Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 29 2019

Cuba Trip! Part two

Cuba was basically an encapsulation of conservative Americans’ fears of socialism, I wrote in my notebook as we drove on the eastbound road to Matanzas. I’m still not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. I’d chosen Matanzas basically by looking at it on Google Maps: A sleepy port town, not on the tourist track. It seemed a better choice than touristy Vinales, and I’d always liked port towns; I wasn’t particularly interested in cigar manufacturing or horse-riding. And even Ms. D was with us on this excursion. As we drove, a military convoy consisting of two (2) motorcycles hauled a poorly disguised boat onto the highway, stopping traffic for a short spell before heading back off.

After a couple of hours in a van that apparently had no high gear, we drove through town and up into the hills a little ways to visit the famous caves in the area, supposedly discovered by a Chinese miner by accident. We took the tour, quickly falling behind the rest of the group as everyone was taking selfies. Several other groups passed us, and the local photographer/videographer who’d been tasked with recording our visit with a handicam gave up, going on to shoot other tourists. The caves were, well, caves. The guide mentioned how in the early days there were no restrictions, so a lot of the stalactites and stalagmites had been removed by visitors. I was expecting instructions about not touching anything, but he was pretty much: “Hey, touch anything you want! See that pool of water? That’s lucky water! Go play in it!” When some of the group was posing people leaning on a formation for photos, the guide actually helped.

By the time we were done with the caves it was time for lunch, which we had at a place across from the waterside railroad tracks, at the suggestion of our drivers. It wasn’t bad, but of course with the group it took forever; I didn’t get the impression that they usually had that many customers at once, and we rather caught them unawares.

So by the time we were done with the caves and lunch, it was getting on in the day, the day I’d hoped to spend exploring the city. As a result, we only had a short time for people to walk quickly around for a little bit. I found the other end of the now-defunct Hershey Train, and chatted briefly with some fellows standing next to a lovely vintage green Mercedes-Benz, but I didn’t get a chance to actually see much.

We stopped at Cohimar as the sun set, wandering around that seaside village under the gaze of the Hemingway Statue there for a bit. Some of our group insisted on making a Beatles-style lineup shot on top of a fort. Ms. D was setting up shots, putting her straw hat on small local kids and taking their shots. Dinner was lobster at a touristy place off the Cathedral Square back in Havana, and the ensuing wifi access pretty much ensured that we were sitting there the rest of the evening, me tapping my foot impatiently while the others checked their social media for a few hours.

We got up early the next day. Early morning light in Havana is quite nice, especially in Centro just south of the Malecon. It seemed to be the first day of school for some groups of kids, standing in the street outside their school and singing patriotic songs while proud parents looked on. The group ran around photographing, free of fear of retribution, which made me pause. If you don’t usually take that kind of photo in a Western country, would you do it here? If not, is that a double standard? Even if it’s not a double standard, it’s something I’d think one would want to at least be aware of. I kept seeing scenes that I felt sure I could have photographed with a certain amount of concentration and empathy had I not been flanked by five or six camera-wielding members of our group, none of them actually looking at the people in front of them, eyes rather fixated on their LCD screens. Using the Leica Q’s 28mm didn’t help matters, as that camera rewards getting closer, more personal and more intimate, not sniping away from afar in a group as someone could do with a longer focal length. So I passed over scene after scene, feeling more numb to it all. I’d made a point of promising myself nothing on this trip; I knew it would happen and purposely lowered my expectations. But I was still depressed and tired.

Later in the day, men were offloading dead pigs at a market near the train station, which now seems to be under renovation (it was derelict the last time we passed this way). The area has, since our last trip, always been one of Chenbl’s favorite parts of Havana; he kept wanting to go back there. We stopped to chat with a drum maker, hovered around the scene of one of the many broken-down trucks being repaired, but generally just kept walking.

Eventually, as late afternoon approached, I decided I needed a haircut. Usually I just do it myself, but it had been forever since I’d had a nice cut in a Black barbershop, and Havana has no shortage of these, so while everyone else went back to Las Maletas, Carlos, Chenbl and I stopped into a local place, and I enjoyed having what’s left of my raggedy-ass hairline shaped up by the barber as we were treated to the latest tunes from Kendrick Lamar and Future. Though I didn’t understand most of the Spanish banter going on inside, it was pleasant and a good way to regain my peace of mind. Afterwards we walked through the posh, upgraded hotels near the Capitol, past an upscale camera shop with LEICA emblazoned on the front, to the old city and our hotel.

At dinner (lobster, which explained the cats milling around our legs as we ate), a very blonde teen stopped in front of our table and started sketching on a piece of paper while staring at me. Scam, I thought, and shook my head at him. Undeterred, he presented me with a laughably amateur scribbling. “I am no Picasso,” he said, demanding money for the sketch. That much was true; not only was he no Picasso, he apparently didn’t understand that Picasso was basically creating photo-realistic artwork by his age; only later in life did he go for the more abstract pieces he’s known for. But though I was a jerk and didn’t pay up (I told him he should have at least asked me first), I did watch the kid scam several other tourists in this fashion. I wondered if he’d have dared do the same thing or meet with the same success if he were Black; I doubted it. It was just part of the atmosphere in Cuba, something we didn’t really encounter the last time, before the crackdowns both there and abroad.

I should add here that Carlos was extremely helpful not only by helping us translate and provide context, his thoughtful, measured pronunciation of Spanish helped me realize that I could slow down and get my pronunciation right rather than tripping over my own tongue trying to get phrases out too quickly.

We got up early again the next day, our last full day in Havana, and we told everyone we’re just going to walk around…y’all just do your own thing. We took the ferry to Regla, toured the Black church with actual Black Jesuses (Jesi?) depicted inside, and then walked the streets for a while. People in the group started to get hungry and complain, so Chenbl bought nearly every biscuit a local vendor on a bicycle had on him, and handed them out. Back in Havana, we visited the tourist market, which was another long, achingly long stretch of frustration. Desperate vendors, schpiels, the same merch in every stall…the market had shrunk by about a third since the last time we were there, but it seemed interminable just the same.

Then, as the sun began to set, we set out through town again. I had to visit the park that David Alan Harvey had told me the location of, where at least three well-known Magnum photographs had been taken. The playground has since been renovated, but I could still make out where the Magnum photos had been taken. It seemed that both David and Alex Webb had taken nearly the same shots just at the entrance of the playground, which is interesting. The light was nice there, and I would have liked to have stayed, but we had to go. Again.

We walked through Centro again, making for the National Hotel, which was such a long way that before long only a couple of the group were still with us. Kids were playing baseball in the streets. Beggars followed Chenbl, one so persistently that Carlos and I had to flank him and suggest that he might want to move on. Back at the hotel, as we arranged for vans back to the airport later that night, the landlady told us how she basically had to go to Mexico to get anything, and customs was a nightmare.

My room was unavailable that night, but it was ok as we had to leave at 3:00 a.m. so I just slept in the security room. Our flight was at 7. At one point on the dark drive, I awoke from a nap and realized that we were no longer on the main road, but rather taking a shortcut on backroads, passing near what looked like a incarceration facility. For some reason at that empty hour a sudden fear sprang into my mind, that something had gone horribly wrong, the drivers had set a trap, and we were actually being delivered to prison. But the feeling passed as we drove on and the airport came into view against the glowing horizon.

We bade Carlos farewell; his plane, bound for Honduras and then Guatemala, was parked next to ours, and leaving right after us. It felt a little like Hoth. I didn’t feel sorry to be leaving; unlike the last time we’d gone, this trip had been frustrating and a bit of an ordeal. I don’t know what lies in store for Cuba. Better things than now, I hope. I wish them the best.

Toronto was colder than when we’d left. We arrived way too early to check in to the Comfort Inn, and it was drizzling outside, so at Karl’s suggestion, we spent most of the day at a huge mall. Something -dale…Yorksdale: Massive, but seemingly very repetitive stores. The sun came out for a moment, dazzling everyone, and then hid again. An obviously armed security guard came up to Chenbl and I, asking if we were looking for anything in particular. I assume this had something to do with the fact that I was by far the worst-dressed individual in the mall at the time, and that’s saying something. The next day Karl showed us around the St. Lawrence Market, Eaton Mall, and the fountain made up of happily vomiting dogs, all in between periodic cups of coffee. We also perused the World Press Photo awards.

The sun was out in force the next day, though it was still chilly. We traveled into town via the circuitous bus/subway combination that everyone was convinced took far less time than it actually did. When we exited the station downtown, we were greeted with very lovely light flashing down from many different buildings at once. I wanted to explore this scene, seeing several wondrous possibilities within walking distance, but the group had to make a birthday song video for Carlos first. This took a while, of course, and by the time we were done, the light had moved on, becoming rather mundane. Oh well. It was probably a trap anyway.

