Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Nov 18 2022

Mixed messages

I had an interesting conversation with a construction site manager yesterday. At least it went better than some of the previous interactions I’ve had with them.

It was a nice, warm, sunny day, and I was wandering along Zhongxiao West Road after a pleasant lunch near Camera Street and then hanging around the North Gate watching a wedding photographer chase the retreating light around the square. “Pretend like you’re running!” he called to the prospective groom, while his bride fiddled with makeup in a tiny tent.

“Like this?” the groom lifted a leg up hesitantly. Clearly he hadn’t been expecting this, especially after putting on a fancy white-and-purple suit.

“No, you look like a dog peeing!” the photographer said, but in a nice way. “Run like a bus is about to hit you!”  This was helpful advice, as buses were indeed zooming by inches behind him.

I walked east and got yelled at by a crazy Chinese monk for taking a photo of the Mitsukoshi Building. “Don’t fuck with me! I am long exiled from Foshan!” he shouted.

I kept walking, ending up on the famous pedestrian bridge at the intersection of Zhongxiao and Zhongshan. A busy construction site where the old round City Council building used to be caught my eye, and I took a few shots from the bridge before heading down to see if the light was nicer from street level.

“You can’t take photographs here,” a site manager walked over to tell me.

“Why’s that?”

“Company rules.” I sighed. This again.

“I don’t work for your company. Your site in is public view from the public road I’m standing on, and I’m not violating any safety rules here.” The manager considered this.

“All true, but we could get in trouble if you post these photos and our boss sees them, especially if he sees our company logo.”

“Why would your boss be unhappy at that? It seems like a well-run site. This project has even been shown in the media before.”

“He might yell at us for allowing someone to take photos.”

It was a pleasant, cordial exchange, and while I did not envy this man’s conundrum, I had to tell him: “You might not have noticed, but your site is bathed in reflected light from all these glass buildings next door in the afternoon. That’s going to attract photographers. Also, you’re not only right by a pedestrian bridge that is a famous photography spot, you’re also near hotels, the Executive Yuan and the train station. That means curious tourists walking by. Photography is going to happen. If you make a big deal about hiding the site from them, there’s a chance some of them will be IG influencers, journalists or even members of foreign diplomatic groups.” Someone might even blog about it, I added mentally.

He seemed amenable to this point of view, but he was still in manager mode. “Ok, I’ll let you keep the photos you’ve already taken, including the ones from the pedestrian bridge, but please don’t take any more.”

“There’s nothing you can do about the photos I’ve already taken,” I reminded him, noting that they’d tracked me all the way from the bridge. “But I appreciate your point of view and thanks for being courteous about it.”

As I walked on, I couldn’t help but wonder why people automatically go to some imagined worst-case scenario when they see they are being photographed. Is everyone afraid that their nefarious behavior will get them in trouble? But that can’t be the case, as being recorded by the government and corporations 24/7 has become a matter of course; nobody ever even thinks about it. Then again, government and corporate surveillance is expressly put in place to catch wrongdoing, so is it that far a stretch to imagine that, as such recording becomes more ubiquitous and ever present, the general population just assumes that any kind of photography is accusatory and predatory in nature? People crave attention, but just the safe kind of attention, I suppose. Whatever that is.

To wit: I recently got back in touch with a street photographer I used to chat with back in the early days of Flickr, Joe Wigfall. He no longer even takes photos; he says it had become too much of a hassle, so he paints and writes instead. It’s a shame; he made some very good work when he was active. He noted that when he was out shooting, Black people would give him more shit for photographing them than people from other groups would, and he noticed the same for white and Asian photographers he’d go shooting with. We can give them a pass, but you’re one of us; you should know better seems to be the message they were sending.

I took the subway over to Taipei 101 and walked across Wuxing Street towards the mountains, noticing the imprints of old military villages amid the empty fields as well as the occasional illegal villas with partially demolished balconies. Brightly colored election trucks, cars, motorcycles and bicycles crisscrossed the streets with their various candidates promising various things from mounted loudspeakers. But the sun was setting, so I walked back over to the Tonghua Night Market to meet up with Chenbl for a delicious meal of noodles at a wood-paneled restaurant where the competent young staff played old and pseudo-old jazz. They knew about the Ramblers, and put on some of our music.

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
Aug 15 2022

4th shot

So the student exhibition of work from the last semester is up and running at the Ren An Hospital Museum exhibition space on the second floor. I made a video about it, using just my iPhone and a little stabilizer unit which turned out to be surprisingly effective. It’s going until mid-September, so if you’re looking for some good street photography and are baffled at the confusing art pieces that crowd Taiwan’s photography galleries these days, go have a look.

One day before the one-year anniversary of getting my first covid vaccine, Chenbl and I went to a clinic on Sanmin Road to get our second booster shots. It was a rather casual experience, just a few people waiting around instead of the strictly organized lines and zones I’ve encountered elsewhere. When we were at the counter a woman came in with a form to show the nurse. “You don’t need to show me that,” the nurse said, rather brusquely. Chenbl gave me a look.

