Sunday, 28 February 2010

World Press Photo 2010

The winner of the World Press Photo Award 2010 was Pietro Masturzo's photograph of a group of women shouting from a Tehran rooftop in protest at the Iranian presidential results. To be sure, this is not what the photo shows (how could shouting be shown anyway?), this is what we are told that it shows.

Pietro Masturzo / World Press Photo

My first reaction was bewilderment as to why somebody would choose this to be an extraordinary photo and the more I looked at it, the more confused I became. Had I not been informed that the photo had been taken in Tehran, I would have not guessed it. Had I not been informed that the three women on the roof were protesting the Iranian presidential results, I would have had no way of knowing it.

This photo cannot show what it is said to show, it needs words to be understood. Sure, as Wilson Hicks of Life once said, “the basic unit of photojournalism is one picture with words” yet we have been taught to expect a photograph to be worth a thousand words and not to need a thousand words to explain to us what our eyes are seeing.

Jury chair Ayperi Karabuda Ecer said: "The photo shows the beginning of something, the beginning of a huge story. It adds perspectives to news. It touches you both visually and emotionally, and my heart went out to it immediately."

My experience was different in that the photo did not touch me either "visually and emotionally"; my feelings remained essentially indifferent. Had it not been labelled World Press Photo, I probably would not have given it a second glance. I did however wonder what the criteria could have been for choosing it for the World Press Photo Award 2010.

Juror Guy Tillim commented: "The difficulty in photographing conflict situations is one of portraying the parallel lives involved, of people going on with their lives. This picture has made a very good attempt at marrying these two elements, in giving the conflict a context - and that is a holy grail of photography. The photographer does it with a very beautiful image of an Iranian landscape, which would be worth looking at in itself. But it also arouses our curiosity about the woman shouting - incorporating this moment, the importance of this historical event. It represents a very honest and successful attempt at taking forward our vocabulary of showing things."

True, the "difficulty in photographing conflict situations is one of portraying the parallel lives involved, of people going on with their lives" except that none of this happens to take place in this picture. In fact, no parallel lives involved are shown. Moreover, the protesting women do not go on with their lives, they stand on rooftops shouting.

This picture gives "the conflict a context"? It is more likely the other way round: it is the explaining words that give the conflict a context. The picture, in this case, at best illustrates what words tell us. And, as regards the "very beautiful image of an Iranian landscape": While, as the saying goes, de gustibus non est disputandum, to qualify this picture as beautiful I find a bit of a stretch.

Juror Kate Edwards said: "The photo has a powerful sense of atmosphere, tension, fear - but also of quietness and calm, and in this sense was a challenge as a choice. We were looking for an image that drew you in, took you deeper, made you think more - not just about showing what we already know, but something that asks more of us."

On the one hand, there is no doubt that the choice of this image made many think more - although not necessarily about the picture but rather about the judgement of the jurors. Besides, does this image really radiate tension, fear, quietness, and calm? I'm increasingly inclined to think that we all live on very different planets for none of these sensations I felt when looking at this photograph.

On the other hand, the daunting task of having to consider 101'000 contributions by 5847 photographers has surely played an important role in selecting this image. Since the pictures taken in places of turmoil are often very similar, the judges were very probably influenced by Pietro Masturzo's very original approach: to photograph protesting women on rooftops was a clever idea that nobody else had. The question however is whether this photo works - does it make the protest visible, that is? In my view it does not - the women are too far away, way too much is left to my imagination. But this image surely made us ponder what press photos should be all about. And that is no small feat, I'd say.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Brazilian Cemeteries (2)

Here are some additional photos from the cemetery in the nowhere land of Southern Brazil - a few kilometers from Rio Pardo, that is. I was especially fascinated by the Coke bottle (that contained water, if I am not mistaken) on picture number three. The photos were taken by Ricardo Schütz on 1 November 2009.