We took a ferry out to the islands on the other side of the harbor. Quaint little places, forest paths, docks full of cleverly named sailboats. On the other side was a pleasant little beach with the water of Lake Ontario lapping gently on the sand. A man in a wheelchair rolled up and gazed at the water for a while. We walked along the island through disc-golf courses and waterways filled with swans and other wildlife to the central part, where we had some lunch at the Carousel Cafe, where the salmon salad and mac and cheese we ordered arrived with surprising alacrity. Chenbl was initially dismayed at the sight of mac and cheese, but after a taste was convinced it was a good choice.

Back downtown, the light was becoming quite nice. Karl had told us that he’d be around a certain intersection, but apparently we missed each other. But ducklings gonna duck, and just for fun after noticing them following me I walked in circles for a while before they caught on. Then I spotted a nice series of columns across the street, and quickly crossed over to take a few photos there. Periodically people would walk by, but nobody took any notice of me.

…until the others showed up, having crossed the street at the next intersection and come back. Flanked by several people, all holding their cameras up, I began to notice the people on the sidewalk throwing us annoyed looks, even though I was no longer taking any pictures. I should move on again, I thought…but wait; perhaps they need to know that this kind of thing has consequences, apart from simply the usual bad photos. So I walked up to one of the windows along the wall and took a shot of my reflection. It wasn’t even a shot of any of the people there, but one woman,  unsurprisingly, spoke up. “Hey, could you all stop taking pictures of people here? It’s really rude.”

“My apologies for the inconvenience,” I said, meaning it. “We’ll go.” I just hoped that the people in our group had taken note of what had just happened.

I was pretty much done in any case. Chenbl and I had some dinner at the Eaton Mall before browsing Best Buy, where Chenbl was powerless to resist the call of the big-ass boombox on display (it did sound amazing, I will admit), the price a fraction of what it would be in Taiwan. We lugged the damn thing on the subway as a group of white teens spouted ignorant homophobia and racist nonsense to a younger boy who was obviously in high heaven to be amongst his heroes. Then it was the bus back to the hotel to prepare for yet another late-night flight.

It was a long flight, 15+ hours just to Hong Kong. We flew over the north pole, and it felt like it as the plane was so cold. Back home, it has taken me a minute to get my mind right again. Chenbl’s been asking me where we should go next, but right now I. just. can’t. even. In any case, though it was a bit of an ordeal at times, I hope that you’ve at least enjoyed reading about it.

posted by Poagao at 4:22 pm  
Oct 24 2019

Cuba Trip! Part one

I started this trip in a state of apprehension; too many things going on. I’ve missed that old feeling of just setting off into the world that I used to get; it’s been too long since those days. I keep hoping it might return someday. I got an inkling of it as we took the metro, but at the airport more details pulled me back into limbo. Students began to appear, part of our group, as well as their friends and spouses along for the ride, to get a glimpse of whatever this whole “street photography trip” thang was. But I felt obstructed, like I was in everyone’s way. Our reserved seats were gone? Ok, fine.

Hong Kong airport, when we got there, was awash in the migraine-producing afternoon sun; the students ran around in groups holding their cameras in front of them like filled diapers, succumbing to the trap of “good light”. I looked at the people getting on the plane and wondered how many of them were going into exile. How many were starting new lives elsewhere, never to return?

The ensuing flight to Toronto was one of the longer I’ve taken, worth several movies I hadn’t seen and a few I had. A season of Black-ish. Some Bob’s Burger. Nothing happened outside the plane, or inside for that matter.

In Toronto, we found the old van that was the hotel shuttle, and then for some reason found that our rooms had all been reassigned from the original website booking at the airport Comfort Inn, many double bed rooms were now singles; the woman at the desk said that’s what our reservations were, and when I looked, that was indeed what it said. It’s not us! she said, talk to the booking site. Fortunately Chenbl had made pdfs of the original bookings, and so I had an online chat with the website customer service, who assured me all was well. The desk woman then called up, affronted that I would do exactly what they told me to do when I complained by taking the matter up with the website. The website apparently called the hotel up and said WTF.

I had disliked Vancouver when I was there last, but Toronto felt different, more earnest and less insecure. Or perhaps that was because it wasn’t freezing so I wasn’t in as nasty a mood. We walked around the cloudy grey of downtown, through the recently deserted square where they’d held Nuit Blanche the night before. A huge scarred model of a Pentax K1000 stood in the middle of it. A group of subdued protesters marched through the square, chanting education slogans.

Chenbl and the others wanted to see Niagara Falls, so we hopped on a bus there, stowing our stuff at the Ramada Inn we’d reserved there for the night. The rooms, and the hotel, were much nicer than the Airport Comfort Inn. There was no breakfast, but an iHop downstairs and a Buddhist monastery next door. We hopped on a bus down to the falls and looked at all the water as well as all the people looking at the water. Across the river was the United States, and with all the signage and bars they made sure everyone knew it. The place felt like I imagine a small version of Las Vegas would feel. We walked back towards the hotel after the sun set, bathing the eerily empty town in lovely golden light, and I could think of nothing but a sudden realization of why Alec Soth was so smitten by this place that he made a book of it. I could have wandered, but now everyone was hungry, so: dinner at a steakhouse, looking out the large windows while everyone discussed what meal to have. Next time! Except there is no next time; there never is.

We took another series of buses the next morning up to a little town chock full o’ preciousness called Niagara on the Lake. The-King-stayed-at-the-Inn!-Well-More-Like-Passed-Through kind of place. Lovely houses, tourists everywhere. Chenbl and I walked the precious streets, noting the bees inside the glass cabinets full of cookies and cakes. Bees! So it must be good, Chenbl noted, nodding. We all love bees these days. We used to hate them but now when we see a bee we ask how it’s doing and if it would like some water or something.

Then we took a cable car that went nearly all the way over the river before heading back to the falls. Some of the group wanted to take the boats to under the falls, but I didn’t feel like getting myself and my camera soaking wet, so Chenbl and I decided to take a zipline by the falls instead. It was fun, but too short. We wandered the town some more, from the strip of gaudiness by the falls, neon signs, Ripley Believe it (or Nah), etc. to the quiet motels and empty shops. Beautiful dusk light as we walked to a bar to get burgers for everyone waiting back at the station for our late-night bus back to Toronto.

The next day we met up with Karl Edwards, a local street photographer, and shot for a bit at a salmon jump near Old Mill…groups of kids on field trips scampered around, but precious few salmon were jumping. I didn’t care, but Chenbl perched himself on the edge of the dam and waited for a long time to get some fish shots. Then Karl took us around downtown, which was now brilliant with sunlight. It was difficult to keep everyone together…someone was always complaining about us going either too fast or too slow. Photography in such a state is quite difficult…Oh well. Next time! We took the UP train back to the airport. The UP line is fast and convenient. But people in the group were complaining because they didn’t like to buy tickets each time, but they didn’t feel like buying the Presto card, which would have been cheaper and meant buying tickets every time, which meant everyone waiting around for the group to get their tickets…so…?

Karl walked with us again the next day around Chinatown, and he even suggested dimsum for lunch. The light was very strong, the cable cars running up and down. Chenbl and I walked around a bit on our own, having sent everyone off to do their own thing for a few hours. We stopped at the art museum before heading back to the airport. I still liked Toronto more than Vancouver…it just felt more chill for some reason…though like Vancouver there are far too many hulking blue skyscrapers. I’m sure there’s nowhere I could afford to live in either town.

But we had a redeye flight to Havana to catch, which was mainly why we’d elected to stay by the airport. The terminal was swank, with iPads for everyone and a bar so everyone could get drunk for the party flight down. The fully booked jet waited far out on the tarmac as we were taking the cheap Rouge option with no frills; everything on board cost money, so I drank water and listened to Spotify for entertainment. Both the flight and Customs were smooth, and we met our old friend Carlos, just flown in from Guatemala to join our excursion. Outside the terminal in Havana, our two hotel bus drivers were apparently expecting “LIN” to be a svelte young Asian woman, and were visibly disappointed to find my ugly mug instead. But they took us into town anyway.

At the hotel there was some bullshit when one of the students (a former student, so this was not entirely unexpected behavior) took issue with not all the rooms in the ancient edifice being exactly the same. Ceiling heights were a factor, apparently, as ludicrous as that sounds. It was as if she didn’t know nor care that she was in Cuba, FFS. There was a lot of sighing and drama and accusations, but Chenbl and Carlos and I agreed to switch rooms with Ms. P. Donna and everyone finally got to bed around 3:30 a.m.

