Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 29 2024

In BS We Trust

From "In Guns We Trust"I recently came across the photobook “In Guns We Trust” by Canadian “lens-based visual artist” Jean-Francois Bouchard, published in 2019 by the Magenta Foundation, “a trailblazing charitable arts-publishing house that consistently showcases the work of talented artists on a global scale, drawing attention to under-represented and emerging artists with powerful exhibitions and a roster of impressive international publications.” The book is mainly composed of photos of white Americans, men for the most part in heroic poses holding oversized guns in front of majestic desert landscapes, interspersed with the various bullet-ridden objects, mostly foreign cars and woman-shaped mannequins, that they target at a large shooting range in Arizona.

At first I thought it must be a parody rather than a serious attempt at photographic exploration, but when I read the text by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, it would seem that the people behind this project genuinely thought they were doing something other than simply glorifying ultraconservative white Americans’ gun fixation. There is not even the slightest mention of the dire situation and human cost created and constantly exacerbated by this obsession. Rather, Coupland bends over backward to insist, in this most ludicrous of terms, that the book’s one-sidedness is in fact a comprehensive view; those asking if this is “gonzo ethnography”, Coupland says, “incorrectly assume that Bouchard sees his subjects as being very different from himself, when in fact, he does not. It’s just that they possess a pesky 21st century one little thing that sets them apart. It seems everyone has at least one, if not more. Bouchard’s work asks the viewer, ‘What’s yours?'” This man then actually equates gun obsession with being gay, a woman, anti-vax, anti-abortion, or addicted to meth.

“The main goal of this body of work is to gain a better understanding of the impact of the military ethos in civil society,” Coupland goes on, oblivious to the fact that imagery of gun owners standing proudly in the desert next to bullet-riddled Hondas does exactly none of that. To those who see America’s gun obsession as a serious issue, Coupland suggest such people live in their own bubbles, adding “Why be so quick to dismiss something because it’s not your thing? Where is empathy? Where is nuance?” I’d actually like to know the answers to those questions, because they were nowhere to be found in this book.

Bouchard himself admits, “To be honest, I have more in common with these people than feels acceptable to acknowledge.” You think?

The shallowness of such projects echoes the disturbing trend in the media of, in an effort to court “both sides”, completely abandoning objectivity and embracing dangerously extremist views. It’s not just the New York Times, it seems to be encroaching upon many areas of discourse these days. It’s one reason I decided to make my visit to the U.S. sooner than later, as I have no idea where this road leads, but I’m afraid that light up ahead isn’t the end of the tunnel, but rather tracer bullets lighting up the remains of artistic introspection.

posted by Poagao at 6:51 pm  
Apr 10 2024

A long-delayed trip

So I recently traveled to the U.S., specifically Oklahoma, to visit family for the first time in nearly a decade. I had originally planned to visit in 2020, but, well, pandemic, etc.

The airport express was packed; Chenbl met me at Beimen Station and we set out for Taoyuan…it had been so long since I’d traveled, especially by myself, that it was rather surreal. We had a dinner of rice at a ramen place downstairs. I wasn’t in the most talkative of moods, but I was glad Chenbl was there as I was filled with anxiety with the prospect of this trip, so unlike past ones, and the feeling only increased after I left Chenbl at the security check (he doesn’t go to the U.S. on principle, which I respect). I had checked my rolling suitcase and just had a large backpack. Fortunately, my new passport (My fifth! Time flies) maintained e-gate functionality. Chenbl had said there was a free lounge on the second floor, but that turned out to be false, so I sat on a couch for an hour or so before heading to my gate.

There, a huge crowd of people in wheelchairs was spread out in a large array before the entrance, some kind of travel group, and it took quite a while to get them through when the time came. I had chosen a window seat towards the rear of the plane: safer, better view from a window seat, and closer to the bathrooms and galley, though lots more wiggling motion as tends to be the case in the tail of the plane. The two meals Eva Air provided were ok, as were the movies. I managed to get some sleep by stretching my feet under the seat in front of me and resting my head on the side of the large window, the eerie scene purple daylight outside resulting from the polarized windows as they wanted it to feel like night on board. I was thankful for the 787’s higher humidity and lower pressure; my ears barely felt a thing and I wasn’t as dried out as I usually am after trips on other planes.

