Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 23 2021

Level 3 to end

They announced this afternoon that Level 3 would end on the 26th, in a few days’ time. Of course, this is going to be a gradual relaxation, and the pessimist inside me predicts that cases will go back up and we’ll be back at Level 3 again before this is over. But I could be wrong. For those of us who are still not fully vaccinated, this presents a worrying situation. Companies are calling all their employees to come back so they can pretend to work at the office instead of actually working at home. Productivity will be the same, of course, but bosses here love love love it when they see someone fake “running” with tiny steps down the hallway carrying a bunch of papers that are most likely whatever report they had on hand when they got up. “They’re so busy!” the boss thinks, dimly. “I must be a good boss! I deserve a raise!”

But we’ll see, I guess. The typhoon that was headed in our direction balked when it bounced against our territorial waters, as if Taiwan’s version of William T. Riker had shouted “Shields up!” It spun indecisively for a day or two before shrinking northward, abashed. Now it’s probably going to beat up Shanghai in frustration. But for now, we’re seeing heavy rains on occasion due to its proximity. This afternoon after I came home from work and had lunch on my coffee table (a rare sandwich today, as I usually get a chicken lunchbox), and goofed off online for a few hours, I saw that there was sunshine outside, so I grabbed my cameras and an umbrella and headed down to the riverside as has been my wont during these non-urban-wandering times. The water level at Bitan was a bit high but nothing catastrophic. I walked down the river, under the bridges and by the golf range to see how the Xizhou Village was fairing. As I approached the gate, I could see one of those yellow warning ribbons slung across the road. As I watched, a taxi drove through it, breaking it and tossing it to the ground.

As I walked into the village, I quickly realized that most of it was no longer there. After a couple of shops, I saw a vast field of wreckage dotted with a couple of bulldozers and cranes. Apparently they’d been in the midst of tearing it all down when the typhoon approached, necessitating a ceasing of operations. I wandered around the area for a bit, taking a few photos of the few bits of buildings still standing, pieces of art in the wreckage, that kind of thing. It was kind of sad, though I realized that the entire village had moved up the hill to a newly built complex that wouldn’t be subject to flooding.

It began to rain as evening fell, and I began to walk back as I’d ordered dinner. Before long it became a torrential downpour, and was getting soaked despite my big umbrella. I covered my camera with my shirt to keep it from getting too wet. The high-rises across the river were just vague forms through the heavy rain as I slogged through flooded walkways back up the river. The lights were on but the sky was still visible, and everything was shiny and misty at the same time. It was exhilarating, but I was glad to get back to the blessedly dry Water Curtain Cave for dinner and Star Trek.

posted by Poagao at 8:39 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  
Jul 19 2021

Level 3: possibly ending?

Despite my misgivings about the number of people out and about these days, COVID case numbers are still officially declining, back into the single digits. This seems miraculous, especially when you look at the numbers of other countries like Thailand and Malaysia, where the situation is spiraling out of control. I look on my IG stories to see people out in the streets of Bangkok, maskless, protesting, and huge numbers of infections a day. The unvaccinated pockets in the U.S., mostly Republican strongholds, are undergoing yet another surge, even as they decry the current administration’s efforts to get them vaccinated. This is far from over, it seems.

Back here, they’re talking about ending Level 3, which I suppose would mean restaurants opening back up, but I imagine, or hope, that people will take it slowly. This last scare really should have educated us as to how important these measure are. I’ve continued my daily sojourns down by the riverside…there’s not really anywhere else to go that doesn’t require a subway ride, but I find that there’s quite a lot of little streets and alleys that I haven’t really explored, places that are technically in the flood zone, and therefore illegal. I know I must look sus walking around down there, but fortunately people aren’t really talking with each other and I usually get a wide berth. The other day a lot of people were gathering under the traffic bridge to pick up masks, seemingly heedless of the irony involved in the situation. I’ve also noticed the canine couple I’ve known for years to wander around Bitan, likes to lie on the cool stone seats under that bridge after sunset. They’re inseparable friends, and whenever I happen to see one without the other I ask where the other is. I imagine they have their routines after all this time, though. Another day I was walking around the community behind Taiping Temple and I saw a cat sitting on a rooftop watching the sunset. I called and it walked over to talk with me a bit through the barbed wire, a beautiful brown cat with green eyes, a young cat with a clipped ear. The old guys who sit in front of the mom and pop store have returned, now sitting on the playground equipment that’s festooned with “KEEP AWAY” police tape. Whoever makes that tape is making out like a bandit these days; I should have invested in whatever company makes it. But nearly all of my photography these days happens in Bitan or thereabouts. It’s actually an interesting exploration of sorts. It makes me wonder how things would have worked out had I rented that old house in that neighborhood, by the freeway overpass. Not ideal, I’d think. I’m far happier in an apartment complex, though the lack of pool service this year has been annoying. First-world problems and all that, I know. But I can’t help but be a bit envious of the Bitan swimmers I photograph from the bridge.