“What’s up?” I said. He glanced at the women, who was now heading upstairs.

“I think she’s a covid patient getting meds,” he muttered. “The nurse didn’t want anyone to see her diagnosis.”

“I’m just going to wait outside,” I said. He laughed.

We were getting the Novavax vaccine this time, though my first three were Moderna, and Chenbl got BNT. Just for a little variety, to keep covid guessing. And a little payback for it keeping us guessing, I guess. My shoulder was sore for a few minutes, and I felt a little drunk for the next couple of days.

This might have affected my views on the two plays we went to see on the following two days. The first was at the National Theater at CKS, a grand affair. We were sitting on the very side of the theater above the stage in a box with a single file of seats, oddly not facing the stage but forward, necessitating a certain amount of rubbernecking. The play, featuring the complicated life of a woman from the 70’s to the 90’s and featuring a great deal of jumping around in time, was by Wu Nian-jen and was entirely in Taiwanese, so I missed a good portion of it as my Taiwanese is rather basic. Still, it was quite moving. The second play was up at the big new traditional theater complex near Zhishan Station in Shilin, and featured the marriage-related travails of a family of women. It was also quite good, and it being in mostly Mandarin I didn’t have to guess at any of the meanings. Afterward Chenbl and I walked over to an old neighborhood for dinner, and then back to Shilin Station, where they have unfortunately cut down all the trees to widen the road. That’s a shame.

I’d thought I was done with the after-effects of the vaccine, but after a couple of days feeling drunk and posting ill-advised rants on DPreview, I started just feeling exhausted, like bone-tired on an existential level. This is the first non-mRNA shot I’ve had for covid, and it was not playing. Fortunately it only lasted a day or so, and I got by by watching the excellent new season of The Orville. The BA4 and 5 variants are making their way into the general population, and cases, which had been falling, seem to be on the rise again. More people are maskless outside, and I suppose I can understand why in this spectacular combination of heat and humidity that, if I hadn’t come up in Florida and south Texas, might be unbearable. I took a bike ride along the river the other day and took my mask off to do so, as that is now allowed when exercising outside, and it did feel good. I’m keeping my (color-coordinated) mask on in crowds, though.

In other news, I’m looking at making a photography page for this site…well, not poagao.org, but poagao.com. Squarespace is looking like the best option for a technically impaired person like myself. In a way it would be coming full circle; when I started this site in 2001 my aim was to just have a place online where I could put my photos, that being before the photo sites had started up. Then came this blog, and the photography kind of just did its own thing. But now people are abandoning flickr and sites like Instagram are focusing on becoming TikTok, so perhaps it’s time to make a page on here where I can showcase various projects and topics. Feel free to let me know which particular photograpic websites you like most; I’m looking to keep it simple, but I’m open to suggestions. In any case, I’ll let y’all know when I get something up.

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Jul 08 2022

Their Way

I was planning to meet Chenbl later yesterday at Jiantan, so instead of getting my usual salmon bento to take back to the Water Curtain Cave for consumption, I had a pleasant sandwich/coffee/carrot cake combo at the Metro Cafe on Chongqing South Road. As it does just about every day in summer, the weather went from bright sun to threatening skies during the course of my meal, so I went back to my office to get an umbrella, planning to take the subway up to Jiantan to have a look around before meeting up with Chenbl after he got off work.

The sound of singing that was entirely too awful to be a recording, however, drew me to the square in front of Zhongshan Hall, where a large group of mostly elderly people huddled under tents as rain began to pelt down. Most of them were wearing vests sporting various military-themed logos, and they seemed to all know each other. The songs being sung were old-timey patriotic/nationalist songs (plus the first part of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with the phrase “the final curtain” replaced by “the final battle”(!), and even more disturbing: Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me”); the KMT was in heavy presence, as were various police officers, obviously armed, with one sporting a clump of white zip ties on her belt. I didn’t know what they were expecting; there were no counter protesters and hardly any media around.

They held a ceremony consisting of people lining up to lay yellow flowers on the “Monument to the Victory of the Anti-Japanese War and the Restoration of Taiwan” plaque opposite the hall. Several speeches were made conveying the disturbing message that the “real enemy” was the DPP, not the CCP. A Buddhist monk spoke, as well as various KMT officials. I walked around the edges of the crowd, taking a few photos but not daring to get too close as entirely too many of the old people were maskless and sitting clumped together under the tents. A few of them gave me some strange looks but mostly I was left alone as they probably assumed I was just some random tourist. It all felt a little sad and desperate, the last gasps of a disappearing world. But it would be dangerous to discount this demographic; although they are diminishing in numbers, especially due to covid, they still wield substantial financial and political power.