The next day we just walked around the area, letting everyone get accustomed to the place. There were lots of difference from the last time we’d been there a year and a half ago; everything in the city seemed to be under construction; mostly old buildings being refurbished, but some new buildings as well. More new cars, restaurants, even new cruise ship terminals, all in preparation for the opening to the world that Obama began and Trump then crushed. Some serious private money had been spent before the Large Orange One pulled the rug from underneath them. Of course the Cuban government also deserves its share of the blame for utter mismanagement and corruption.

We stopped by the mojito bar again; the drinks were better this time, and the band was good. Most of the bands here are good. Our group, many of whom had put on hats, sunglasses and facemasks so that they resembled an Invisible Man Fan Club, ran around holding their cameras out in front of them, fixated on the little screens, and of course taking photos of whatever I was photographing or looking at. I could turn around at any point and see a line of them standing behind me, cameras held out in front of them. It was amusing the first couple of times.

Chenbl found a barber to get a haircut, which is always fun. Then we walked down to the Malecón and then into Centro for some lunch of ham sandwiches on the street as a couple of dogs watched from a barred window across the way. Then we headed back through the square where we’d spent so much time waiting for buses last time, and then to the Chinatown Gate. A man approached Chenbl, wanting to show him his ramshackle house, and of course Chenbl went with him. Sighing, I followed, for there were sure to be shenanigans. Sure enough, the man started going on about feeding his children, etc. Chenbl gave him some money, but he wanted more, so I moved away, towards the exit, and Chenbl followed my lead. It was sad all around. I was sensing a greater desperation in people than the last time we’d been there, which should have come as no surprise. The hawkers were more insistent, more people weren’t even bothering to even pretend to offer anything, simply coming up and asking for money. They’re feeling the squeeze, but of course the government isn’t feeling it, so the wrong people are being squeezed. Needless suffering, i.e., politics. Seeing this, as well as knowing the history of repression of the people, made me more hesitant to take photographs. I knew and they knew that they could get into serious trouble if they messed with tourists.

We made our way back to our hostel, the Las Maletas, which was great; I’d recommend it highly. Located in a lovely old building in old Havana, close to just about everything, the hosts were gracious and understanding, the breakfasts good, and they helped us plan our days as well as they could. I had a room at the top of the stairs in the back, with only a tiny window looking out on the adjacent dance studio, but I loved coming back there after a day of walking around the city, listening the music and voices wafting in from the street as I took a cold shower. The only rain we saw was at night. Like Camelot, but not, because the poor state of drainage on the streets meant nearly constant puddles everywhere. Nice for reflection shots; not so nice for walking.

The next morning Chenbl and some of the others had to go to the bank around the corner to change money…that gave me a little time to walk around on my own taking photos…alas, all too soon we were all together again, moving ducklike through the lively streets. We stopped into a shop to get some cigars, and then went to the old square, where a man straddled a stage he was constructing. I took a few photos, and when he came down I gave him some vitamin water to drink. After lunch we took a glance at the Peter Turnley exhibition, which wasn’t all that impressive. But then I’ve never really been a huge fan of either Turnley. It’s nice that they have that little gallery space, though.

Nearby a school was letting out, the parents waiting for the kids outside. Of course our group stood in a line, surrounding the door, cameras held up and at the ready. Oof. I had to go sit down a little ways down the street until they finished.

We took a ferry across the harbor, something I usually enjoy, and were asked for candy from some of the kids fishing at the dock. Carlos was sitting with a brother-and-sister team who were quite the comedians. A hot walk up the hill later a few of us were looking at the Christ statue. A group of Russians, including a woman in a scarf, was taking selfies while making poses in front of the statue. Then we walked back down to the ferry, as most of the group hadn’t been in the mood to follow.

That night we took vans out to the recently re-opened Factory de Arte, and I spent most of the time watching a fantastic Black trumpeter who shared the stage with a timid but also not bad white saxophonist and a young white woman playing the flute who really had no business being on the stage. There was also an extremely self-indulgent photo/art show upstairs. Everyone who’s anyone in Cuba was there; it was interesting, though I am no one and thus effectively invisible in such places. Which is fine with me.

The next day we (well, most of us…Ms. Donna graced us with neither her august presence nor financial contributions ) took vans out to Fusterlandia, a tiled home that has become a tourist attraction, but the surrounding village turned out to be more interesting than the exhibit. It’s astounding how much potential there is in the people of Cuba, their resourcefulness and ingenuity, I thought as I walked around the area. If they leapfrogged the petroleum industry and went straight to electric, it would be utterly amazing. I walked alone towards the seashore, passing through a junkyard that had been a playground. A trio of young boys played on the broken swing set, and I paused to engage in a short conversation in my broken Spanish with a man who was working on a house. It wasn’t his house, he said, resigned. He could never afford it. Carlos often told me my Spanish was better than I thought it was, but to be honest it’s just not good enough for anything more than basic conversation.

A magic dog bustled around a busy market, but our lunch was to be quite posh, on the water at Hemingway Marina, built for use by foreigners who are allowed to use boats. The waiter tried to add US$50 to our bill, but two of our number are accountants, and they weren’t having it. Chenbl still tipped him. We drove a ways out of town in the afternoon, Universal Studio-esque clouds building up as we walked around a run-down neighborhood. Though everyone was friendly, some of them told Carlos that parts of it might be dangerous, that we should avoid going a certain direction. Everyone seemed to think Carlos was Mexican, and he was constantly correcting them.

On the way back to old Havana, we stopped for a bit at Revolution Square to wonder if the giant heads came alive at night and compared selfie counts (Che always wins, and it drives Cienfuegos CRAZY). It rained hard after dinner as we walked around the old town, filling up the puddles for the next day, so we waited under the eaves of a large government building, ignoring the calls of passing, well-lit cabs.

 

posted by Poagao at 6:13 pm  
Sep 26 2019

This world and that

Everyone at the campfire last night was talking about the upcoming Oculus Connect 6 announcements. People were speculating about new gear, new capabilities, doubting Facebook’s intentions, etc. I’ve met some interesting people there at times…other times there’s not much going on. On occasion, there are idiots. And sometimes shouty kids who have slipped past the cordon, but they are usually kicked out.

None of us were really there, of course. And there’s not even any real “there” there; it’s a virtual reality social space called Altspace. We’re all in our individual locations, living rooms, offices, cars, truck cabs at rest stops…wherever. The portability and ease of the Quest has made it easily the favorite gear to use to access these spaces. I’d been using the Sideload app to gain access a month or so before the official release, but now it seems like just about everyone there is using the Quest; you can tell because they move their hands and heads and walk around in sync with their actual physical selves.

This adds another dimension to communication beyond speech: Headnods, fistbumps, daps and other gestures are now all part of the mix…just seeing someone look away or put their hand behind their head when they say something tells you more than mere speech would. And, generally, just “being” there, with full motion, in the 3D environment that you move about in freely. Even the audio is spatial; you can pretty much tell who around you is talking even without looking to see which Lego figure (which is what most of the avatars resemble at this point; a new system is in the works, however…Altspace people say they’re rebuilding it from the ground up) or robot figure is speaking. Why some people chose more human avatars and others choose robots is a fascinating topic by itself.

I’ve witnessed roast sessions and rap battles, and yes, they were most entertaining. There’s even an amateur improv show every week, stage and all. By early next year, supposedly, our hands will be mapped directly from the headset, rather than using controllers. These are people in all corners of the world, yet somehow standing next to each other, just talking, as if you bumped into them on the street. And since the streets these days are filled with people texting on their phones, it actually feels refreshing to just talk with strangers from literally anywhere, as if you were together. The armor of the keyboard warrior is somewhat thinner; these are your actual words, not text to impress and be impressed by; you hear them as does everyone else in the vicinity. It’s…different. You can still be a jerk, of course, but when doing so, you feel more like a jerk than you would just typing impersonal letters on a keyboard.

It should of course be noted that Facebook itself is launching Horizon, its version of a virtual social environment, though after seeing how Facebook censors certain voices and allows others to voice BS, I can’t say I’m not concerned that that space could end up being similarly toxic.