Chenbl and I have both signed up with the reservation system to be vaccinated, but so far we don’t have a date set. It might be another month or two, alas. This is going to be a tricky time for all of us, especially as things open up again. A lot depends on how well we can fend off the Delta variant before we get enough people vaccinated. I think we’re at 20% now, with fairly good rates. Donated vaccines are coming in, so far all AZ or Moderna. Originally most people were choosing Moderna due to it’s supposed higher efficacy and fewer side effects, but I’m not sure that that’s entirely accurate. Beliefs are changing, however, and more people are going with either one now.

Annoyed by his long hair, Chenbl decided to go get a haircut at our usual place in Shilin yesterday. I personally think he would look great if he pulled it back into a Sumo-style topknot, but he doesn’t agree (he dislikes my facial hair, but I disagree, so, fair). I told him I would accompany him but I wouldn’t be hanging around in the barbershop. Instead I walked around the neighborhood while he was inside, and afterwards we took a circuitous route back through Shilin. The ultra-modern performing arts center is almost done, it seems, after a long hiatus. Still glad I didn’t take that photography gig; it would have been a nightmare. It was nice to be in another neighborhood for once, and just walking and chatting on the street. We walked through the night market area, avoid other people, which wasn’t hard as there weren’t many out, before catching a bus back downtown. While it’s nicer for photography, I dislike buses in general, and especially during a pandemic as it’s more of an enclosed space than the metro, but Chenbl likes them and this one was taking him right home. I got off near Zhongshan Station and, as the light was nice, climbed up the pedestrian overpass and took pictures of scooters and their long shadows cast by the setting sun. After taking the metro home, I’d just walked into the Water Curtain Cave when I got a text from Cristina and Zach, who were down by the riverside with their daughter Scarlett Danger Paradise, as well as Conor and Sandman, so I rented a Youbike and rode over to meet them. It was the most comprehensive Rambler meetup we’ve had in many a month. Scarlett I’d never seen before; she’s cute, as babies tend to be I guess. Talkative and likes to dance and stare at trees. Sandman left and David showed up a bit later, and it was nice. I tried to stay upwind and not too close, especially when certain other people, ahem, failed to keep their masks on.

But I need to be careful on weekends, especially. Bitan has been getting more crowded again on weekends, alas. I went temporarily insane last weekend and actually went inside RT Mart on Sunday, and it was so crowded I had to leave before I had a panic attack. But not before picking up some sushi, because of the whole temporarily insane thing. It was, of course, disappointing, but hey, at least no food poisoning! I’ve been doing mostly Food Panda for dinner, picking up lunchboxes for lunch. Breakfast I just skip altogether, as I’ve been hearing good things about time-limited eating, so I basically don’t eat from 8 p.m. to 1 or 2 p.m. the next day. Adding that to walking a bit and intense workouts in VR games such as Beat Saber, Pistol Whip, Eleven etc. and hopefully I’m not in too terrible a shape.

So, all in all, thing seem to be looking up, for now. Stay tuned.

posted by Poagao at 11:10 am  
Jul 01 2021

Level 3, still

So far, despite my misgivings about more and more people being out on the streets these days, the case numbers have been gradually decreasing, though the Delta Variant has made its way into the country thanks to a grandmother who returned from Peru and decided to dictate her own terms of what “quarantine” means.

Though more people are out and about, most noticably on the subway to and from work, things are still technically semi-locked down; no eating in restaurants, no public gatherings. Everything is online/takeout. I’ve become accustomed to ordering Food Panda and occasionally Uber Eats if it’s the only thing with available cuisine. Uber Eats features rider tipping, whereas Food Panda does not. I wonder if their wages reflect this. We still wait for the afternoon briefings of the CECC to get the numbers and the latest news. The current Level 3 is supposed to last until the middle of this month. I made the mistake of checking forumosa for information, but all the covid threads have of course been taken over by right-wing white dudes ranting about “lockdowns” and “vaccines don’t work” and the like, right next to the threads about how evil CRT is indoctrinating teh youth and cancel culture….oh, I don’t know, whatever BS they’re on these days.