“Are you a photographer?” an unmasked Asian American man who looked to be in his 40’s asked me. As always, I didn’t know how to answer that question, but he wasn’t concerned with my lack of a definitive answer. He was, he said, a YouTuber, and a quite well known one at that, focusing on political analysis of both the U.S. and Taiwan. I didn’t contribute much to the conversation, mostly listening and nodding at his rather, uh…unconventional views. He stressed, with no prompting, that he wasn’t a fan of Trump, though I hadn’t asked or even mentioned Trump. That always strikes me as odd. But when he was talking about the “mystery” of Republicans gaining ground in Florida, I couldn’t help but ask if perhaps DeSantis’ agenda had been having an effect. “Who?” he asked, puzzled.

“Ron DeSantis?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“The governor of Florida,”

“Oh, I don’t know who any of those people are,” he said, dismissing such knowledge as unimportant. The real issue, he said, was the DPP stuffing ballot boxes. I asked if he had participated in the voting process here, but again, no, he wasn’t a citizen; his source was…and you might want to sit down for this…a mysterious friend with connections to U.S. intelligence. I only hope I haven’t said too much.

The sun had come out again at this point, and Chenbl said he was on his way, so I caught the subway up to Jiantan. While Chenbl got his hair cut, I walked over to the river and spotted a nice puddle that would surely, I judged from the top of the flood wall, reflect the sunset and skyline. As I approached, another man approached from the opposite direction, a large DSLR around his neck. Surely he will see that reflection, I thought, so I adjusted my path to let him approach it first, but he didn’t. When I crouched down to get my shot, however, I heard the clack of his shutter and looked up to see him photographing me. So if you see a photograph of me crouching by a puddle, 1) this is probably what I was doing, and 2) this is not a rare thing for me. My fellow BME member Don Hudson always points this out, and I am not ashamed of my inability to resist the attraction of a reflective surface. I’ve been doing this shit since the Mirror Project of yore and even before, and I don’t plan on stopping.

posted by Poagao at 12:08 pm  
Jul 04 2022

Egography

ego

/ˈiːɡəʊ,ˈɛːɡəʊ/
noun
  1. a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

Numerous discussions of the practice have been popping up on social media platforms such as Twitter, where one can come across diatribes centered around the evils of what is being called ‘toxic’ street photography; the practice of Bruce Gilden, described as running around rudely violating the personal space and ‘rights’ of hapless pedestrians with his closely held flash and brusque New York attitude, is often brought up as an example. Garry Winogrand is also criticized for his admittedly questionable “Women are Beautiful” work. Many speakers state the remedy to this state of affairs can only be first engaging with one’s subjects before any photography can take place, which would seem to negate the possibility of truly candid photography unless a great deal of time is spent becoming familiar with all involved, at which point it would then become pure documentary work. The work these critics point to as “ethical street photography”, and in many cases the work they themselves produce, is however more akin to staged portraiture, often photos of people standing on a street, staring blankly at the camera, many of them posing.

While some of this kind of photography can be interesting, much of it seems to be more about satisfying the photographer’s ego than the people being photographed. And the photographers themselves, satisfied that they got the shots they had planned, don’t even seem to be aware of nor care about this limitation, let alone the degree to which they have inserted themselves into the work at the expense of their subjects.

Of course, all photography is about the photographer to some extent. But in the course of such an interaction between photographer and photographed, the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’ When viewing such work, I can’t help but wonder what the photographer interrupted, what these people had been doing, what they’d been thinking before the photographer called their attention to them: “Hey can I take your picture? Could you stand there? That’s it.” The insistence that a subject acknowledges the photographer’s presence and purpose, then acquiesces to their requests – rather than making a photograph respectfully and without intruding – could almost be bordering on narcissistic.

On the other side of this debate, of course, you have what I’d refer to as the “street bros”, who are quite vocal about expressing their right to “shoot” and “capture” strangers on the street. To them, as they stride down the thoroughfare with GoPros recording their safari adventure for their YouTube channel and TikToks that will no doubt be accompanied by fast-paced percussion music in their videos, street photography is an almost vindictive, chest-beating pursuit, getting as close and aggressive as possible. One of these guys (and yes, it seems to always be guys), popped up in a Flickr street group the other day, slamming anyone with the view that the feelings of one’s subject should be considered: “Enough said: street photography is a harsh genre and not for the faint hearted,” he posted. “You must be committed to the genre and retain a stiff upper lip when it comes to snowflakes and their feelings…these snowflakes will always find me, and a bunch of others, ready to confront them and put them in their place.” The use of the term ‘snowflakes’ is quite revealing here, and reeks of the kind of toxic masculinity and straight-white-male entitlement that accompanies the subjugation of others, fueled by an egocentric worldview and lacking human empathy.

“…the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’“

I’ve only run into a few such individuals myself. Again, while there is potential for interesting results, the work produced tends in most cases to be rather sloppy, jarring, and lacking contemplation. It seldom says anything except, “Look at me!” But as much as this behavior is described as being fundamental to street photography, it doesn’t correlate with the majority of photographers I have encountered.