Copyright @ Ricardo Schütz

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

On Human Behaviour

People may choose to ignore their animal heritage by interpreting their behavior as divinely inspired, socially purposeful, or even self-serving, all of which they attribute to being human, but they masticate, fornicate, and procreate, much as chimps and apes do, so they should have little cause to get upset if they learn that they act like other primates when they politically agitate, debate, abdicate, placate, and administrate, too.

Although humans and baboons may fight among themselves, dominate others, and keep harems, only humans have the ability to give pious excuses for what they do.

Paranoia is naturally common among all kinds of rulers, especially tyrants and visionaries.

Arnold M. Ludwig: King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership.

Monday, 22 February 2010

In Porto Alegre

Before I left Brazil in mid-February, I spent a few fabulous days in Porto Alegre. This was due to Elsa, a recently graduated psychologist and the younger daughter of my former Brazilian employers and friends, Ricardo and Takako, who showed me a city that, despite several previous visits, I did not know.

I felt sort of in a trance-like-state during the days I was there because I'm usually on my own and so have to organise everything myself but this time I happily followed Elsa who went with her own flow that included visiting friends brewing beer at home (it felt a bit like being in a drug laboratory), a Cechov performance (for free) at the Santander Cultural, having incredibly cheap 'filadelfias' (sushi) and excellent coffee in the Mercado Publico, coffee again in a park café and Guaraná (my favourite soft drink, only available in Brazil) on the top floor of a former hotel near the water, visiting the Cathedral and a church in the process of restauration (imagine that in Switzerland - you will be kicked off the premises immediately), going to used books stores where I found a tome by the wonderful Rubem Alves (in the regular store they had not heard of him!) and record stores (yet none of them had what I was looking for - Companhia do Calypso), strolling around Elsa's neighbourhood (half of it seemed to be jogging) and having lots of enjoyable conversations. I loved it! I felt truly enriched, it was better than anything that I could have imagined.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Das Leben ist der Ernstfall

"Das Leben ist der Ernstfall" heisst das neue Buch des 1937 im niedersächsischen Celle geborenen Jürgen Leinemann, der fünfunddreissig Jahre für den "Spiegel" geschrieben hat und heute von vielen Journalistenkollegen (weiblich wie männlich) als 'grosser Reporter' (Evelyn Roll in der SZ) und als 'einer der profiliertesten und bekanntesten Verfasser von Politikerporträts, Reportagen und Essays' (Wilfried Mommert in Die Berliner Literaturkritik) charakterisiert wird.

Ich selber habe Jürgen Leinemann vor über zwanzig Jahren kennengelernt. Ich arbeitete damals als Herausgeber einer Journalismus-Buchreihe beim Schweizer Verlagshaus in Zürich und hatte ihn angefragt, ob er ein Buch mit mir machen wolle, das einerseits ein Buch zum Wahljahr 1990 werden und andererseits ihn selber, durch eine Auswahl seiner Artikel, als Autor porträtieren sollte. Er sagte zu, schickte mir seine Arbeiten und ich begann mich mit diesen auseinanderzusetzen und lernte dabei einiges: über die Mechanismen der Politik, über die Selbstinszenierungen der politischen Akteure und über Jürgen Leinemann, der mir sympathisch war.

Warum erzähle ich das alles? Um klarzumachen, dass ich "Das Leben ist der Ernstfall" positiv gestimmt angegangen bin. Ganz so also, wie Bücher generell angegangen werden sollten. Und um es gleich vorwegzunehmen: die Lektüre lohnt, denn da setzt sich einer intensiv - also fragend, analysierend und obsessiv - mit seinem Leben auseinander, und da dieser Mann einiges erlebt hat und zu erzählen weiss, erfährt man viel Spannendes, Anregendes und Lehrreiches. Auffallend dabei ist vor allem, wie ungeheuer selbst-analytisch das Schreiben des Autors geprägt ist: was er bei anderen (vor allem den Politikern) bemerkt, kennt er meist von sich selber (die Sucht nach Anerkennung, zum Beispiel), doch zwischen Leinemann und den von ihm Porträtierten, gibt es einen gewaltigen Unterschied: Leinemann stellt sich seinen Süchten, setzt sich mit ihnen auseinander - und das ist eindrücklich, und selten, und weit entfernt von einer psychologischen Nabelschau, denn dafür ist der Mann viel zu sehr Reporter und das meint: neugierig auf die ganze Welt, nicht nur seine eigene.