But it’s strange, the feeling of presence in these places that don’t exist. After greatly enjoying the first episode of Vader Immortal, a canon Star Wars story produced by LucasFilm, I’m looking forward to going back into that world for the newly announced Episode II. And it does feel like actually going back there; the detail and atmosphere of these worlds can be jaw-dropping. When a door opened in front of me in a corridor and a stormtrooper charged out, I literally jumped back and said, “Oh shit!” while my virtual companions actually dealt with the situation. Not the most heroic of actions (I suspect I’d be rather useless in a real Star Wars environment), but honest at least. And at another point when we were edging along a shelf high above Mustafar, I just sat down on the ledge for a minute to enjoy the view of the lava and occasional TIE fighter flying by, even though my droid kept reminding that we were, uh, like, kind of in a hurry, you know? Being chased, threat of imminent capture…any of that ring a bell? The dialog is actually well written, I have to say. And the view was nice (again, I would suck at actual Star-warring).

But the point is that I was there.

Some friends have expressed concern that these virtual environments will cut off our connection with the real world, but, perhaps ironically, I find myself with a renewed appreciation for the details and subtleties of said world, sometimes just letting go and looking around me at all the wonderful things that, if they were part of a simulation (as some argue this world actually is), are so intricate and beautiful. Could it be that virtual reality’s greatest gift is an appreciation for actual reality? That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to meeting up with Monsieur Vader once again. Dude is downright intimidating when he’s standing in front of you, threats in his voice as well as his stance and movements. It’s a good thing there’s no real way to “lose” the game (that I know of), because I suspect one of the smart-ass remarks I make to him would earn me a force-choking.

Whenever I see VR being discussed on “traditional” media such as Facebook or tech sites, many people seem to have long-since dismissed it, especially after Spielberg’s dismal rendition of it in Ready Player One. It’s mostly tech people who are dissatisfied with the specs of the gear involved. “Deal killer” is an oft-mentioned term (then again it’s the same for camera gearheads). But there seems to be a general gulf of awareness between that world and the Internet As We Know It, like using radio to convince people to try television (which eventually worked? I assume?). Will it become impassible, or will it eventually disappear? Time will tell, I guess. When I started this blog in early 2001, even such things as smartphones weren’t even around yet, but after a few first-iteration clunkers, they’re now so commonplace that hardly anyone would entertain the thought of leaving the house without one. Will it be the same with VR? Noted photography critic A.D. Coleman wrote in 2014, “Much of the incunabula in any new medium tends to rely on mere novelty — look, I can do this! I can do that! — because its pioneer practitioners have to concentrate on mastering the toolkit, and the technology is unfamiliar and cumbersome…Once they learn how to control the tools, and the tools become more sophisticated and easier to handle, creative attention gets turned to what the artist has to say.” So it would seem that we are in this first, vital stage of the medium’s development.

What happens next? Maybe we can talk about it at the campfire.

posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm  
Sep 24 2019

Luck

I was on my way to violin class yesterday when I spotted the local locksmith, an elderly man I haven’t seen around in ages, at his tiny corner shop on my street. He was clearing things out.

“I’m retiring,” he told me when I asked him what he was doing. “Clearing out all this old stuff. I’m done.”

When I told him I was having some trouble with the lock I bought from him nearly 15 years ago, however, he said, “Let’s go take a look. That lock shouldn’t be broken this soon. It was built to last.” He remembered exactly what make and model he’d sold me all those years ago, when I’d first moved into the Water Curtain Cave.

We went up, and he borrowed a can of WD40, spraying into the lock at various expert angles, and soon enough it was working like new again. “If you’d gone to any other locksmith they would have told you it was broken beyond repair and made you get a new one,” he told me. “It was lucky you ran into me today! I won’t be answering calls from now on.”

I tried to offer him money, but he refused. “You’re the photographer who took those photos of the fruitseller next door’s kids. It’s on the house!” Cool.

When I first moved in, I thought that that little triangle of illegal, ramshackle houses by the bridge in Bitan was an eyesore, and would be much nicer as a park, as the city government designated it long ago. But over the years I’ve come to know many of the shop owners and people who live and work there, and I’ve come to appreciate the community, although I still wish they could live somewhere without the ever-present threat of eviction, somewhere with a little more security and safety. Still, much of this society works, after a fashion, on the very existence of this grey area in between legal and illegal. The entire nation, in fact, seems to exist here. So without that, we’re all out of luck. And we need all we can get.

 

posted by Poagao at 10:56 am  
Aug 20 2019

East Coast journal ’19

The mood wasn’t quite as ebullient as usual when we met up at our usual spot at Taipei Main Station before heading to Taitung. For one thing, it was too hot to sit outside as we usually do; we instead huddled around one of the entrance hall pillars. All of the convenience stores were boarded up for some reason. It felt like moving day, even more so because of all the travelers with luggage passing through. But mainly it was because we all recalled the last time we’d gone to Taitung.

We made the train easily, though Conor was late and Thumper had to ride a lightning cab down the mountain to make it in time. I’d gotten some lunch at Mosburger and waited until the train emerged from the tunnel to reveal the somewhat distressed landscape of northeast Xinbei to partake of my meal, listening to Thumper describe his life as a hardcore bicycle enthusiast.

Our destination this time wasn’t Taitung but Yuli, where we were picked up by a couple of vehicles driven by organizers to take us to Chenggong where the show was. The guards at the venue originally insisted on guiding us to the parking lot before the sight of the huge orange tub confirmed that we were indeed one of the bands playing on the large grassy slope between the mountains and the sea. I originally thought that we should be playing facing the sea, as that would be the logical fengshui, but as dusk fell and the mountains glowed with clouds, their arrangement began to make sense. As we sat on the marble benches looking out at the sea waiting for our soundcheck, one of the staff tried to shoo us away until we told them we were playing. After such a long hiatus, perhaps we no longer look like a band. It’s been months, after all.

The show went without a hitch, though none of us could see the audience, me especially as I was wearing my usual sunglasses in the glare of the stage lights. We could hear them, though, and what we heard was encouraging. We told them they could dance, but when people tried to dance, the show videographers told them not to block their shots. Oh, well.

The moon rose up through layers of clouds out to sea behind the stage during the next band’s show, which was magical; the audience took out their mobile phones with lights on the screens, today’s version of lighters, I suppose, looking like artificial life had sprung up on the meadow. I wandered around, not really connected with anyone or anything. I tried to sit on the grass and watch the moon, but one of the staff told me it wasn’t allowed. So I went up to the sea waste recycling museum and took in the exhibits. Old flip-flops, nets, PET bottles made into art. And air conditioning.

After the last band, a heavy metal group, it was time to go to our hotel outside of Taitung, though Thumper and Conor decided to go stay with their Swiss friend Urs. Slim, Cristina and I hopped in our ride, which was a tricked-out Japanese car on low-profile wheels, dual sunroofs, an LED light system and a dope sound system whose sub-woofer rattled nearby windows. It was driven by a lithe, tattooed young man who disdained shirts. As we drove along the coastal highway, he mixed and matched and DJ’d, showering our ears with various hip-hop classics. He also took requests, and at various points we were singing along to Snoop Dogg, MC Hammer and even Green Day, rolling down the windows and sinking down in our seats as we proceeded to wake up everyone in the vicinity. When we stopped at a 7-eleven, David, who took another car, stuck his head out the window to stare at us. His ride was quiet and contemplative.

The hotel was out of the city, quiet at that hour. Slim played the piano in the lobby. “It wants to be played quietly,” he said, and then played it so loudly that the lone clerk told him to cut it out. David went to bed, while Cristina, Slim and I were joined by one of the organizers in lounge chairs on the front patio, where we chatted a little. I wasn’t drinking; I’d learned my lesson on the last trip. I was exhausted, though, and soon went up to sleep.

The next day, after the much-appreciated hotel breakfast, we piled in the van that the organizers had hired to take us back to Taipei. This was because they’d failed to procure train tickets back, which meant a long, long ride back up the coast. But first we drove up to Dulan, where David, Conor and Cristina wanted to go swimming. Thumper was out somewhere river tracing with Urs, and Slim settled down on the curb outside our friend Red Eye’s coconut hat stand/LP music factory. I’d been hankering for some coffee, so I walked through the town, eventually ending up at the same place I’d had coffee the last time we were in Dulan. I always like walking through that town.

The last time we were in Dulan, we’d been joined by my old newspaper comrade-in-arms Brian Kennedy. He’d been in fine form then, but not long after he was felled by a stroke and passed away. So a shadow lay over this trip. Even the table by the road where Brian, David and I had sat up talking and drinking had been cleared away, as if they knew what it meant to us and removed it to spare us that particular twist of recollection. But I also think this trip was a kind of way of dealing with the last one, perhaps even a private tribute of sorts. I’d like to think so, anyway.