Perhaps, as dichotomous as these two extreme positions of “street photography should be banned” and “street photography should be practiced ruthlessly” may seem, these two approaches could be said to be essentially about the same thing: the photographer’s ego-driven urge to impose themselves into the work, making the purported subject a secondary consideration.

The obvious reason for this migration towards these particular binaries is the desire to invoke public perception: The kind of photos that get attention these days on social media tend to be straightforward, obvious pieces that immediately hit the viewer over the head; after all, they only have a fraction of a second before said viewer swipes on past on their tiny screen, and these days attention is capital. Thus, details, subtlety and contemplation have receded from our template.

That street photography is being boiled down to two such unappetizing choices isn’t just depressing, it’s a gross misrepresentation of what was once seen as a much more diverse and complex genre of photography. There is an entire-disregarded world in between the two poles, a world encompassing multitudinous ways of engaging with subjects without imposing oneself onto them…photographs that are instead gentle, detailed, reflective and poetic observations without the need to either shove the crux of the content down the viewer’s throat for the ‘Likes’ or decry the ethical nature of one’s practice with a diatribe on ‘consent’ as a corollary to quality. Instead, these two strikingly similar extremes have somehow come to bear false witness to the entire genre.

How did we get here? Perhaps one extreme created the other, and the two polemics have expanded and reinforced each other, overtaking more moderate and nuanced positions, strict black and white crowding out all the tones on the spectrum in between. Social media companies have thrust us into this paradigm to keep our attention riveted on the ensuing drama, which in turn keeps their bottom lines going up, and they’ll continue to do so as long as it can make them more money.

Might it just be that the deeper problem isn’t how we choose to photograph, but rather how the role of personal photography is perceived in the context of our ever-more tenuous connections with each other amid the constantly growing encroachment of 24/7 surveillance by the government/corporate realm trying to wrest such observational authority from our purview? This would explain the compulsion of the ‘street bro’ crowd to assert their ‘rights’ to take pictures, as well as the desire for other individuals to insist on the conscious, consensual participation of the subject in all pictures made in public spaces. Yet, in both of these binary counterpoints, the imposition of the photographer’s ego erodes authenticity in the relationship between photographer, subject, and audience. Real photography should be about genuine connection, at its best conveying the human condition, but as we lose touch with each other, as social media paradigms encroach upon our sense of self, seeking to replace generations of actual social connection, we have lost much of any basic sense of trust we ever had.

Our true masks in these times are not made of fabric or paper, but of mistrust. As our connections have been siphoned off by media manipulation, blue checkmark validation vainly attempting to replace actual self-validation, our attention being redirected to bolster corporate bottom lines, our desperate urge to prop up our sense of self has overflowed into the space we previously reserved for others in our hearts and minds.

Observation with compassion and empathy may be cynically described as nearly impossible in such a state of affairs, driving the view that street photography can only be either inherently exploitative or a billboard for the ego, but it is vital that we keep it alive. Otherwise, it won’t just be photography that disappears from view, it will be our very humanity.

posted by Poagao at 10:40 am  
Jan 02 2022

New Year

So, it’s 2022 now. On the 31st I met up with Chenbl and some of my students at the City Hall bus station for a long-delayed outing. I got there first despite thinking I’d be late again, so I walked around and tried out some allegedly blueberry-flavored bread from the 7-Eleven there. The results of the analysis showed no evidence of blueberry flavor, alas. We caught a bus out to Badouzi and walked eastward along the coast, to the scenic railway platform facing the rocks on which fishermen braved the cold wind, splashed by the largish waves. I hopped down onto the tracks at the end, where I could see that trains weren’t using as they were covered in grass, but still, for those playing at home, I must stress the importance of not straying onto active train tracks for photography or any other purposes, really, basically because trains are huge, silent and deadly things, particularly if you’re not on them but around them.

We kept walking over to our destination, the photography exhibit on coal miners by Chang Chao-tang at the HOHO Base, a complex made largely of cargo containers that is operated by photographer Ching-tai Ho. The entrance to the exhibit was fraught with potential lawsuits as far as physical dangers went, perhaps to get visitors in the right frame of mind to appreciate the photos inside depicting the dangerous conditions under which the miners operated before the 80’s. There weren’t many photos, it being a small space, with quite a few repeating scenes, but it was a nice exhibit. The villages in the area tend to be populated by cats, and, true to form, one cat watched us approach through a window. When we eschewed the neighboring restaurant, out of which snaked a long line of people, for the HOHO art space/restaurant, we found a well-fed grey cat sitting on a bench near the cashier/chef, who was none other than Ching-tai Ho himself. I sat down to pet the cat, and she jumped onto my lap and sat down to be petted, which was probably the best thing that happened to me that day. It’s been too long since I had a contented cat sitting on my lap.