Leinemann ist einer, der genau hinschaut. Nicht nur bei anderen, auch bei sich selber. Und der deshalb über den ehemaligen CSU-Chef Strauss, der doch immer als Inbegriff vorwärtsstürmender bayerischer Urwüchsigkeit (als er einmal in einem Wahlkampf gefragt wurde, ob er sich nicht vor seinem schwergewichtigen SPD-Herausforderer Hirsemann fürchte, erwiderte er: Solange der sich net auf mich drauflegt ...) beschrieben wurde, klar stellen konnte: "Er marschiert ja auch nicht, wie das Klischee weismachen will, walzt oder schiebt sich schon gar nicht vorwärts. Vielmehr hastet er in weicher Eile, verfällt fast ständig in einen unprägnanten Trippeltrab. Sein Gang hat kein Gewicht."

"Das Leben ist der Ernstfall" ist nicht nur ein genialer Titel, er beschreibt auch treffend, wovon in diesem Werk die Rede ist: von Jürgen Leinemanns Leben. Und dieses besteht vor allem aus Arbeit und dem Streben nach sozialer Anerkennung, die diese bringen soll und über die er sich denn auch wesentlich (doch nicht ausschliesslich, wenn auch in stärkerem Ausmass als ihm offenbar lieb ist) definiert. Und dann, am Ende seines Arbeitslebens, die Diagnose Zungenkrebs.

Von dieser Krankheit (und weiteren Krankheiten) und wie sie den Kranken entmündigt ("Krankheit ist Kränkung, tiefe existenzielle Erniedrigung"), handelt dieses aufwühlende Werk hauptsächlich, doch es geht weit darüber hinaus und ist so recht eigentlich die Beschreibung eines erfolgreichen Journalistenlebens, in dem auch das Persönliche, Private und Familiäre für einmal nicht zu kurz kommt. Zur Illustration hier ein paar Ausschnitte:

"In den vierzig Jahren im politischen Betrieb hatte ich oft genug gesehen, wie schwer sich die Politiker damit taten, Positionen aufzugeben, die ihnen Macht und Bedeutung zu sichern schienen. Ich erlebte das als süchtiges Verhalten, das ich als 'Höhenrausch' in einem Buch beschrieb. Meine These - die ich aus eigenem Suchtverhalten ableitete - wurde öffentlich heftig diskutiert. Nun beginne ich zu ahnen, dass die Suchtphase auch bei mir noch nicht zu Ende ist. Ein tiefes Unbehagen über uneingestandene Halbheiten bedrückt mich.

Der Schmerz sei der Stachel, der uns immer aufs Neue zum Nachdenken über das gesamte Leben nötige, schreibt der Philosoph. Aber in Wahrheit erlebe ich nicht Schmerzen als grösste Herausforderung - die kann die moderne Medizin zumindest weitgehend eindämmen - , sondern die Kränkung des Nicht-mehr-Mitspielen-Könnens, die Fülle von Miseren wie Halsentzündung und Brechreiz, Verschleimung und Mundtrockenheit, Geschmacksunfähigkeit und Schluckbeschwerden - sowie Ohnmacht, Ohnmacht, Ohnmacht.

Mit Macht drängt es mich an die Arbeit. Die lenkt ab. Erst jetzt glaube ich Schäuble richtig zu verstehen, der nach dem Attentat an der Politik festgehalten hat. Arbeit ist nicht nur eine Droge, sondern in diesem Fall Medizin.