We managed to set off north early in the afternoon. We wanted to break the long trip up, making plans to have a nice seafood dinner in Ilan, but I had my doubts and filled up on fish and chips before we left. Chenbl had been warning of thunderstorms and landslides on that treacherous route that has claimed many lives over the decades. A safer, smoother bypass route has been hamstrung by politics for years. But the trains and planes were booked, and no one wanted to drive to Kaohsiung to take the bullet train north, so the east coast road it was.

It wasn’t an unpleasant trip. With Thumper staying on in Taitung, it was just the five of us in the large, brand-new VW van. The driver, Mr. Wu, hailed from Ilan and obviously knew his business. We played songs on the portable speaker I’d brought. David and I talked about art, and the similarities between communicating with music and photography, the creative process, etc.

We stopped along the beach in front of the Hualian Air Force base. It was starting to rain. By the time night fell, we were threading the tall cliffs, the downpour lashing the top of the van, and quick glimpses of tiny fishing harbors far below us were the only indication of our height. Chenbl called periodically whenever there was a signal, wondering where we were. I watched the lights outside the rain-streaked window, and put on some old Japanese tunes. Somehow rainy nights call for old Japanese music.

Dinner in Ilan was not to be; the restaurant was closed by the time we made it that far up the coast, so we had some quick snacks at a roadside 7-Eleven before heading to the Xuesui Tunnel and Big Bad Taipei.

Mr. Wu dropped us off at TaiPower Building, and such was the mental space of that journey that I completely forgot my speaker as we piled into a cab that took us back to our respective abodes.

posted by Poagao at 12:32 pm  
Jul 25 2019

The master

I happened to be walking through the CKS Hall station rotunda the other day when I spotted the old blind man who often plays the violin in that particular spot, which amplifies the sound outwards, unfortunately in his case as his intonation is atrocious. On that day, however, he wasn’t sawing away, a fact for which my ears were most grateful. In fact, he was talking with a woman I know from my own violin class, as well as another woman I didn’t know.

Curious, I approached them and greeted my classmate, who is in a wheelchair. She seemed more subdued than usual but said hello. “Who is this? Your classmate?” the old man said.

“We study violin together,” I said, adding, “She’s very good, one of the best students in the class.” I wasn’t being polite; she is very good.

But the old man just said, “She’s terrible; she can barely play.”

I paused for a moment. Had he not heard her play? Though not a professional, she is certainly already a much better player than the old man. My classmate looked even more embarrassed, and it occurred to me that I had no clue just what was going on here. Still, I felt obligated to say something in her defense at this preposterous judgement by a man who was literally unable to play a single song in tune. “Oh, I think she’s quite good, she is diligent and one of the teacher’s favorites as far as I can tell.”

Throughout the conversation, the other woman, an older, somewhat pinched-looking individual, seemed to be getting more and more agitated, and it was at this point that she finally spoke out. “Master, you’re talking to her friend as if he were Taiwanese. I am telling you, he is not!”

“Oh?” said the old man.

“He actually is,” my classmate murmured.

“Why do you say I’m not Taiwanese?” I asked the woman.

“Yes, why do you say that?” the old man said, his brow furrowed.

“It’s obvious from your appearance!” she said, glaring at me malevolently for my obvious deception of the old man.

“Hmm, well, as a Chinese person, are you quite sure you know what a Taiwanese person is supposed to look like?” I said.

“I am not Chinese!” she said, indignant. “I’m Taiwanese!”

“Oh,” I said, shrugging innocently. “Sorry, but from looking at you I feel you must be Chinese.”

I noticed that my classmate seemed to want to disappear into the floor; I was not making any friends here, that much was certain. The “master” asked me to say a few choice words and phrases to him, and, sensing that I should try and play nice for my classmate’s sake at least, I obliged.

“He sounds Taiwanese to me,” he pronounced, as the older woman hovered uncomfortably close to the back of my shaven head. I looked around.

“Uh, just what are you doing?”

“Ah-HA!” she exclaimed. “Master, I can see that his hair on his head isn’t black, it’s brown! He must be a foreigner! He can’t be Taiwanese!”

“Hmm,” said the old man, who seemed already bored by all of this. So was I, to be honest. My classmate hadn’t said a word, and I was obviously unaware how deep this well of weirdness went, but I was pretty sure I did not want to find out.

“This is all very, uh, fascinating, but…I’ve got to meet someone,” I said. This much was true; I was meeting Chenbl for dinner just across the square. I wished he were there; he would have had some fun with the situation. But no, there was something too strange even for Chenbl here; most likely he would have pulled me out of there warning me to keep my mouth shut.

“See you in class!” I waved to my classmate as I walked away. She waved back, hesitantly.

God knows what they said about me after I left.

posted by Poagao at 9:08 pm  
Jun 01 2019

One Down

A while back I saw a Facebook post by a former friend of mine from junior high school, letting everyone know that his father had died in his sleep the night before. Below the post were various heartfelt condolences, most from strangers but a few from people I’d known when I was growing up.

I didn’t write anything; I’d hated my friend’s father. But perhaps that’s oversimplifying things; I hated many things back then, including myself.

By the time we finally moved back to Florida from Texas in 1982, I was damaged and insecure, paranoid and closed off in my efforts to cope with a lack a friends and an abundance of bullies, a far cry from the happy, optimistic boy who had moved out to Texas halfway through first grade after my father lost his job. I’d thought at the time that in returning to Florida I was returning to society, a place where I could once again function normally, but I failed to realize that not only was I bringing the effects of the toxicity I’d nurtured in the greater Houston area with me, other factors would soon be throwing things even further out of whack.

I made friends at the mostly white Maitland Junior High School after my return just in time to start 7th grade, other kids my age, including Michael, who lived down the street, and Ben and Bill, who became my best friends, because we were 12 and that’s what one does when one is 12. We hung out together in class and between classes, at lunch, after school, talking D&D and movies and trading jokes, designing supercars on the backs of our folders and founding a secret ninja death squad. I was a quick wit for my age and didn’t hold back, something that endeared me to some and annoyed others. Ben and Bill seemed to be the former.

Ben’s father Jack was the scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout troop, which was also overwhelmingly white. I joined and was made part of the Viking Patrol. The Viking and Panther patrols were comprised of most of my friends from school and band, and for a while, things were good. I was appointed Troop Scribe, I made first chair trumpet in band, I enjoyed my classes as well as a 12-year-old boy can, and I had friends to share adventures with in camping, sleepovers, and D&D. No more were the miserable days of running taunts and constant fighting I’d endured in Texas.

It ended one day in 8th grade. Ben, Bill and I were talking in the corridor between school buildings, when Ben told me, shrugging almost but not quite apologetically, that they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. Bill, looking everywhere but at me, nodded his agreement.

That was it. We were no longer friends.

I was stunned. I hadn’t done anything; we hadn’t argued…I literally had no idea why this had happened. What had changed? What could they possibly have found out about me? It must have been something I didn’t know myself, as I couldn’t think of a single thing that would cause them to react that way. But they weren’t talking. As both my parents worked, I once again began coming home to an empty house instead of hanging out with my friends.

As I should have expected, things in scouts began to go downhill as well; I had hoped I could salvage something there, but instead I was exiled from the Vikings and sent to the Mongoose Patrol, an unlikable group who mocked me for seemingly no reason. They gave me the nickname “MD” which they said stood for “Manic Depressive” and it seemed I could do nothing right. Again, there didn’t seem to be any reason to anything that I could see. These baffling slights just kept occurring. I considered quitting, but I’d just convinced my parents to buy me a new tent (my old one was basically a large orange sleeping bag, and my plastic hiking boots had melted when one of the camp organizers had, thinking they were leather like everyone else’s, tried to brand them), and I was reluctant to give up on scouts after such a promising start and the good times I’d had.

One morning on the last day of a three-day camping trip, Jack the scoutmaster called me over the leaders’ tent as everyone was packing up. Standing next to him was a tall Eagle Scout named Grant, and the other troop leaders. Jack gave me a calculating look.

“TC,” he said, “Grant here is going to try and…make you angry.” Grant, twice my size, nodded.

“Why?” I asked. The leaders looked uneasily at each other.

“Oh, we just want to see how you react.” But had they never, in the two years I’d been a scout, ever seen me angry? I knew they had. I had no idea why they’d want to do that to me on purpose. I’d never seen anyone else receive such treatment. I wondered why I wasn’t asking more about it, demanding answers, but it seemed to me at the time that this was probably just something they did, a test of sorts that I had to pass, and I was desperate to get back into their good graces. I wanted to have friends again, to be liked. I didn’t want to go back to the way things had been in Texas.