Brunch, had in the container upstairs, was delicious; they use good stock for their recipes, and the cinnamon tea and carrot cake filled up the corners nicely, all while looking out at the seascape opposite. I wish it were more convenient to get to; I can only imagine how he stays busy on weekdays.

We had planned to take the bus over to Keelung, but it had begun to drizzle, so we took the train to Ruifang and walked around there for a while before heading back to Taipei. Nobody was interested in fighting the NYE crowds, so it was good to get back to the Water Curtain Cave and get to bed just as the fireworks were dying down.

The students were asking about next semester’s class and if we were going to resume…all I could tell them was that we’d see where we were regarding the COVID situation at the time. I still expect that Omicron will eventually make its way into the general population here, and how the government will react is a question. Fortunately a good portion of the population has been vaccinated, but if we’re going to keep to a zero-covid strategy I’m not sure how that will work. The past weekend has seen record crowds out and about, not just here in Bitan but all over the country, it seems, and I wonder if everyone is thinking the same thing: Get out now before the shit hits the fan. But then again I’m fairly cynical about these things. And also it seems that other countries, at least the Western ones, seem to be rolling over and giving up. No masks, no mandates, parties galore, everyone just saying Fuck it and then claiming surprise at record infection numbers.

So what’s the plan for this year? The usual: No plan, really. Do things and hope things get done. Good things, anyway.

 

posted by Poagao at 8:16 pm  
Jul 23 2021

Photography and Personing

Are you into photography? Do you like to person? Do you like to do both at the same time?

When I say “into” photography, I don’t mean someone who has/desires a great deal of gear, or someone who knows all the best places to find the best birds/orangutans/fire escapes, nor am I talking about dudes who take thousands of photos of women models in studios and random parks. I’m talking about people who are afflicted with the condition where they can’t not see photographs everywhere they go, even if they don’t have a camera at hand.

Another group I’m not talking about: Those who “got into” photography when it became the hot thing with the popular kids a few years ago (featuring skateboarders, that oft-used demographic every large corporation knows is perfect for bringing “the youth” into the fold for effective consumerism). I won’t waste my time because soon enough you’ll be saying things like “I just haven’t had time to go out shooting” and “There’s just nothing going on here” when something else comes along. Whenever I hear those phrases, I recall my ophthalmologist’s advice that I really need to stop rolling my eyes. Just admit it: You are not really into photography. But hold up: That’s great! It’s not an insult; it’s a compliment. Congratulations, because, as it turns out, being really into photography (as opposed to being a professional photographer, which is often a different thing), can be rough.

What could I possibly mean by this? Isn’t “everyone a photographer” these days? Don’t most people have a capable camera in their phone or around their neck? How do these people people, as it were?

Let’s say you are with other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking, eating, in a car, on a bus, in a meeting, having sex, or paragliding, or all of those at the same time (which admittedly sounds like one hell of a party). Do you remain committed to maintaining your interaction with them, or do you remain open to all of the potential photos happening around you?

Most normal people opt for the former. Obviously. Even in the unlikely event that you can engage with your companions as well as paying sufficient attention to your surroundings, what happens when a photograph become apparent to you? Do you maintain eye contact? Try and keep the conversation going? Think up an excuse to leave suddenly?

Again, for most people, the conversation is their literal focus. Most non-photographers, regardless of the photographic machinery they may have on hand, aren’t even looking. Of those who are looking, most ignore it. Of those who can’t ignore it, most watch helplessly as the photograph disappears while they try to keep their attention on the other people. Of those who make an attempt to socially disengage in order to make the photograph, most will be too late as well as flustered from resisting the ancient DNA-level code of Not Being an Asshole to one’s tribe. And those who just go take the damn picture are of course rude, self-centered malcontents who think their so-called “art” is more important than the actually important matters their companions are earnestly discussing with them at the time of the aforementioned abscondment.

“But TC,” you say, “I’ve found the Perfect Friends/Significant Other who is perfectly fine with me shooting anything I want at any time!”

That’s great! I’m sure they’re very nice, lovely, accommodating people who are really into you, and willing to put up with this behavior in order to be around you. I’m jealous, truly I am. Perhaps they even point out little scenes they think you’d be interested in, even though you aren’t because they can’t actually know what you see, and by the time you’ve followed their pointing finger and excited, slightly patronizing tone that of course has alerted the denizens of said scene to your attention, it has vanished. But I’ll bet a reasonable amount of money that they in fact hide their dismay when you display in a most abrupt fashion how much more devoted you are to some imagined, phantom scene than you are to really being truly “with” them.