Ich wusste es damals noch nicht, aber mehr und mehr war ich unter dem täglichen Rivalitäts- und Erfolgsdruck den politischen Karrieristen der Nixon-Administration ähnlich geworden, über die ich mit kaum verhohlenem Abscheu Woche für Woche schrieb. Ich teilte ihren unersättlichen Hunger nach Anerkennung und Bestätigung. Denn wie sie sah ich mich nicht nur auf der Erfolgsleiter, sondern zugleich auf der Flucht vor einer immer bedrängender werdenden Realität aus Selbstzweifeln, Furcht vor dem Scheitern und quälenden Fragen nach dem persönlichen Preis für die Karriere.

Meine Zweifel an irgendeinem Sinn des Lebens waren gewachsen, und meine Weisheit, zu unterscheiden, was ich ändern könnte und was ich als unabänderlich betrachten müsste, hielt sich - gelinde gesagt - in Grenzen. Häufig war ich ratlos, verzweifelt und zornig.

In Gesundheitsfabriken wie der, in der ich jetzt lag, wurden Krankeiten behandelt, nicht Kranke. Der Mensch zählte nur als Symptomträger, sonst störte er ... Täglich karrten sie mich von einer Station zur anderen, stellten mich ab wie eine Warenlieferung oder sammelten mich grusslos wieder ein. "Die waren nicht bewusst grausam", befand meine Tochter Susanne, die mich häufig begleitete, "die waren Gefangene des Betriebs."

Das ist Aufklärung, wie ich sie mir wünsche: Den Mut haben, selber zu denken und zu zeigen, wo man selber steht. Zusammenhänge aufzeigen, die Dinge einordnen, subjektiv und gleichzeitig um Objektivität bemüht. Dass sich der mit journalistischen Ehren überhäufte Jürgen Leinemann dabei nicht scheut, sich auch mit seinen Schwächen zu zeigen, ist seine grösste Stärke.

Jürgen Leinemann
Das Leben ist der Ernstfall
Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 2009

Thursday, 18 February 2010

In Switzerland

A week ago, I was still in Southern Brazil enjoying (and, at times, suffering from) temperatures of over 30°. As my outfit shows, the Swiss climate is quite a bit different, in almost every sense. No, I do not want to complain, I have not been back long enough ... By the way, complaining is not seen as something negative in Switzerland. Anyway, how could it? It is the Swiss way.

The Rhine plain near Sargans with the Gonzen and the Alvier

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Crazy English

If adults commit adultery, do infants commit infantry? If olive oil is made from olives, what do they make baby oil from? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian consume? A writer is someone who writes, and a stinger is something that stings. But fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce, hammers don't ham, humdingers don't humding, ushers don't ush, and haberdashers do not haberdash ...
... If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese - so one moose, two meese? If people ring a bell today and rang a bell yesterday, why don't we say that they flang a ball? If they wrote a letter, perhaps they also bote their tongue.

Richard Lederer: Crazy English

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Brazilian Habits

When Brazilians leave their home, they carry folding chairs with them.

The first time I became aware of this was in Teresina, Piaui. It was a Sunday and the town was deserted. I was about to cross an empty square when I saw a man park his car, get out, open the trunk and take out a folding chair which he put on the pavement. He then sat there by himself watching what was going on which, at that time, wasn't much. He was in his sixties and didn't really understand my curiosity as to why he was doing what he did. He thought my asking him strange, I thought his behaviour strange. Well, that was then. By now I have spent enough time in Brazil to stop wondering why somebody would park his car in the middle of nowhere, take out a folding chair and then sit there drinking beer, chimarrão or whatever. It is just what Brazilians do.