It’s July, and that means the end of the semester for the photography class. It’s been difficult since the semi-lockdown; all classes are online, and students aren’t out there shooting. With the glacial pace of the vaccine roll out, under which Chenbl and I will only be eligible to get our first shots some time in the fall, I don’t see how schools will be able to open in September, though Chenbl’s parents are scheduled to get their first Moderna shots on Monday. He’s going to stay home with them and make sure they’re ok. In any case, the class is a September problem; right now we have to concentrate on wrapping this semester up as best as we can.

After a long time fiddling around, I sent out brochures for my photobook to all the publishers most likely to ignore me. I figured I’d start with them, give myself a break while I’m waiting for them to not respond, and then send it out for more silence. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I don’t understand how these things work.

Lately, in addition to watching the sunset from my rooftop, I’ve been taking walks down by the riverside. I’ve been noticing how the setting sun shines in under the traffic bridge, throwing shadows on the pillars, outlining the occasional solitary fisherman there. Joggers and bike riders glance at my camera as they go by, as if I’m some sort of spy. I made the mistake of sitting down and was rewarded with an annoying insect bite last week. But the view across the river is pleasant, the bunches of buildings built on the sides of the green mountains. Sometimes I rent a Youbike and ride up the river; it’s been too long since I took the Crazy Bike out for a spin…I’ve had that thing for 15 years now…would be nice to add an electric wheel hub motor to it for the occasional hill. Riding along the river usually puts me in a better mood; things have been too dark lately.

posted by Poagao at 11:32 am  
Jun 02 2021

Level 3 Part 2

I’ve been staying at home when I can…classes are all online and all of our gigs have been cancelled, but as my job still requires me to go into the office and do things I could totally do online, I still going out every day. Navigating the subway and even just walking around outside can be a nerve-wracking experience, as there’s always the heedless old people and the smokers, often both, standing on the sidewalk coughing and looking surprised that everyone else is giving them a wide berth. I try to take routes where I can be assured of more personal space, but sometimes it’s difficult, especially with the afternoon thundershowers we’ve been having (don’t get me wrong; we desperately need the rain).

For the first week or two of the Level 3 conditions, Taipei and New Taipei were ghost towns, with hardly anyone on the streets. Case numbers, accordingly, have just recently begun to level out and have even fallen a bit the past few days. Now, however, more people are out and about, as if the problem has just gone away or something. It’s concerning but hardly surprising in a place where a “crackdown” on something usually only lasts a short time, after which people simply go back to doing what they did before. But the result of this will, also accordingly, be seen only in a week or so, when everyone will be “surprised” at a new surge in cases. The news, I’m sure will be full of broadcasters uttering that so oft-used phrase 沒想到! The only other option will be for us to go to an actual lockdown, i.e Level 4. And you know that the authorities will have their hands full trying to enforce that.

The scale of our vaccine shortage is also becoming clear to more people these days; the government announced that it would be announcing a plan, which is good, I guess? I would have hoped that President Tsai would have been vaccinated by now, but apparently she’s still hoping to make a show of receiving a local vaccine, for which they’ve applied for emergency allowance to skip phase III trials and just go into production. When the time comes (they’ve said they’re aiming for 60% of the population having gotten their first shot only by fucking November, FFS), we won’t get a choice of vaccine; it will apparently be luck of the draw. It’s a little difficult seeing clueless Americans online pooh-poohing vaccination efforts. I’m glad they’ve got such easy access; thanks to inept policies and politics we now have even more deadly variants from the UK and India, et al, but the U.S. has entered its reopening stage and nobody can tell them nothing.

Back in the actual world, I’ve signed up for all the food-delivery services, and have had mixed results so far. One issue is that Xindian, particularly the corner where the Water Curtain Cave is located, is, despite its geographical proximity to everything, very far away, at least in people’s minds. Sure, it’s only 20 minutes from Taipei Main Station, and our neighborhood is, just like the crowded suburbs of Yonghe, Xinzhuang, Banqiao and Sanchong, just across a bridge, but it would seem that the old mentality of Xindian being part of the untamed wilderness subsists even today. The scooter share programs Goshare and Wemo won’t come near us, and the food delivery services only recently and seemingly begrudgingly added us to their list, but restaurants and drivers are rather hesitant to venture over a single a bridge, deep, deep, like a three-minute-drive deep into the wild jungles of Bitan.

I know what you’re thinking: But TC, why don’t you just learn how to cook? You can spend all your time hobnobbing with all the old people at the markets! And make dishes that you, a single person living alone, cannot hope to finish! And watch all the veggies and meats in your refrigerator good bad! Yeah, I know, food delivery services are also a thing if they see fit to brave the wilds of Bitan. It’s a good idea; I am just such a lazy mofo about these things.