That they’re willing to go through that for you is admirable. But perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll eventually get to wondering exactly why you can’t deny yourself this stupid photography shit in order to be with them. It’s not like you’re exactly famous or really any good at it. Which is most likely true, because in their eyes you can’t be good until you’re famous, and becoming a Famous Photographer is not only nearly impossible, it almost by definition disallows continuing to be into photography, because you need to person. If they don’t want you to give up photography for them, they will almost certainly try to steer you into a more lucrative,”useful” form of it. Again with the personing, extreme personing in this context, because lucrative photography is generally more about the lucrative part than the photography part. Can you schmooze? I mean, are you really good at it? Here, I’ll just take that camera; you won’t be needing it. Your attention is elsewhere. Go person.

This condition, of being disconnected enough from the tangled skeins of social obligation in which most people are ensconced that you are able to readily observe the things around you, can wear you down if you let it. Someone is always in the way, if not physically then mentally, assuming that you are engaged in the conversation or whatever else that may going on. People see you as off in the clouds somewhere when you are actually as present in the world as they are, just in a different way. They don’t notice the man quietly sobbing in the corner, the cat perched precariously on the railing, the estranged couple maintaining an awkward distance in the park, or the factory lazily polluting the river. And you don’t notice the latest gossip, that thing we have next week, or that horrible insult someone said that might mean something else. You’re there, but not in the”right” way. Not for personing.

Some extremely talented photographers in the past have obviously been the kind of “difficult” individuals I’m talking about, but by definition and due to survivor bias, the ones we know of are the ones who had special ways to deal with it. Many, such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, were independently wealthy when they started out, and just DNGAF. Others like Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand failed spectacularly at maintaining the relationships in their lives.

Of course there are many successful photographers who are friendly, engaging, well-adjusted individuals with happy friends and families. That’s great. I’m happy for them…mystified, but happy. The rest of us are left with a sense of not quite belonging to the world we are so intent on observing because, were we capable of belonging, we would no longer see it. Some of the photos resulting from this state might happen to be interesting, but nobody will know or care because we cannot person*.

So what can we do? Don’t worry; all is not lost. While we may not be able to ignore the draw of photography, we might be able to control how much we care about superficialities, things that are on the surface at least tangentially related to this Thing We Must Do, but in reality just drag us down, things like social media addiction to likes and favs, trying to be noticed and published, things like gear obsession and one-upmanship. Take that time and use it better; instead of clinging to the impossibility of being universally adored, try to make friends with a few like-minded souls instead of just anyone you think will advance your social status. Recognize, explore and embrace your own instincts and inclinations. Be there for yourself. Person for yourself.

If we simply value being as open and genuine as possible, we might stand a chance of getting through all this with some semblance of sanity. And maybe, just maybe, collect a few good shots along the way.

*Of course, if you’re lucky, after you’ve died someone might buy your photos at an auction and “discover” you, now that your difficult ass is safely beyond having to deal with.

posted by Poagao at 8:18 pm  
Apr 21 2021

The dangerous idea of danger

A quick scan of street photography workshops online these days will inevitably reveal a bizarre emphasis on fear: “Conquer your fear!” they cry. “Overcome your fear!” or “Get over your fear (in five easy steps!)”

It would seem to be one of the basic tenets of street photography instruction, yet I feel that there is a potentially harmful misconception in many street photography circles that the practice somehow requires photographers to be “brave” and “bold”, implying that one is performing some feat of great intrepidity, engaging in a competitive challenge full of strutting machismo rather than the contemplative exercise I’ve found it to be, where bravery of the intellectual and emotional varieties are much more useful in challenging one’s own preconceptions as well as those of others. The Internet coaches, rather, tend to describe SP in hunting-related terms, making getting the “shot” or “capture” the paramount goal, and videos of famous photographers engaging in aggressive behavior have been both held up as examples to emulate as well as “prove” to others that street photography itself is a questionable pursuit, even at times encouraging violent physical reprisals.

“Oh, I could never be that brave!” is something I’m often told, sometimes in a disapproving tone, when people find out that I engage in candid photography. But truth be told, I am not at all brave; in fact, I’m quite shy. I’m uncomfortable in large groups, and the thought of too much social engagement often overwhelms me; I never know quite what to say in such situations, and I usually end up on the edges of things, listening and watching. The things I am most confident in saying, I tend to say with my camera, because it is more faithful to my thoughts and observations than I can ever hope to be in other forms of interaction.

Robert Capa’s oft-quoted words, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” might have had something to do with this, and adherents of Capa might want to delve a little deeper into the notorious photojournalist’s history before applying his words to their physical street photography practice. Closer to the present, the focus on machismo perpetuated especially by the IT-driven influx of people attracted to the practice of street photography from the mid-2000’s on also had an annoying tendency to remove empathy from the process, turning our focus away from the nature of what we want to say and placing it squarely on the superficiality of how we can dominate others. When I look at work, however, I don’t generally judge it in terms of how brave the photographer might have been in taking the shot, but rather the depth of their perception.