The view of the sun setting under the gold swath of clouds as we flew into Seattle was sublime. After retrieving my bag (which took forever), immigration went surprisingly smoothly; a pleasantly curious but understanding officer got me through quickly and efficiently, which is basically why I chose Seattle for transit over someplace like LA.

Outside the airport, however, I discovered that the hotel I’d reserved, the Red Roof Inn, was somehow the only one not contactable from the courtesy phones at the bus stop, and my phone wouldn’t work with local numbers. The hotel was technically walkable from the airport, though online reviews advised against it, and it was cold and rainy. I managed to borrow the phone of a sympathetic security station manager to get in touch with the hotel so they could send a van over. The hotel itself was basic, an older place with no toothbrushes, razors or breakfast…just a basic room with a shower and towels.

I might as well have stayed at the terminal as I barely slept at the hotel, getting up well before my 4:30 a.m. wakeup call to get the crowded 5 a.m. shuttle back to the airport to catch my 737 Max flight to Oklahoma City, though I was picking all the worst lines throughout the made-up farce that is U.S. airport “security” these days. It’s such a waste of time and money, and I noticed that nobody was wearing a mask despite the crowded conditions. I just had time for a 12-dollar turkey sandwich before we boarded, which was fortunate as only drinks and cookies were available on the domestic flight, a far cry from days of yore when a meal would have been de rigueur. The Max is suspect these days, especially those flown by Alaska Airlines, but I figure it’s the best time to fly those shunned planes as everyone’s hyper-aware of its issues, or at least that’s what I told myself. I honestly didn’t know it was the plane we were flying until I boarded.

The older man sitting next to me had a Chihuahua with him in a bag; he let the little dog, who had never flown before, out to sit on his lap during most of the flight as it was scared, though that is against regulations. Fields of gigantic windmills spread across the plains appeared as we approached Oklahoma City.

The weather was brilliant. My big sister Leslie was waiting for me in the airport lounge, and we drove to her very nice house in Norman, a suburb of Oklahoma City; later we went to some of her friends’ house to watch Resident Alien, which they really liked but was nearly incomprehensible to me as I was not only passing out due to jet lag and just a lot of food, but also because they were already on a later season whereas I’d never even watched a single episode. That night I slept on Leslie’s sofa, which wasn’t too bad. Her dog Emmie is a lovely corgi-beagle mix, very friendly and bouncy. Leslie, always the cool older sister, is a lifelong animal lover as well as the only member of my family to have visited me in Taiwan.

We drove south the next day to the town of Ardmore, where our parents live and where our father grew up. My older brother Kevin had arrived the day before; it was the first time we’d all been together since the last time I was in Ardmore nine years ago. We all drove out to a restaurant in one car, just like old times except I wasn’t sitting the way back of an old station wagon as I usually did when I was little. On the way, our parents pointed out various places that were different now, what they had been, etc. Leslie went back to Norman that night as there were only two spare bedrooms in the house, but she came down for a lunch the next day.

Kevin was driving back to Fort Worth on Easter Sunday to see his daughter Avery, who is now a student at Texas Christian University, before catching his flight back to Kentucky. I decided to go down with him so I could at least see Avery if not his older daughter Katie or her husband Derek, who also live in the area but were going to be busy with Easter-related activities, so I booked a $20 train ticket online back to Ardmore from Forth Worth later that afternoon. The TCU campus is quite nice, and Avery is as enthusiastic about her studies as a college student can be. Kevin’s younger son Jack is going to be studying there as well soon. The three of us went to a nearby restaurant for drinks, and Kevin and Avery worked on one of her projects. It was heartwarming to see my brother so engaged and interested in helping his daughter succeed.

After an extremely filling lunch, we dropped Avery back at her dorm, and Kevin took me to the Kimbell Art Museum, which was frankly amazing. So many lovely, fascinating works on display in such a well-designed space, and so accessible! I actually got a warning from one of the guards when I gestured a little too closely while gushing about the use of reflected light in one of the paintings.

Kevin then drove me to the train station downtown, where I got on an Amtrak train back to Ardmore, the horn blasting out before each and every crossing; surely the people working on the train must either hate that or have become deaf, I thought as the staff talked loudly among themselves at the front of the car. The route was lined with rather depressing new developments, endless rows of cheapish identical houses, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of lives would be lived there. My parents picked me up at the station in Ardmore, noting with surprise that the train had actually been on time. Either trains are often late, or my parents don’t really mess around with trains that much.