I have also seen people putting their chairs on the pavement right in front of their house. For quite some time I've found this rather peculiar. I mean, why would anybody prefer to sit on the boardwalk (exposed to exhaust fumes) and block the way of Swiss pedestrians as well as Brazilian cyclists when (s)he could sit comfortably at home and enjoy watching TV?
This is the way I see it: at home you're alone, on the street you are among others, and to sit out there is an invitation to chat - one of the all-time favourite Brazilian pastimes.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

In Torres

This is my third time in Torres, a beach town two to three hours North of Porto Alegre (depending on who does the driving), at the border of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina and it feels quite different from my previous visits. Ricardo had warned me that it wouldn't be the Torres that I knew for this time it was the holiday season. Which means: packed beaches and substancially increased hotel prices. One of the very stable things was the owner of my pousada who looked as sullen as the previous times.

Late in the afternoon, I always go to the same restaurant to have a fruit juice (my present favourites are Açaí, Mango, Caju, Acerola) and a pastel filled with shrimps. When one day the waitress doesn't show up to cash the bill, I go to the counter where I'm met by a very attractive woman in her forties who smiles and says: Visiting again? I was not sure whether I had heard her correctly. Again? I would have surely remembered this beautiful lady if we had met before. I remember you from last year, she smiled. I was flabbergasted. And then decided to remember her too.

One evening I sit at my Laptop in the hotel lobby when a young girl approaches me. Her name is Graziella, she is eight years old and says that she likes to "jogar aqueles joginhos de corrida e bistagulo". Since I do not know what "bistagulo" means, I ask her to explain it. It can be many things, she says but basically it is something that is in your way. Um obstáculo? Yes, that is it. Graziella is from Santa Cruz and her parents are up in their room, she says, so we chat a bit. I ask what her favourite TV programme is. She names six: two in the morning, two in the afternoon, and two in the evening. The next morning, I see her leaving the breakfast room with her mother who greets me in a way that I think she must know me. From Santa Cruz, maybe? A couple of minutes later, a guy, followed by Graziella and her mother, passes by and waves ... I'm not sure, I can't really see him well from that distance ... at me? at the people sitting behind me? When a few hours later, I run into Graziella and her parents I know who they are: we know each other from the gym in Santa Cruz.

When I inquired at the Rodoviaria about buses to Porto Alegre, the guy behind the counter rattled through the full timetable with such a speed that I could not follow. When he realised this, he grabbed pen and paper and jotted down the whole timetable for me. A day later, I had to make a call to Zurich and asked the lady at the internet café whether I had to put a zero before the area code or not. What is the number? she wanted to know. I had it written down and gave it to her. She took a piece of paper and a pen and copied my numbers ("Is this here a 1 or a 4, and this here: a 9 or or is it a 0?") and finally handed me over the number I wanted to dial in her own writing (which, I need to admit, was more easily readable than mine). Difficult to imagine such service in Switzerland or any other place in this universe.

Monday, 8 February 2010

On Language

“I love you” is expressed by “I want you” (te quiero) in Spanish, “(you) are (a) love(-source) (to me)” (suki da) in Japanese, “I love towards you” (aku cinta pada mu) in Indonesian, “I love a part of you” (!) (rakastan sinua) in Finnish, “I wish good (things to happen) to you” (ti voglio bene) in Italian, “to-me from-you love is” (mujhe tum-se pyar hê) in Hindi and many other languages spoken in India, “love I-have-you” (maite zaitut) in Basque, “to me you me-love-are” (me shen mi-kvar-khar) in Georgian (Georgia, southern Caucasus), “I I-you-love” (she ro-haihu) in Guarani (Paraguay).