This isn’t to imply that all of street photography has been infected with this point of view; there are still many out there continuing to work from a genuine sense of visual and emotional curiosity. Indeed, it does seem that many if not most of the most perceptive photographers have been introverted individuals who give themselves the space, both mentally and socially, to perceive things that others don’t, resulting in more interesting photography. Framing one’s goals in terms of confidence in one’s perceptive abilities and a healthy respect for one’s subjects seems more likely to take one farther than sheer derring-do, which emphasizes the photographer’s sense of entitlement at the expense of their subjects, throwing the results of the interaction further from our realm of consideration.

This also doesn’t mean that bravado is simply bad, rather a suggestion that it might not be as vital a parameter as we’ve been lead to believe. Courage may indeed be useful, but the best work in my opinion is not about the bravery; it’s about the honesty. Bravery is certainly necessary in the realm of photojournalism, and the conflation of that type of photography with street photography is no doubt at least partially to blame for this approach, but I maintain that, at their best, both genres come down to empathy, introspection and respect more than physical courage.

Everyone is different; some people feed off the energy such anxiety provides, but in general one’s approach will show in one’s results, and outside of the Gildens and Cohens of the world (both of whom could be said to be shy by nature, which I believe has resulted in compelling, introspective work that is overshadowed by the superficial perception of their practices), a large portion of the street photography that is taken under the misconception that “the bolder the photographer the better the shot” is actually rather tedious to look at thanks to a lack of real connection or observation, sometimes even embarrassingly so. Conversely, the imperative that one must be recklessly bold to create compelling work might also have resulted in a contrarian sector of street photography practiced by photographers who have simply gone the other way, eschewing human interaction almost entirely and relying solely on geometric shadows and colors in lieu of the direct portrayal of humans.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps, instead of these attempts to assuage some feeling of guilt that people assume is inherent to the practice of street photography, we should ponder just why that tired trope is given such prominence. What engenders this feeling of fear, and what effect does it have on our work? Why do we fear to express ourselves? Why do we see our own gaze as potentially offensive to others? Are we compensating for a reluctance to examine our own issues?

In my view, it is one of many indicators that attention has been commodified and thus weaponized by certain sectors, starting with the media taking an ever-greater share of our limited notice with its 24/7 presence, followed by social media, which has worked to capitalize and assign a power structure to the nature of our attention. Thus, only certain kinds of attention, e.g. fame and “likes” and “follows” are seen as positive and worthy of pursuit. They hold power and authority in today’s attention market. As a result, other kinds of attention have become vilified and shunned according to this scale. Among these is being noticed in public when one hasn’t specifically asked to be (and sometimes even if one has, but it’s the “wrong” kind of attention). If social media fame and praiseworthy attention hold power, it creates a structure wherein the act of gaining this attention must, in many people’s minds, come at the expense of others. Thus the “hunting” analogy has come into the common street photography lexicon as far as most people were concerned, along with not only an influx of street photographers seeking such a pursuit in such a mindset, but also a flood of thus-inspired photos vying for fame on Instagram, which also increased the pressure to post multiple times a day, regardless of quality, lest users’ “brand awareness” takes a hit. The irony, of course, is that such servitude to social media popularity is the antithesis of bravery.

Be that as it may, distancing ourselves from the entire paradigm might be more effective. Perhaps if people new to street photography were steered away from the redirection of their sense of intimidation, examining rather than avoiding the vicious cycle of questionable behavior and guilt suppression, they could concentrate instead on the nature of their perception. Photographers might be better served by exploring their own motivations, what they have to say and how, rather than investing themselves so fully in the assumption that they are somehow doing something so wrong that they need to summon a certain amount of physical courage to effectively pursue it.

Introspection, however, isn’t exactly a path for the meek. It is much easier to talk about “overcoming your fear” than addressing why the fear is there in the first place. It could be that the bravery we actually need to express ourselves fully through photography or any other medium is emotional rather than physical in nature, and can only be found in the courage to be honest with ourselves. I think Oliviero Toscani, one of the founders of Colors magazine, described this quite aptly in an interview when answering a question about modern photographers’ motivations: “…no one teaches them not to be frightened of being frightened. If you do something without being frightened, it’ll never be interesting or good. Everyone wants to be sure of what they’re doing. Any really interesting idea simply can’t be safe.”

posted by Poagao at 10:34 am  
Mar 15 2021

Feeling a way

Been in and out of various moods lately. Who hasn’t? It’s 2021, the world has changed, is still changing. Nobody knows where things will end up. Reassessing priorities has been the name of the game.

We here in Taiwan, of course, have been fortunate to be living under responsible governance, which makes for conflicting emotions when we see the vaccines we don’t have access to being so widely spread in countries where people felt free to ignore competent advice. They need it more, obviously. But remember, please, why they need it more.

Last weekend revolved around a St. Patrick’s Day gig at Bobwundaye. I don’t particularly care about St. Patrick’s Day, but we hadn’t played at Bob’s in a minute, so it was a long-overdue show. Cristina is getting ready to have Baby Paradise, so it was her last show before the big event. I saw some familiar faces, which was nice and got me back into a more social mood than I’ve been in lately. The show went well, and I shared a late-night/early morning taxi with Slim back to Xindian afterwards.