“Ok,” I said uneasily, trying very hard to pretend that this wasn’t a surprise, or bizarre in any way, that I could surely handle someone who had told me that they were going to purposely try and make me angry. It was an assignment, a mission, and I wouldn’t fail.

But I did. Miserably.

At first it wasn’t a problem, even as Grant harassed me, giving me blatantly impossible tasks and yelling at me, telling me how worthless I was, as the other scouts looked on. Had they been informed of this? My face grew hot in embarrassment, and my movements became less coordinated under the pressure. Grant did not relent, hurling insults and calling me pathetic. Surely this is going too far, I felt, anger rising in me when I realized that this was no test, it was only meant to look like a test; they wanted to humiliate me in front of everyone. But why would they want to do that?

Now Grant began to shove me around, knocking me off balance and pulling my belongings out of my hands, throwing them on the ground and breaking some of them. I glared at him, realizing that he didn’t seem reluctant at all to be doing this, and I wondered if he’d made any kind of protest when he’d been asked. Or had this all been his idea?

The sounds coming from the rest of the camp died down as everyone watched. I was never going to get my tent stowed or anything packed if this kept up, but if I stopped going through the useless motions Grant would swoop in and badger me, pushing and pulling me around. I was sore where I’d hit the ground after Grant shoved me once particularly hard. Just how far is he going to take this, I wondered wildly. As I tried once again to gather my tent up, grabbing an aluminum tent stake, Grant pounced, grabbing me and wresting the stake painfully from my hands. I howled in anger and tried to get away, but he just picked me up by the waist and carried me across the camp upside-down, throwing me into the bushes at the edge. I lay on the ground, stunned at what had just occurred, listening to Jack tell everyone the show was over, that they should get back to packing up.

My scouting career never recovered. I had proved, after all, that I wasn’t worthy. That had been the point, I suppose. Eventually Jack called an emergency troop meeting on the same day as a band parade. I couldn’t go, but I kept getting calls the night before that everyone had to go, no matter what. My protests that I’d made prior commitments fell on deaf ears. What, a boy scout be trustworthy? Apparently not. At the next meeting, I heard that Jack had basically thrown a tantrum of his own, throwing three of the four patrols out of the troop, at least symbolically, for some perceived slight.

I didn’t particularly care, but my absence didn’t escape Jack’s notice. He called me and another scout in to the side room of the hall where we met, and gave us a dressing down. I interrupted and defended myself as well as I could, but it was no good. He took away my rank, my Leadership Corps status, and my office as troop scribe. After he’d said his piece, I walked out of the room, out of the hall, out of the scouts.

There was no going back after that. In fact, looking back I’m surprised that I stayed as long as I did. The next week, my neighbor Michael, who had apparently been appointed the new troop scribe, knocked on my door. “I need all of the troop records,” he said.

I looked at him for a moment, thinking how dare you, motherfucker, before saying, “They’re gone.”

“What?”

“Gone.”

“How?”

“Down the toilet. GONE” And fuck you, I added silently.

Michael wasn’t pleased, but I was done with them. All of them.

But I see some of them these days online, decades later…a kind of morbid curiosity on my part I suppose. They show up on my Facebook feed sometimes, yelling at my ridicule of the U.S.’s absurd gun culture, my contempt for the toxic, hateful dudebro culture that extends to the highest levels of government there. “If you had any convictions, you’d renounce your U.S. citizenship!” one of them spat at me, if one could spit through Facebook, after I criticized Brett Kavanaugh.

“I renounced my U.S. citizenship in 1994,” I replied.

In hindsight, it seemed they had all known things about me that I didn’t even know at the time, and they didn’t like what they were seeing. I was, they had somehow discovered, the kind of person they were raised to abhor and fear. In their eyes, not only was it my choice, it was my fault. How dare I impersonate a “normal” person, insinuate myself into their lives, pretend to be their friend? Something had to be done. And something was.

So I can honestly say I had mixed feelings upon hearing of my former scoutmaster’s death. One the one hand, he had a long, productive, at least outwardly successful life, raised and provided for a large family. He was a model American, straight and white and proud of both.

On the other hand, he’s dead. So there’s that.

posted by Poagao at 11:42 pm  
Apr 10 2019

Self promotion and self sabotage

I am terrible at self promotion. However, I am a world-class expert at self sabotage. I could teach a course in it if I weren’t so good at it.

Since childhood I’ve gotten an inordinate amount of pleasure out of making people think I am lying when I am actually telling the truth. I would tell people things that were improbable in a fashion that made them think I must be lying, and then spring the evidence on them to see their reaction. See, you thought this about me, but you were wrong! One example was in 8th grade when the announcement was made for honor roll inductees to go to the auditorium for the ceremony. I stood up and dramatically proclaimed in civics class, “Oh, the honor roll! That means me! Gotta go!”

“Sit down, TC,” the teacher said in a bored voice as I went about gathering my things in a very obvious manner.

“No, really, I’m sure I’m on the list. I must be. I clearly recall seeing my name there!”  I said with exaggerated sincerity. The teacher sighed and insisted that I sit my ass back down. After it transpired that I actually was an honor roll student,  the teacher gave me a D in the class, effectively removing me from the honor roll. Ironically (or suitably? I don’t know), it was Civics.

But that was rookie stuff compared to subsequent self sabotage I’ve accomplished. In film school, when the editing professor gave me the honor of using my student film to show everyone what could be done with editing, I demurred, not only turning down an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson, but ensuring that I was in that professor’s bad graces for the rest of the term. Why? I have no idea.

When called upon to promote whatever I’m doing, I tend to downplay my role in group projects and downright deny any praise of solo projects (“Just take the damn compliment, FFS!” is a phrase I am rather too familiar with), while taking any criticism as solid, incontrovertible proof of my inherent ineptitude. The success of the band I’m in, the movie I made, the collective I helped found, must, in my mind have come about due to the efforts of other people, though I contribute more than many of the other members. When I began administering the Hardcore Street Photography group on Flickr, I was happy to follow Justin’s lead in purposely not putting any of my own work in the group pool. But even when we’ve had guest curators, I  always refrain from submitting my own work. I’ve always tended to shy away from submitting to contests or competitions. Although I will teach workshops when invited along with other BME members, I spend most of my time teaching much the same thing to local students at a community college for a small fraction of the pay I’d get for teaching just one international workshop.

Whenever my publishers wanted me to promote my book, I would always feel uncomfortable about it and decline. When the original Chinese-language version came out and the SARS epidemic resulted in a thorough lack of media attention, I felt, “Yeah, that feels right, somehow.”

Though I spend a lot of time working on my photography behind the scenes, the moment it comes to organizing public shows, galleries, projects, etc., I suddenly have a million issues, problems with things not being perfect themes, not being of the quality I expect, even though I see a lot of projects out there, successful, well-known, well-selling projects, with the same or even worse issues.

Part of my justification for shunning self promotion has to do with a sense of “fairness”…at least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t usually submit to photo festivals and competitions where I know many of the judges, which, in this incestuous age of street photography, seems to be most of them. It would feel unfair to win, I always felt. Other people, people who obviously know the judges, don’t have any such qualms. They and others are all over the place, obviously, because they are “just like that.” That’s them, I tell myself. Not me.

Likewise with the book: Something about only being made to feel “special” because I am not ethnically Han Chinese rubs me the wrong way. I have always resisted, not only because it feels wrong to me, but because I have other issues on that front. Any media exposure I happen to get here based on that presumption also feels unwarranted to me. I don’t deserve this, I tell myself, because it’s not me they’re talking about. It’s their idea of a me that doesn’t really exist.

But those are all just my own personal dodges. It seems that society these days runs on self promotion; it’s been observed that most well-known artists throughout history became renowned due to the quality of their connections rather than the quality of their art. The exceptions are those who became famous after their deaths had spurned social connections when they were alive, people like Vincent Van Gogh and Vivian Maier, whose work became well known after their personalities were taken out of the equation. And they were truly great artists.

Ideally it shouldn’t be a choice between self-promotion and the development of one’s art, but there are only 24 hours in a day. And the call of simply making things will always seem like the perfect excuse to shy away from self-promotion to someone like me who has always known deep down that it is just not worth the effort. Sure, impostor syndrome is a thing, but that’s only for truly great people, no? Not schleps like me. They’re just being modest; I, on the other hand am actually justified in my lack of confidence. And by steadfastly refusing to promote myself or just botching up each attempt at it, I resolutely prove my own point. So there! I proclaim to myself when I note my utter lack of success in such awkward attempts. You don’t get it because you don’t deserve it! Do the math! If you were any good at any of this, someone would have noticed by now.