The weather had been pleasant so far, warm and sometimes sunny, but storms were forecast for that night, with the possibility of tornadoes. That afternoon I helped dad fix an arbor in the back yard, and he blew out the shelter they have in the garage floor just in case. When dad and I got back from a trip to the store, we found mom sitting on the dining room floor, unable to get up. I wrenched my back and arm lifting her; dad said he couldn’t have done it on his own. This, combined with an annoying cough I’d picked up somewhere (not exactly a surprise in mask-free territory), didn’t exactly make the rest of my trip as comfortable as it might otherwise have been.

My parents have a cute little white dog named Sophie Jane who doesn’t bark and is very friendly. As my parents are avid Newsmax/Fox News viewers, I would often go back and look at old family photo albums, and Sophie would walk into the room, take note, and just walk out again. The albums were interesting, but unfortunately mainly chronicle my mother’s side of the family, though for some reason many of the photos had been removed or even cut out; my dad’s family is barely covered at all, alas.

One evening Chenbl facetimed me, grinning as he pointed at his office, which was in a state of great disarray. “We just had a huge earthquake!” he said. It was the largest since the 9/21 quake a quarter century ago. Thankfully everyone seemed to be ok, and the damage and casualties, while significant, could have been much worse. I hoped that the Water Curtain Cave wasn’t affected too much; it’s built on bedrock unlike the loess soil of the Taipei Basin so I wasn’t too worried.

My parents drove me back up to Norman on Wednesday morning. I’d told them Leslie could have picked me up in Ardmore but they wanted to see Leslie’s new house for themselves.

I should note that some things happened that I am not at liberty to write about here. The U.S. is such a strange place to me these days; I don’t think the people who live there really see it as much as it’s all they’ve ever known. From the outside it may seem puzzling or even amusing, but being there in the midst of it is far more alarming, for while the things many Americans believe may not be based in reality, the beliefs themselves are frighteningly real. If they were amenable to being persuaded by facts, they would have long ago figured out what was actually going on, but that is simply not the case. What can one do when any discussion runs aground on mountains of misinformation, when manufactured outrage is so easily canned and sold?

I wish I knew. I also felt how difficult it must be to photograph there as most people are isolated, both physically, socially and intellectually, from each other most of the time, not to mention the fact that a significant proportion of the population is armed. Everyone is just so spaced out, in more ways than one. I hardly took any photographs, partly due to not being familiar with how that society works and partly due to not being in the state of mind I can maintain elsewhere.

Unexpectedly, I did manage to try out an Apple Vision Pro at the mall’s Apple Store; Leslie sat nearby during the demo, clearly bemused at this VR folly of mine. The headset screens were amazing, but the field of view and weight were not great. So it’s a pass, not that I could ever afford one. I was tempted to pick up a Quest 3, but I’ve resolved to wait for the Pro 2 or something similar; the Quest 2 is good enough for now.

The next couple of days in Norman, Leslie treated me to some tasty Mexican food, and I treated her and her friend Kelly to an Indian meal, and Kelly gave Leslie money to treat me to breakfast at Ihop on Saturday morning (they offer grits now, or, rather, grits-flavored soup; I knew something was off when the young white waiter suggested putting sugar in them…que horrible). Leslie took me shopping at Walmart, where I stocked up on the usual various treats as well as some new ones.

The night before I departed the States, Leslie’s friends Kim and Scott threw a party at their house, which was very chill. Kim let me use her waist massager on my sore back, and I stuffed myself on grilled chicken, potatoes, fruit salads (Leslie’s was very good, and introduced me to the practice of “zesting” fruit peels), and two kinds of birthday cake (they were properly celebrating Leslie’s birthday, which had actually been a few days earlier). We got back at nearly midnight, late for everyone concerned. I didn’t sleep particularly well, but Leslie’s shower, bed, food, and dog made my stay there quite comfy. Oklahoma is just so dry; I was using lotion all the time, whereas I normally only use it occasionally in Taiwan.

