Brazilian. Although the Brazilian may have momentary outburts of anger, lasting hatred is not part of the Brazilian psyche. Moreira states that the Brazilian is very hard to rouse to fanaticism, which he thinks one of the most important aspects of the Brazilian psyche."

I had heard this - that Brazilians are not prone to fanaticism - before, from Ricardo Schütz (of Schütz & Kanomata Idiomas in Santa Cruz do Sul). I had asked him how he would characterise Brazilians and Ricardo responded with a story (which is, I find, the best way of conveying ideas): In his student days he once had to drive an internationally operating Brazilian business leader from Porto Alegre to Santa Cruz. This is a two-hour trip and there was lots of time to talk. Among other things, the business executive told him that Brazilians were spiritually healthier than many others. Interesting, I thought, but how would you prove that? Ricardo said: mass suicides, as in the US, for instance, do not exist in Brazil.

There are many reasons why I like Brazil but this absence of fanaticism is surely one of them.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Belief & the early years of life

It is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated during the early years of life, while the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason.
Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The moral of the story

The other day, I discovered a new blog in the online edition of The New York Times. It is called The Moral of the Story, the ethicist's take on the news, and written by Randy Cohen. A good idea, I find. Many readers, I'm sure, are more interested in ethics than journalists and all the other people in the PRopaganda business assume. The post that I skimmed (I hardly ever thoroughly read an online text) was about Madonna and her failed adoption in Malawi. Here's an excerpt:

"Several readers assert that rather than undertake foreign adoption with its attendant problems, ethical and otherwise, Madonna and others should adopt locally. Sadly, as many people who have attempted this can confirm — and as some readers note — it’s not easy, and sometimes it’s all but impossible. I know a couple of families who turned to foreign adoptions only after being thwarted in their other efforts to have children, including through adoption here in the U.S.

Which raised this question for some readers: isn’t there a greater moral obligation to help those close by? It was once commonly thought so. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century moralist, said as much to James Boswell, as recorded in the latter’s “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides”: “A man should first relieve those who are nearly connected with him, by whatever tie; and then, if he has anything to spare, may extend his bounty to a wider circle.”

Particular relationships do entail particular obligations. Parents have duties to their children that they do not have to strangers. But national borders do not define such relationships: they are not moral borders. And “nearly connected” has a different meaning today than it did in the 18th century. Our ease of travel (if “ease” can be said to apply to anything involving an airport) as well as the flow of images and ideas, both foster and make increasingly apparent the connectedness of humanity. The philosopher Peter Singer is a notable proponent of the worldwide reach of our moral obligations, a subject he takes up in his book “One World: The Ethics of Globalization.”"

For the full text go to

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Prestes Maia 911

Blättert man in diesem Buch mit Bildern von Fensteransichten, fragt man sich unwillkürlich, ob das wirklich Fotos seien, was einem seine Augen da zeigen, denn die Bilder wirken wie gemalt. Dass dunkle Farben vorherrschen und die einzelnen Aufnahmen auf schwarzem Hintergrund präsentiert werden, trägt weiter dazu bei, dass man eher den Eindruck von Gemälden denn von Fotografien hat. Doch was zeigt man uns hier eigentlich?

Bildlegenden gibt es keine und wären da nicht die etwas arg allgemein gehaltenen Vorbemerkungen von Ronaldo Entler sowie die paar (auch nicht besonders aussagekräftigen) Zeilen der Cicero Galerie für politische Fotografie in Berlin auf der vierten Umschlagseite, sähe man wohl kaum viel mehr als ganz verschiedenartige Fenster, in denen sich ganz unterschiedliche Personen in Positur gestellt haben (es gibt auch Aufnahmen von geschlossenen Fenstern), eines offenbar grossen Hauses.

Damit es gleich gesagt ist: es sind sehr ansprechende Bilder, bei denen sich zu verweilen lohnt, nicht, weil sie Geschichten erzählen (das tun Fotos nämlich gar nicht), doch weil sie so arrangiert sind, dass sie in hohem Masse dazu einladen, seine Fantasie auf die vielfältigen Geschichten hinter dem Bild zu richten.

Es muss sich wohl um politische Fotografie handeln, sagt man sich, denn sonst wären diese Fotos wohl kaum in einer Galerie für politische Fotografie ausgestellt worden, die schreibt: „An der Avenida Prestes Maia, einer der grössten Strassen São Paulos, stehen zwei graue Wohnblöcke, die einst als die modernsten Gebäude Lateinamerikas galten. Die leerstehenden Hochhäuser wurden 2002 von 460 obdachlosen Familien besetzt. Diesen Hausbewohnern nähert sich Bittencourt in seiner Porträtserie fotografisch, ohne jedoch in ihre unmittelbaren Lebensräume einzudringen.“

Wem dies als Information etwas wenig scheint, muss selber zu recherchieren anfangen. Im Internet wird er dann fündig und lernt, dass Prestes Maia 911, ein 22stöckiges Gebäude, während sechs Jahren leer gestanden hatte, bevor es, mit der Hilfe der Obdachlosen Bewegung von Central São Paulo, besetzt wurde. Die Familien bauten eine Bibliothek aus weggeworfenen Büchern auf, es gab ein Kino and verschiedene Workshops wurden durchgeführt. Vier Jahre dauerte die Besetzung und in dieser Zeit war die Prestes Maia 911 auch ein Treffpunkt für Künstler. Das Gebäude besteht aus zwei Türmen und Bittencourt fotografierte, von einem Fenster im zweiten Turm, die Bewohner von den Fensterrahmen eingerahmt.