Speaking of throwing shade at myself: Theoretically I should be working hard on my photo book, and I have been, having gone through several dummies and opinions of experts and friends. Now I just have to push the thing out there to publishers, which of course means facing another round of rejections and reinforcement of various insecurities. Might as well get it over with, I know, but I’m always suckered into the idea that I can just make it a little better by doing this, that or a third, and perhaps it needs some time before I can properly judge it, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Then I look at what is being published and I often think, “This? This, got published? How?” and realize that I really have no idea what is going on.

Then again, what’s new?

posted by Poagao at 10:54 am  
May 24 2021

Level 3, Week 1

We’ve been at Level 3, which is kinda lockdown-ish in that people are encouraged to stay at home, no in-restaurant dining, that kind of thing, for a week or so now. There’s still hundreds of new cases a day, but so far truly frightening exponential growth hasn’t been apparent…that might be due to the low number of tests being done, though. In any case, people were especially encouraged to not go out during the weekend, and we won’t see the results of that until next week, when we decide whether to continue with Level 3 or do a true lockdown with Level 4, the highest level. The 28th is supposed to be the day that is decided. Will this work? We’ll see.

I did go out over the weekend, as I have yet to master L’art du Food Panda, but I stayed away from other people as much as possible. This was easy, as Bitan was nearly empty of the usual tourists as well as most of the locals. The one glaring omission was, of course, the groups of older men gathering, unmasked, to sit together all day, be it down on the river bank fishing or up at the shop beyond the temple, sitting on the playground equipment that is now festooned with yellow tape, chatting away, blissfully endangering lives because they truly DGAF about other people. If you look at the districts where spread is rampant, it’s obvious to anyone who knows this city that those districts tend to be places with older-type neighborhoods, markets and corners where older people tend to just hang out. And older people are more likely to be seriously affected by it.

So, it seems that the asshats that were out here in these streets back during SARS are still here, minus the ones that died of it back then. The thing is, SARS, while a more deadly disease, was not as easily transmissible as Covid. I’ve long wondered how much of our good fortune that lasted up until recently was due to luck, and how much was good governance. Now it’s come to light that a certain legislator with no background in medical science pushed to let airline pilots get away with only a few days in quarantine, as the behest of the pilots union. This person should get jail time at the very least, IMO.

Then again, “winging it” has been part of this culture since time began, so I’m not terribly surprised, now that we’ve been caught up in this thing, that we’ve wasted a great deal of the head start we had. Soldiers are out spraying the streets, FFS, when it’s a well-known fact that surface transmission isn’t really a thing; it’s keeping people from infecting others via proximity/time that needs to be addressed. But for a nation that underwent 38 years of martial law, there is a hesitancy to bring down the hammer too hard, which is understandable (the KMT has its own disturbing ideas on the subject, unsurprisingly).

I’d prefer to work from home, but since mine is technically a government-adjacent position, I’ve been traveling to and from Ximen Station every weekday on the MRT, double masked and sitting by myself if possible. My office only has two other people in it, but who knows what is lurking on the corridors beyond our door. At least we have our own air conditioning unit. Lunch and dinner I take home (now I’m wishing I’d gotten a new TV, alas, but hindsight is 20/20). My computer screen is full of doom and gloom; the expat community, at least those that after over a year of covid-free life aren’t fucking back to their vaccinated homelands, are full of the usual fact-free opinions.

As I’ve said before, I’m willing to get the vaccine, preferably a Pfizer or Moderna, but I’d settle for AZ I guess, but the government needs to streamline the vaccination process with extreme prejudice. It’s far, far too complicated at this point, and the misinformation concerning vaccines here is off the charts, resulting in such hesitancy, and the government seems unable to procure even close to enough of them. They’re certainly not talking about it, and the media barely mentions the issue. My friend Brian Hioe over at New Bloom has been doing excellent work in issuing updates on the issue, as well as working to help the significant homeless community in Wanhua, where he lives. Wanhua was the epicenter of the current wave, as anyone who knows Wanhua would not be surprised to hear. Crowded, older buildings, older population, a certain laissez-faire attitude towards rules…it’s always been special, and those attributes make it especially vulnerable. It’s easy to feel a sense of helplessness in the face of preventable tragedies like this, but I suppose all we can do as individuals is just try to keep on keeping on, as it were.

In any case, Taiwan tried to warn everyone about covid, but nobody listened. Now that other countries have been ravaged and managed to get vaccines, we’re asking for help, but again, nobody’s listening. The U.S. is opening up, masks off, party party, and since U.S. media dominates the global conversation, covid has ceased to be the issue that it once was, even though an untold number of people are still getting it and dying of it. It’s become an “other people’s problem” issue, I’m afraid. Which is of course how it started, as well as how it has become so serious.