The check-in people at the OKC airport the next morning didn’t seem to know what was going on, skipping all the boarding groups while verbally threatening anyone who dared to bring rolling luggage onto the crowded flight. For some reason, active service military personnel always board first; is that new? The plane itself, another 737 Max alas, was ratty and well-used. I’d been assigned a window seat, but the window was so dirty I might as well have had an aisle seat.

We made it to Seattle in one piece, and I settled in for the long, nine-hour wait between flights, charging up all my devices while looking down at the planes coming and going out on the tarmac as night fell. I had considered taking the light rail into town to have a look around the city, but as it was cold and rainy, and my back was still sore, I decided to just hang out at the airport instead. I did notice that U.S. restroom stall walls are all rather high off the ground…is there a reason for that? I don’t really see that anywhere else.

Dinner, when the time came, was a cheeseburger and fries that weighed on me. I still had four hours to go before my flight, so I tried the upstairs lounge called “The Club” that costs like US$50; not cheap, but, oh well. Turned out that I hadn’t needed to eat dinner as they had food inside, and they also had showers, which was nice. The atmosphere was dominated by the sounds of loud children and louder parents from all over the globe.

The flight back to Taipei, again on a 787, was again very full; a Filipino family across the aisle was constantly dropping things that rolled all around the cabin floor, resulting in them crawling around looking for things for a significant portion of the flight. This stretch was significantly longer than the 10-hour trip out, at 13 hours. I’d chosen an aisle seat so I could move more freely around, but I just couldn’t get comfortable as there was nothing to lean on except for the occasional roaming Filipino, while passengers and crew kept bumping me as they walked up and down the narrow aisle space. I also missed the view of flying over Tokyo at night, which I would have liked to have seen. My ears were giving me a lot more trouble on the trip back than had been the case going over, possibly due to the nagging cough I’d picked up, necessitating holding my nose and blowing violently to regain pressure equilibrium, and my ears still aren’t quite right even now, days later. Breakfast on the plane was slow; if it had taken any longer, we would have all been eating on our way out the door.

It was raining when we arrived at Taoyuan Airport just after 5 a.m. For some reason we parked way, way out, meaning a long walk to the arrivals made longer by my aching back, but at least my luggage was being unloaded just as I made it out of immigration. An ABC couple was having trouble communicating with the metro operator while buying easy cards, but despite the delay I managed to hop the airport express into town, unsure of exactly what music would suit my muted mood as I watched the ghostly buildings of Linkou slip through the mist outside the oddly silent train.

Back in Taipei, grateful for the temperate, humid weather of the muddy basin, I had another breakfast with coffee at a cafe near my office before going into the office, despite feeling like I’d been on the losing side of a brawl…I felt I might as well get those hours in, and I needed to stay awake during the day so I could sleep at night. It made the trip last until the afternoon when I finally returned to the mostly unmolested Water Curtain Cave, though I was and remain exhausted and wonky from the trip. Coffee keeps me up as I go through the few photos I took, until it’s finally time to sleep.

So that was my trip, the first in a long time, and by no means typical for me. I’d been so anxious about it for so long, and now that it’s over, I’m not sure how I feel. In addition to a handful of photos, I did take some video with my phone, and here is the resulting video.

As always, thanks for reading.

posted by Poagao at 11:08 am  
Dec 12 2023

A Northern Jaunt, etc.

“Let’s take a drive around the north coast,” Chenbl texted on Sunday morning.

“Ok,” I texted back, still in bed. I’d spent the previous night at the predictably stressful and disappointing Tiger Mountain Ramble, (the ninth one I think? I’ve lost count). Don’t get me wrong, the other Ramblers seem to really enjoy it, as does the crowd in general, but the creepy abandoned temple and relentless expat vibe never fails to put me on edge. I usually arrive late, spend my time there trying to disappear, and leave as soon as I can. Oh, and not get electrocuted on stage.

So I was in the mood to get out of town. I reserved a Toyota sedan from i-rent on my phone, retrieved it from a nearby parking lot, and picked up Chenbl and his parents before driving north. Chenbl’s navigation efforts somehow resulted in us going the opposite direction than we had intended, but this actually later turned out to be a good idea. We drove out of the city and up to the coast, the brilliant blue skies becoming abruptly cloudy after we passed Danshui, and on to the late Lee Teng-hui’s hometown of Sanzhi for a lunch of some of the most delicious noodles I have ever had, at the Yue Lai Ting, a traditional restaurant with photos of various famous people on the walls. The lunch crowd, including the birthday party of an elderly woman who was feeding cake to one of her grandchildren, was just finishing up, so the staff were quite happy to chat with Chenbl’s parents about all sorts of things, including engineering projects and Hakka accents.