Sunday was spent recovering. In the morning I chatted with some folks in VR, meeting a fellow from Maitland, Florida, where I grew up, reminiscing about various landmarks. Later I walked down to the area just downstream from the Bitan traffic bridge, where they’re revamping the catchment infrastructure to allow fish to traverse it. I talked with some of people fishing in the river there for a bit before returning to the Water Curtain Cave for a dinner of questionable pasta leftover from my pandemic-induced shopping spree last year. Verdict: Ew.

I’ve been getting on Clubhouse chats lately…it’s a kind of mixture of talk radio, podcasts and chatrooms, with moderated talks where listeners can participate. It’s Apple-product only so far, which has added to its aura of exclusivity for some reason. Rammy, ABC and I founded a Street Photography club on there, and have had a few interesting sessions so far. Quite a few other SP clubs have cropped up, some of which do discussions almost on the daily, but we’ve elected for a quality-over-quantity approach. Still, who knows how this thing will develop.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve also been working, slowly, on a photography book. My floor and walls remain covered in prints, but the work is now largely a matter of presentation. Of course it changes every time I get new advice, but slowly it seems to be taking form. It’s difficult as I am so close to the subject matter and the photos, and objectivity is hard to find sometimes. Also time is more of an issue these days as the semester has started up again. Again with the violin, although I feel I’m stuck at my current level, most likely as I am loathe to practice.

Been feeling stuck in many areas recently. Last week after work I took train out to Keelung to walk around and say good-bye to the old pedestrian overpass by the harbor. Usually walking around with no particular agenda helps me get out of my head and reconnect with the world around me, but it was rough going for some reason. I walked over to where the Taima Ferry docks, and while I was walking away the ship entered the harbor and docked. It was something I would have liked to see, but I missed it. Then, after I walked back over to see the ship and was walking away again, it departed…another thing I would have liked to see and missed. It felt like a metaphor for life lately. I keep missing things. Perhaps it’s time for a reset.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:05 pm  
Jul 20 2020

A weekend jaunt

Went travelling for the first time in a while over the weekend. Chenbl and I met up on Saturday morning and caught a bullet train south to Kaohsiung, complete with window seats and breakfast on the train. Drinking ice coffee and looking out the window at the scenery flashing past at 200mph …just the act of getting on a fast train to the south felt wonderful, and I haven’t seen that lovely port city in a minute.

After arriving we descended into the dark, humid depths of the Kaohsiung metro, which doesn’t seem interested in providing air conditioning or light in as generous capacities as its Taipei counterpart, and headed over to Yanchengpu, where our friend Lee Ah-ming was having his exhibition opening. The weather was brilliant, the sun white-hot but with a breeze unfamiliar to those who dwell in the windless Taipei basin, where the streets radiate heat. Kaohsiung is cool enough if you stay out of the sun, and the sparsely populated streets made me think most were avoiding going out during the hottest part of the day.

The exhibition was interesting, good work on the subject of Taiwan’s beleaguered migrant fish workers, and it’s always fun talking with “the other Ah-ming” as well as my painter friend Cheng Kai-hsiang, who was also there. But I never do well in spaces filled with people on the periphery of art-related activities, so I tend to shut up, lurk and listen.

Afterwards we all walked over, across the Love River, which stinks much less these days (and in fact hasn’t for a long time, but the occasional whiff makes me think some of the tributaries still need some work), to a three-story restaurant, also with no air conditioning. Dinner was good, just sweaty, so we had to order some shaved ice afterwards at the lobby of one of the other hotels where some of our students were staying.

And then to our hotel, the Fullon in Yanchengpu; Chenbl had scored some kind of discount, possibly to entice people to travel during these Covidian times, and we had a large, nice room overlooking the harbor in the distance. Oh the joy of a strong hotel shower and fresh hotel bed sheets! It’s been too long, and I enjoyed it, as well as the generous hotel breakfast the next morning. The place has a pool, but we’d neglected to bring swimsuits, and at any rate it was full of kids.

We walked around the area, taking the light rail to Xizhiwan and then down to the docks. The place where I took a photo of a kid playing on a giraffe statue has changed completely and now features a carousel and small merry-go-round.

Then we took the still stifling subway out to a mall, where we waited some time for taxis out to Qijin, where we were meeting Ah-ming for a delicious lunch featuring sashimi fresh off the boat. Then he showed us around the docks for a while, exploring the nooks and crannies of the area, talking with Ah-ming about the publishing industry and his next book, all the while as a line of storm clouds crept up on the horizon. We timed it just right, arriving back at the High Speed Rail station just as the rain began. A doze-filled hour and a half later we were back at Taipei station having dinner upstairs.

It was so good to get away for a bit, I’ve missed it.

posted by Poagao at 11:46 am  
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  
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