As DJ Khaled famously said, I’ve been playing myself. 

 

This state of being wears on me, to be honest. How many decades can one continue in such a fashion? In an attempt to try to keep living with myself and other people in some fashion, I’ve recently taken some friends’ advice to try a more structured form of meditation. The self-examination aspect of this process has been eye-opening in some ways, as a rigid and practical evaluation of exactly why I feel this way about myself often reveals no objective, practical reason to see things this way. Rather, my life has been lead on the fringes of various demographic assumptions and identities for so long that my subsequent lack of traditional connections with many groups has resulted in a feeling of invisibility and lack of consequence as well as a heightened sensitivity to others’ erroneous expectations in these respects. Thus the early, clumsy attempts to force others to see beyond an illusion of me.

As I don’t “fit” in the traditional fashion, there doesn’t seem to be a modus operandi out there for me, an apparently round plug not fitting in a round hole, as it were, resulting not only in the puzzlement of both the round and the square pieces, but a general dismissal from both. In fact, this was most likely one of the main reasons that I came to identify with Taiwan so strongly, it being a nation that is similarly “invisible” i.e. disconnected from the traditional mode of connection with the world around it. Especially before the Internet era, when many more types of existence came to light.

The natural response to such dismissal and disconnection is a general withdrawal into self distraction…how can one put any stock in connections that don’t work? But turning inward on oneself is a recipe for disaster, a vicious cycle of self-loathing that cannot end well. For a long time I’ve used a combination of walking and photography as a kind of meditation in this respect, wrenching the focus of my mind’s lens outward instead of inward, though always mindful of the reflections of my inner thoughts in my work, themes of loneliness and isolation and seemingly unlikely connections revealed by other people immersed in their own personal challenges to the swirl and eddies of public life. Basically getting out of my own head, because there is a reflection of reality in photography that other forms of expression lack. Though I love writing and music, it is photography that has been how I’ve dealt with the world.

I have no neat, snappy conclusion to any of this; I continue to be puzzled by myself, and these are questions to be lived rather than resolved. But I am trying to come to grips with the lack of grips amid all the illusion of said grips. The reality is that we are all connected, as Soth has intimated in his most recent work, and perhaps misrepresenting this big hot mess in terms of self-promotion and self sabotage itself is a false dichotomy that only wastes our precious time. The true nature of our connection may be much more complex than we can possibly fathom, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try.

 

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:18 pm  
Mar 21 2019

The nature of the conversation

I recently had the chance to pick up Alec Soth’s I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating at the Moom Bookshop off Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei. They were having a small show based on color photographers such as Shore, Gruyaert and Eggleston, so naturally I had to go. I spent hours just looking through the books on display there, especially my favorite from Shore, Uncommon Places. This time around I particularly noticed the apparent care shown in the editing and sequencing of the book. Shore’s later works haven’t resonated with me as much, a phenomenon I’ve observed with many well-known photographers.

As for Soth’s latest book, whose title comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem Gray Room, the work conveys connection and empathy in a way I haven’t felt since his first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which I’ve always loved. There is one portrait in his new book that doesn’t have the same power as the rest. It is of a woman seen in the gap between bookshelves. All of the other photos in the book resonate and inspire a wealth of stories, but this one feels…out of place. After I’d finished looking at the photographs, I read the text, and this turned out to include a fascinating interview with Soth on how the book came to be. The interview was conducted by Hanya Yanagihara, whom I recognized as being the woman in the incongruous photo.

Interested, I asked Alec about it on IG, trying to be as diplomatic as possible: “The photo of Hanya didn’t seem to belong, and then I realized she was the one you talked with.” I wondered if  there was connection between the two. “Am I imagining things?”

“Not at all,” he wrote back. We then went on to discuss the content of the book, specifically the part about connection. Soth, who is about my age, approaching 50, had a moment of clarity a few years ago in Finland, a sudden realization that “everything is connected” and subsequently reevaluated his approach not just to photography, but to dealing with people. He has said that one of the main challenges he faced as he began to engage in photography was his innate shyness, effectively equalizing or even giving more power to those he was photographing than he felt he had in the exchange. Over the years, as his fame grew, the nature of the relationship with his subjects changed; he was an internationally renowned artist, successful author and exhibitionist, a member of Magnum, the world’s most prestigious photography agency. But as his status was changing, so did the work he was doing. His “Ah-ha!” moment redefined his connection with people, his respect for his subjects, and it has seemingly made a real difference.

I’ve long wondered how so many famous photographers start out strong, with real, emotive work, and then lose that in the latter stages of their careers. The prevailing wisdom has simply been that people lose the creative spark as they get older, but reading about Soth’s experience and seeing the resulting work following his revelation makes me think something else is at play, mainly, the nature of the connection between the photographer and the subject. Soth compares it to that of two people on a seesaw.

In some circles, such as street photography, many -too many- photographers seem to assume a posture of domination and even objectification of their subjects, eagerly grabbing as much power in the relationship as they can. The reason for this might lie in the toxic mixture of social media and gadget worship that has infected the genre, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and might go a long way to explaining the spiritual paucity of much of this kind of photography. Ego, it seems, is the enemy of sensitivity, of pathos, of connection. It places blinkers on us, blinding us to all of the potential of being open to the world on an equal basis, substituting our vanity instead.

The photographers I most admire, however, tend to take a more respectful and curious approach to the subjects of their work, at least in making the work that brought them to my attention. Respect for the subjects of one’s work is also something I try to instill in my own students.

These changes in the nature of the connection with the subject might be why some photographers’ work changes as they gain fame and influence. The very nature of the relationship with subjects changes, the balance shifts, and the connection is fundamentally altered. Take an open-minded, curious photographer and stick them in a famous agency, give them interviews and assignments and minders and entourages and fans dogging their every step, looking to see what wondrous magical composition they’re going to create next, and that connection become all the more tenuous. Be they a failed art student wandering the streets of Paris, or shy man in his 30’s following the path of the river that flows through his country, the lifeblood of their work is intense observation free of the pollution of ego that so often comes to obscures our vision. Judgement threatens observation, and the whole thing can break down. For some, the only way to deal with such developments may be to abandon photography in favor of another art form. Others may move to more abstract work. And some may be hit, perhaps while on a flight to Helsinki, by the realization that they cannot relinquish the very essence of their work…the knowledge that everyone is connected.

“Your thoughts have made me see things in a different light, thank you,” I wrote Soth following our exchange.

He responded: “You’ve also given me something to reflect on. Thank you.”

posted by Poagao at 11:51 am  
Feb 13 2019

A new camera

The first-generation Sony A7r I’d been using for the past five years was showing its age as 2018 drew to a close. More and more error messages, more instances of failing to wake up after sleeping, more having to shut it off, remove and replace the battery and turn it on again before it would continue working. It was maddening.

It was also no great surprise. A couple of years before it had stopped working altogether, and, after Sony demanded a good portion of the camera’s cost to repair it, I left it with a small repair store while the repairman searched for the components he needed in other, discarded cameras. It took a month or so, but he managed to fix it for a fraction of the price Sony had wanted. “Just don’t expect too much,” he cautioned me afterward.

With this in mind, I’d been considering what camera would eventually replace it, as more companies entered the mirrorless fray. Sony’s own full-frame mirrorless offerings had grown appreciably bulkier, without any ergonomic or color science improvements that I could see, in the years since the original A7 debuted. Though they had improved the awful shutter sound/feel and introduced a larger battery, the startup time of the third generation of cameras seemed to not be appreciably better than the first, though the admins of review sites like DPReview claim that this parameter is no longer applicable to the practice of photography*.

As for the other brands, who were seemingly lining up to present new mirrorless options: Canon’s EOS R was even larger than the Sonys, nearly as large as a 6D DSLR, and the controls were a no-go from the time I picked it up, discovered I needed two hands to turn it on, kept accidentally brushing the control bar, and fiddled with the selfie screen. Nikon’s Z series was promising; it felt good in the hand, if a little large, with a fast startup time and good EVF; it would have been promising if they’d had any nice small lenses, but alas, there were none, nor did any appear on the roadmap. I’ve also never been much of a fan of digital Nikon colors.

I could have simply scrounged for another used A7r, but though the files were nice, the hesitant, indecisive shutter that sounded and felt like a large coin dropping through an old payphone, the slow startup time, and the wonky yellows and blues made me itch for something else. The Fuji XT/X-pro series beckoned with its superior ergonomics and color science, but as nice as it is (the X-pro2 shutter in particular is one of the best sounding/feeling shutters I’ve used, up there with the Leica M3), I didn’t want to go back to APSC with no reduction in size; the Ricoh GRII I was also using for wider shots was certainly better than the phone I’d been using before to get wider shots, but I’d become accustomed to full frame.