We paid our respects at the golden-faced Matsu temple nearby and then explored an open-air clothes-washing canal and veggie garden that featured not only two working water wheels but an enthusiastic older man who was eager to explain the history of the area. By this time I was sensing a theme of the people in Sanzhi being rather talkative, and when I commented on it, Chenbl’s mother joked, “Well, of course they’re chatty; what else are they going to do around here?”

I think it’s nice; I should go back and make a more thorough exploration of Sanzhi. But we had to be getting on, and the sun had come out again in time for us to enjoy the beach a ways up the coast at the Shihmen Arch Bridge. I chatted with some of the Indonesian fishermen on a boat docked at the harbor as elderly black dogs sniffed at us with greying muzzles. Children splashed each other out in the tide pools while tourists took pictures of the green algae on the rocks.

We realized how fortuitous our previous navigation error was as we continued to drive east, the setting sun blasting the drivers coming the opposite direction but lighting the views along the coast in a surreal fashion due to the ocean haze, the amber light illuminating the cliffs and islets in the distance with a glow like something out of a Miyazaki film. The sun had set by the time we reached Keelung, and finding a parking spot in that amazingly mismanaged traffic was a feat we thought nigh impossible until we somehow managed to dip into an underground parking lot without having to line up. “The car ahead was a VIP,” Chenbl’s father surmised. “That’s how we got in. We got lucky.”

It being a weekend, the night market was thronged with crowds. Back-alley sesame dumplings were enough to satisfy Chenbl’s parents, but we also got some tasty sandwiches before getting back on the road and returning to Taipei, Chenbl’s father telling us tales of the construction of the tunnel making highway travel to the port city possible back in the early 70’s. Sinotech, the company where both Chenbl and his father have made their engineering careers, has done (and is still doing) some truly amazing projects that have benefitted Taiwan in many ways.

Thankfully traffic on the way back wasn’t too heavy, as I don’t really enjoy driving at night. I’d reserved the car until 8:30; we got it back just in time. The i-rent system is actually a nifty idea for those of us who don’t really need a car most of the time.

The next day after work I went to the Xinyi Eslite Bookstore, which is set to close for good on Christmas Eve. I had been rather ambivalent about it after the legendary Dunnan Eslite was torn down years ago; I had spent many a late night there all through the 90’s and aughts wandering the creaky wooden stacks to the sound of soothing cello music, looking at photography books, graphic novels, sci-fi, Chinese sword dramas, you name it, so it was a bit distressing to see it demolished. And now, because we’re just getting dumber as a society, the Xinyi 24-hour bookstore is going away as well, to be replaced by yet another vapid mall full of empty shops populated only by fashion items that cost more than most people’s yearly salary. Wandering around perusing the actual paper books, I felt an even greater sense of impending loss; there’s just nothing to compare with an actual, physical bookshop. It’s more than the books themselves; it’s a whole vibe, an atmosphere of people all engaged in the act of wanting to know more, among the dedicated works of people who want others to know more. I can’t help but wonder if anyone will even be able to calculate what we’re losing. Then again, when was the last time I purchased a physical book? Don’t I read books mostly on my aging Kindle Voyage, or, god help me, on my phone? So perhaps I am just as much at fault for this distressing trend as anyone else.

On my way home I found the usually empty Bitan suspension bridge swarming with reporters, police and security personnel. A bearded Western dude with a tricked-out camera glared at me as I passed, as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. “What’s going on?” I asked one of the security dudes, who sported a tactical vest with a badge and an automatic pistol on his hip.

“Nothing, just our routine inspection route,” he lied. I pointed at the gaggle of reporters.

“Why all the press then?”

“It’s Bitan,” he continued with what I wondered was a badly rehearsed prevarication. “There’s always people around taking photos.”