Every day at 2 p.m. the CDC has a press conference with the day’s infection numbers, and every day everyone is on edge waiting to see if the numbers are skyrocketing. Everyone, that is, except the groups of old men on the street corners.

posted by Poagao at 11:26 am  
May 14 2021

Echoes of 2003

I’ve been re-reading old entries in this account, scathing missives I wrote during the whole SARS thing, and I’d been thinking, did we really learn from it? Up until now I’d thought we had; Taiwan has managed covid surprisingly well up to this point. We all had something to be proud of.

And then it turned out that most people were unwilling to get vaccinated, using up only a portion of the still-woefully inadequate amount of vaccine the government had managed to appropriate, all AZ. Where did all of those quarantine-violators from the last time go, I began to wonder. Occasionally someone would show up on the news being heavily fined, and cellphone tracking tech is massively better these days. Perhaps we did learn.

And then of course, people just sort of stopped thinking it was a thing, and all it took was a few airline pilots to infect others not only with covid but with a sudden desire to visit every. single. part. of. Taiwan. on mass scourge tours. And boom: community spread. Suddenly vaccines are more popular, but those things take time.

We were so close to getting through this relatively unscathed! We still are, but it’s going to be a close thing. My fear is that, once we reach that stage, all of the idiot behaviors are going to return. Or perhaps they never went away.

But I guess we’ll see. Chenbl just called and predicted that things are going to get scary, and he is now reexamining his previous hesitancy on getting vaccinated, but I won’t repeat his reasoning here. And yesterday most of the nation experienced long blackouts due to an accident at a power plant down south, which isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring. We are still plagued with a culture where, if someone steps down from their office temporarily and people get bag out of it, then whatever happened just magically never happened, all good, problem solved.

So things are beginning to feel a bit too 2003-ish around here. Now all I need to do is make another episode of Lady X followed by riding Gendouyun down to the Shannon and we’ll be there.

posted by Poagao at 11:54 am  
Apr 22 2021

20 years

Twenty years ago today, after riding my motorcycle back from my job at an advertising company, I sat down in front of my big-ass CRT monitor in my shared apartment on Hsinsheng South Road and began writing this account.

A lot has happened over the past two decades, and hopefully at least some people have enjoyed the ride. Not many people still blog these days, but I still feel the urge to write in here now and then. We’ll see what happens.

posted by Poagao at 11:55 am  
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  
Apr 14 2021

Revival song

Spring is usually difficult as the temperatures fluctuate so wildly…usually the weather varies between sun and rain, but this year we’re getting precious little rain. Regardless, it tends to put me in a foul mood.

I was all ready to just go back to the Water Curtain Cave and just fall into bed after work today, but one of my students has an exhibition in the space above NOW Coffee on Yanping South Road, so I headed that way to take a look, stopping at my favorite lunch place sandwiched in between two historic buildings near the North Gate.

As I was looking at the exhibition, a raucous chorus of horns and firecrackers announced the approach of a temple procession. I went downstairs to watch it pass, and as they’d neglected to stop traffic on the street, the procession was stop and go. So I decided to hang out. Some scantily clad women danced on top of various vehicles, surrounded by men with cameras, and people in god costumes and people bearing palanquins and banners strode around, stopping at each stoplight.

“Come on, give it a shot!” one of the temple horn players said, thrusting one of the instruments at me. I took it and gave a few blasts, which they seemed to enjoy. I drew the line at the offer to try out one of the god costumes, though. My mood was much improved.

Chenbl called, saying he wanted to meet after he got off work to give me some tea we’d decided to try, which meant spending all afternoon in town.

I decided to more or less follow the temple procession, drifting off when something else caught my interest. I spent a half hour amid the unbelievable Donki Store crowds looking at cheap Japanese produce, then followed the temple procession noise to the Tianhou Temple, and then deeper into Ximending. Luckily I had ear plugs because the firecrackers were quite loud, not to mention the brass band and drums.

The procession made a large loop of the area, ending up at a temple on Luoyang Street. I went back over to the exhibition to sign the guest book and found my student there with some other photographers. But I couldn’t stay long; I had to meet Chenbl at Houshanpi Station for noodles and to get the tea.

After dinner, on the 270 bus back to Ximen to catch the train, I listened to Blues in C Sharp Minor by Teddy Wilson, a perfect song for old Taipei at night.

posted by Poagao at 8:56 pm  
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