I’ve also been using a silver Leica M6 classic to shoot film for many years now, as film is how I learned photography back in the day, and I haven’t abandoned it (yet). But a digital M10 would have been prohibitively expensive, as well as quite heavy. As lovely as I’m sure it must be, I just couldn’t justify it, and even though I already have two lenses I could use for it, they are older 35mm and 50mm summicrons, and I seldom shoot 50mm these days.

But then there is the Leica Q, that strange fixed-lens full-frame digital Leica whose f1.7 summilux lens likely costs more than the camera, which itself costs a fraction of a digital M. Not one of the small Panasonic knock-offs with the red dot and huge mark-up, but an actual Leica. I’d gotten a chance to handle my friend Aik Beng Chia’s Q last year when I met up with him during a BME workshop in Bangkok, and I was surprised at how well it handled. A three-year-old model with a fixed focal length? But I used the 35mm on the Sony for pretty much five years, and only when I wanted to go wider, as I’ve been doing more and more these days, did I get the Ricoh. But here was a camera that felt like a camera, much more so than either the Sony or the Ricoh.

So I got a Leica Q of my own, my first digital Leica. Now, I have always been wary of the effusive praise many photographers show for Leica, especially the abstract, oddly indescribable “something” they claim it provides, particularly at the prices these cameras go for. The “You plebeians would never understand” attitude of some people who ooh and aah over Leicas has always irked me, as it seemed like a cover for their lack of ability to say exactly what about these cameras helps them get the photographs they desire.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to spell out in practical terms how this camera has changed the way I photograph, and why I like where it’s taking me.

First off, using exclusively a 28mm frame took a while to get used to; it pushes me into the action. I find myself taking fewer shots, but liking the shots that I do take more. Shots I could have gotten from further away with the 35mm require that I either move towards the scene or forget them. So I notice things closer to me more now than things that are further away; I suspect it might bring a greater sense of intimacy to my photos.

Of course I’d tried the Sony 28mm f2 on the A7r, but it never appealed to me, perhaps because of that lens’s distortion, or perhaps because, while 28mm will bring you into a situation, the rest of the camera, especially the shutter, does not encourage staying there long; you’re left in the middle of a situation with a loud, obnoxious shutter and an awkwardly laggy camera. It’s doable, but not ideal.

The Q, however, rewards you for getting closer; it starts up and wakes up much quicker than the Sony ever did, and the leaf shutter is virtually silent; you’re in the midst of things, but not a bull in a China shop. The wider angle means most people don’t suspect that they’re in my frame, and I often find myself inches from someone who is oblivious to my presence. With the Sony, after waiting awkwardly a few seconds for the thing to finally come to life while the people around me pick up on my anticipation, I’d often get one shot in before everyone in the vicinity was looking around, wondering where all that clacking noise was coming from, as if a slot machine from another realm was calling to them. I’d become used to it, but I think that it translated somewhat into my body language, a sort of telegraphed cringe.

With the Q, since I know that nobody will hear the shutter, when I raise the camera, I do so with a nonchalance that slips under people’s radar. The relative lack of shutter lag meant that at first I was taking shots too quickly, getting the moment before the one I wanted for a while before getting used to the Q’s responsiveness. The lack of the Sony’s long blackout, replaced in the Q by a barely perceptible stutter as the EVF holds on the moment of capture for a split second before resuming, also works much better for me. The viewfinder on the Q is also larger than that of the A7r, brighter (you can’t change it) and more detailed. The diopter ring turns too easily, however, so I had to tape it up.

The Q controls are simple and effective, i.e. standard Leica. Like the Fujis, the aperture, shutter speed and shooting mode are right there at a glance, regardless of whether the camera is on or not. The Sony does show exposure compensation on the camera body, while the Q requires that to be something you do in the viewfinder, which works for me as I tend to use it once or twice and then go back to normal. I’d gradually come to know how the Sony metered in its priority modes over the years, how it stuck to f4 and 1/60 in shutter and aperture priority modes, respectively, right up until it no longer could. But to know exactly what the major settings were exactly meant that the camera had to be on and that I’d have to read them in the viewfinder (as I kept the backscreen off most of the time). I originally took issue with the mode placement of the off/on-single/on-continuous button, but when I think about it, it makes sense. Turning it to single shot is just matter of getting used to it. Should Jimi Hendrix suddenly descend from his UFO for a split second and I need to shoot more than one frame, I will be mashing the lever as far as it will go, right to continuous.

With the Sony I would occasionally take high and low shots with the tilting screen; I do that far less with the Q because it lacks such a screen, and I’m still on the fence as to whether that’s a good or bad thing. I suspect shooting what I see with my own eyes may be better in the long run, rather than guessing what I would see if I were taller or shorter and spending time approximating those perspectives. But there are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of doing it.

The Q is in crazy mad love with f1.7, I found while shooting it as I had the Sony using priority modes. It’s better, I soon realized, to shoot it like a manual M camera. The body already feels like an M; even the lens feels like an M lens, buttery smooth focus ring and all, so it’s not a huge difference. The AF is fine, snappy and accurate, but if you enjoy hyper focal and zone focusing with no lag, the Q is just as ready and willing to play, with the distances marked clearly on the lens barrel.

As for the resulting files, I’ve been happy so far, though the Q’s DR isn’t as malleable as that of the Sony, and the resolution less (though sufficient). But the colors…oh, the colors are far nicer. It tends to underexpose in auto modes, which suggests Leica knows how ugly the blown-out bits can get. The preview files, be they viewed in the EVF or on the backscreen, are quite ugly, full of blotchy greens and purples instead of greys. This, I’ve been assured by Leica, is a known issue and possibly one to be addressed in future firmware updates, but it’s obvious from my inquiries on Leica forums that most Q owners don’t really mind, or at least go to great lengths not to think too much about such things. Fair enough, I suppose; the files do really need to be viewed on a large computer screen in any case.

The battery life is slightly better than that of the A7r, which admittedly isn’t saying much. As the wakeup/startup times are much quicker, it’s easier to let it go to sleep or even turn it off, instead of continually prodding the shutter to keep it awake as I had to do with the Sony (occasionally taking unintentional shots in the process). The camera is also not designated as “weatherproof”, although to date there don’t seem to be any actual standards other cameras are held to with such claims, and the Sony’s claims in this regard are rather suspect. For such an expensive camera that also begs to be used in all kinds of conditions, I would think that would be desirable.

I never use the macro mode, and personally would have preferred a smaller lens without that option. The Q also features optical image stabilization and an electronic shutter, neither of which I’m entirely sure I’ve utilized. I’m sure they might come in handy at some point, but they’re not musts for me. In fact, while trying out other systems with IBIS, I’ve been annoyed at the frame not shifting with my aim due to the IBIS, but I haven’t observed this phenomenon in the Q.

A new version of the Q will most likely arrive in the near future, possibly updated with an M10 sensor, but I am quite happy with this camera as it is. Should Leica wish to attract current Q owners to add the new version to their collections, they could implement a different focal length, e.g. 40mm, in the next model. But the Q still sells so well that I imagine they could do very little and still maintain robust sales.

On paper, moving to the Q may seem more like a step sideways from the Sony, for appreciably more money. Who in these fast-paced times would spend so much on a digital camera that came out that long ago? But cameras can’t be rated so broadly on fixed parameters; as I tell my students about “good” and “bad” light, there aren’t so much “good” and “bad” cameras as much as there are suitable and unsuitable cameras, based on what the individual photographer needs to achieve their vision. For my purposes, the Q is more suitable than the Sony; even if it is lower resolution and more expensive, it’s better where it counts.

Some have observed that Sony makes computers that take photos, whereas other manufacturers such as Fuji and Leica, make cameras. Such absolutism feels rather extreme to me, as any box with a hole in it will do the job, but after using the Q for a few months, I can understand why people say this; the companies approach the task of building a camera coming from different places.

And that’s fine; if a Sony, Fuji, Hasselblad or a goddamn Transforming Barbie-cam does the job for you, brilliant! I’m truly happy that you can get past this stupid gear-centric phase and get on with the vastly more important business of developing your photographic vision. This is simply my experience based on my personal style of photography, as well as an effort to delineate why I like this particular camera rather than issue some half-assed “It’s just that Leica look/feel/glow/aesthetic/whatever” we’re always seeing. In short, it works for me.

 

*I was told by an admin that they dropped it when “start up times ceased to be an issue with most cameras.”

posted by Poagao at 3:10 pm  
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