Other affects and feelings are expressed in very rich, diverse and nuanced ways across languages, whatever the impact of technology in our lives. For example, shame is “seen,” or “eaten,” etc., in such languages as Swahili (Tanzania), Ewe (Ghana and Togo) or Mandarin Chinese; illness “has” me in Moore (Burkina Faso); hunger and fear are “on” me in Irish; “my friend is sick” or “she is happy” cannot be expressed in that way in Japanese, where one has to add a word meaning “apparently” or “allegedly,” because for speakers of this language, ego cannot refer to affects or feelings that s/he does not undergo him- or herself. “To be boring” or “to be bored” are expressed as “to have a millstone around the neck” in Dutch, “to get out from the elbow” in Hungarian, “to talk with one’s lice” in Subcarpathic Gypsy, “to hunt flies” in Moroccan Arabic, “to have one’s anus torn out” in Maithili (India), “to suck the marrow” in Yiddish.

The French linguist Claude Hagège in Q and A: The Death of Languages, The New York Times, 16 December 2009

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Vom Nationalcharakter

Ich hatte immer genaue Vorstellungen vom Nationalcharakter gehabt … aber dann entdeckte ich eines Tages, dass es italienische Zeugen Jehovas gibt … Ich hatte grosse Schwierigkeiten … die testimoni de Geova in mein Bild vom Italienischsein einzufügen.
Tim Parks: Schicksal

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Scared to get caught staring

"Her skin is flawless, her eyes huge and all-consuming", Chrissy Iley writes in the Observer about the actress Susan Sarandon (Sunday 17 January 2010: "Susan Sarandon: sexy, single and 63") and adds: "She is not afraid to look at you and she's not afraid to let you look right in at her. It's an open face. No slyness, no manipulation. She is renowned for being a woman who doesn't fear most things and certainly doesn't fear speaking her mind."

People who are not afraid to look at you are not the rule, and people who are not afraid to let you look right in at them are pretty rare. For looking is essentially taboo, except when you are given permission.

The photographer and editor of Zone Zero, Pedro Meyer, in April 2009, mentioned in an email to me:
"Strangely enough I have been accused of looking, just using my eyes, in a way that some people feel uncomfortable with. To me it seems different, because I know that what I am looking at or for is that I am trying to understand. A far cry from being aggressive or predatory. However, being looked at, is not something that is either polite, in social terms, or accepted too easily, because in essence the person feeling uncomfortable is projecting their insecurity. The question comes up in their minds ... What is he looking at? Why is he looking at me? Who is he to be looking like that?
Well sometimes that can be easily resolved with answers, but then at other moments, the circumstances do not allow for such clarifications. Either because of distance from the subject, language, or spontaneity, etc. etc."

Looking at someone when one is not being noticed is not a problem except of course when it is clear to you that you are not supposed to look. And when is that? You usually know it when you find yourself in such a situation. And that also goes for taking pictures although to hold a camera in your hands often gives you, implicitly, permission to look. And sometimes you are of course quite explicitly invited to take pictures - just think of photo ops, family photographs, portraits etc.

Recently, at the bus station of Iratí, in the Southern Brazilian state of Paraná, I observed two young woman chatting animatedly with one of the bus drivers. I thought it an intriguing picture. I wanted a photo of it and so I took out my camera but then realised that I would need a flash which would certainly draw the attention of the people I was focused on. They probably wouldn't mind though, I thought to myself, yet I did not feel comfortable stealing this picture. And so I didn't take this photograph. Needless to say, as a professional photographer I would be hopeless.

But why is it that the act of closely looking, if it does not happen in a socially acccepted situation, is essentially taboo? My best guess is: Because we do not want, and can't bear, to see the world as it is. As Anton Chekov wrote in Lady with Lapdog:
"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."

In other words: to be superficial is helpful for the truth would be too much to bear. As Nietzsche stated in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil): „Wer tief in die Welt gesehen hat, errät wohl, welche Weisheit darin liegt, dass die Menschen oberflächlich sind. Es ist ihr erhaltender Instinkt, der sie lehrt, flüchtig, leicht und falsch zu sein.“ (He who has seen deeply into the world knows what wisdom there is in the superficiality of men. It is their instinct for preservation which teaches them to be cursory, flimsy, and false).

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Façade in Curitiba

These photos were taken in December 2009.

Copyright @ Hans Durrer