Ein origineller Ansatz. Wie kam er dazu? "Growing up in São Paulo, we had a life between windows: our mothers would call us from them when we were playing football," sagt er. "Communication in these buildings is through the windows." Die Besetzer verstanden das Haus sowohl als einen Platz, um zu leben, als auch als einen Protest. Den meisten von ihnen stellte die Regierung andere Unterbringungsmöglichkeiten zur Verfügung oder entschädigte sie. Für Bittencourt, schreibt der Londoner Guardian, war es nie ein politisches Projekt, sondern es ging ihm um die Menschen, die er dort traf. "I wanted to show them in a different way. Even though the walls are dingy, you see a lot of dignity from the people."

Dem Blogger Jim Johnson gefiel die Aussage gar nicht. “Instead of agents seeking to fend for themselves and their compatriots by making claims on resources and on the state, we instead get bearers of abstract human dignity. You might think this is simply another of my tired left-wing efforts to find some political dimension everywhere. But go ahead and google "homeless movement Brazil." “Wer das tut, stösst unter anderem auf ein Foto, das die Fassade von Prestes Maia mit Bannern behängt zeigt, die politische Botschaften verkünden. Johnson kommentiert:

“In order to make his photographs Bittencourt must've had to walk right under these banners or ones pretty much like them. As he tells The Guardian "I spent three months studying the interior and exterior, the light, the windows, and getting to to know the residents." I wonder how he could've gotten to know the residents without really listening to what they were saying.”

In der Folge meldete sich Bittencourt bei Johnson: “I do have my political views but sincerely don't think I need to make them public. The project itself is a statement. Should talk by itself. I'm a photographer, not a writer nor a 'speecher' … The photographs and book are public and should be commented as you did in your blog. My political views you'll probably never hear of, but see.”

Johnson sieht das alles, wenig überraschend, ganz anders: “The problem, from my perspective, politics is central to the story of that building, of how the residents came to be there, of how they maintained themselves and constructed a community and of how they confronted efforts to evict them. It is central too to the predicaments the homeless and landless confront across Brazil (and elsewhere, including the U.S.). In other words, homelessness and responses to it are a political problem not an individual one.”

Sehr schön, dass diese wirklich sehr ansprechend fotografierten Bilder, zu solchen Auseinandersetzungen führen.

Julio Bittencourt
In a window of Prestes Maia 911 building
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Just out of view

The moon is whole all the time, but we can't always see it. What we see is an almost moon or a not-quite moon. The rest is hiding just out of view, but there's only one moon, so we follow it in the sky. We plan our lives based on its rhythms and tides.
Alice Sebold: Almost Moon

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Sitting for Julia Margaret Cameron

Born in 1815 in Calcutta, educated in England and France, Julia Margaret Cameron settled with her husband in Sri Lanka before they established themselves, in 1848, on the Isle of Wight. At the age of 48 she took up photography and she must have done so enthusiastically and obsessively - sitting for her was no laughing matter as one lady described:

The studio, I remember, was very untidy and very uncomfortable. Mrs Cameron put a crown on my head and posed me as the heroic queen. This was somewhat tedious, but not half so bad as the exposure. Mrs Cameron warned me before it commenced that it would take a long time, adding with a sort of half-groan, that it was the sole difficulty she had to contend with in working with large plates. A minute went over and I felt as if I must scream; another minute, and the sensation was as if my eyes were coming out of my head; a third, and the back of my neck appeared to be affected with palsy; a fourth, and the crown which was too large began to slip down my forehead; a fifth, but here I utterly broke down for Mr Cameron, who was very aged, and had considerable fits of hilarity which always came in the wrong places, began to laugh audibly, and this was too much for my self-possession, and I was obliged to join the dear old gentleman. When Mrs Cameron, with the assistance of 'Mary' - the beautiful girl who figured in so many pictures, and notably the picture called 'Madonna' - bore off the gigantic dark slide with the remark that she was afraid I had moved, I was obliged to tell her that sure I did.

Friday, 3 April 2009


As mentioned in my previous post, I'm presently cleaning house (step by step, so it will take a while). Among the things that I've come across was this photo of me that I took myself or, rather, that the camera that I had placed on a pile of books in front of me (I remember this distinctly) had taken of me. At that time, in 1989, I shared an apartment with my brother Thomas in Lausanne and it was there that the photo was taken. I was alone in the apartment. Scrutinising the picture twenty years later, I'm beginning to wonder whether such a photo could be taken by a person behind the lens. I mean: would I look to the camera in the same way knowing that I'm being observed? I doubt it.
Self-portrait, 1989
Copyright @ Hans Durrer

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Alien abductions and the internet

The other day, when cleaning house, I came across a text about alien abductions and the internet that I had written in 2000. I was somewhat astonished that I would not write it very differently today - and started to wonder if I hadn't progressed at all. The text starts like this:

Have you ever had unexplainable missing or lost time of one hour or more? Have you ever awoken in the middle of the night startled? Have you ever seen a hooded figure in or near your home, especially next to your bed?

If you were to answer these questions affirmatively, your chances of becoming a valuable member of the ring of alien abductees are not too bad. However, before jumping to premature conclusions about visitors from outer space, it might be worth asking your drinking buddies what happened the previous night out on the town.

Many millions, it seems, have had encounteres with alien beings. Searching the web for related issues is extremely rewarding. Type in, say, alien abduction, and the search machine Google, for instance, will come up with 13'700 results (that was in 2’000). Here one can learn that most abductees share common indicators of UFO encounters or abductions by alien beings. There are, one site says, 58 such indicators and these include having had sexual or relationship problems (such as an odd „feeling“ that you must not become involved in a relationship because it would interfere with „something“) or having a difficult time trusting people, especially authority figures. Hard to imagine somebody not having had such experiences, one would think. This is however not as UFO-devotees would have it.

Want to read more? You'll find the full text here