I looked down at his badge and gun. “Uh-huh. Well, good luck with all that,” I said before continuing back to the Water Curtain Cave. I suspected that it might be an executive inspection of the ongoing bridge repair work, and I didn’t want another awkward encounter with the president (though who knows,  perhaps the third time’s the charm?). But it turned out, as my journalist friend Chang Liang-i informed me, that it was actually Vice President/Presidential candidate Lai Ching-te visiting, along with his VP candidate Hsiao Bi-khim.

In other news, we recently wrapped up a semester of instructing a course on street photography at Shih Hsin University, which is known for its journalism program. The final exhibition and event was fun, with Chenbl as the MC and attended by several high-level university officials and other professors. Alas, there really wasn’t enough time to do much more than a glossed-over introduction to the art and practice of street photography this time, but it’s been hinted that we might be able to take a real crack at it at some point in the future. We’ll see.

posted by Poagao at 12:05 pm  
Nov 30 2023

Night of the Standard Fish Market

gearWhile waiting for lunch at Kyomachi No. 8, I noticed an elderly man in a pink shirt, two ancient cameras (Minolta and Praktica for those playing at home) hanging from his shoulders, staring intently at the closing notice posted on what had been the camera store next door. Taipei’s “Camera Street” has been decimated by the public move to phone cameras, with store after store closing up, and only a few left to represent dedicated photographic devices. I wondered what his story was, so I went out and started up a conversation. He said he was more of a painter than a photographer despite the heavy SLRs, which tracked seeing that the lens caps were firmly in place. I invited him in for lunch, and we probably disturbed all of the other patrons for the next half hour as I had to speak loudly enough to overcome his poor hearing. We exchanged cards, and he turned out to be the artist Ma Ying-cheh, who studied under the famous Lang Jing-shan and has exhibited all over Taiwan. He also teaches oil painting at his residence in Shilin. We had a nice conversation about our respective styles, approaches, images and what makes them compelling, etc. After lunch he offered to drive me to Songshan Station where I was meeting Chenbl and his parents later, but I demurred, as I like to walk places, plus I didn’t want to impose.

We were meeting at Songshan Station to take a train out to Keelung, which is now included in the monthly T-pass scheme. As we exited Keelung Station, Chenbl’s father, who like my own was a career engineer before he retired, observed that the roof of the new station was constructed like a big tree so that it wouldn’t fly away in a storm, with intricate branch columns, wood beams and holes to let the wind through. Also like a tree, it attracts a great many birds, which unfortunately poop quite generously on the plaza below.  “Bet the designers didn’t see that coming,” Chenbl said sardonically. Across the harbor the oddly named Resorts World One cruise ship was docked, but I could find no mention of Taiwan on their website as a destination so I guess it must have been traveling incognito.

We waited quite a long time to get onto a very crowded bus that involved an argument every time it stopped as the driver tried to convince people that it was actually full. Eventually we reached the large green monolith that is the harbor-side Evergreen Hotel, where Chenbl and I were taking advantage of a coupon he got from his company before it expired (the coupon, not his company) in December. After the setting sun brought a brief but brilliant bit of color to the otherwise dreary skies, we set out for the Miaokou night market, where we had some Ah-Hua noodles under the ministrations of a very forthright young waiter who told us in no uncertain terms where to sit and when to look at our phones (basically just don’t). Chenbl’s father said that the emissions of the powerplant located nearby had reduced the amount of rain in the city, probably the only upside as Keelung is notorious for its excessive precipitation.

Keelung at sunset

After dinner we walked Chenbl’s parents back to the train station and saw them off, and then wandered around a bit more before going back to the hotel to rest up. The reason we’d chosen the Keelung Evergreen over other, superior Evergreens was that I wanted to take a look at the Kanziding Fish Market that takes place in the early hours of the morning. It’s the focus of several city walking tours for tourists, and some of my students have done it as well. My friend Xander (Happy Birthday btw) made an excellent piece on it as well. Fortunately the weather was still nice as we set out again from the hotel around midnight; rain was forecast for later. The night market was wrapping up, the vendors taking everything down and hauling it back to whatever little alley space they normally kept their stalls during non-market hours. The fish market, however, was just getting started; we walked around as trucks pulled up and people unloaded box after box of fresh fish. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colors were on display as buyers gathered and haggled over purchases. For someone like me who is as bothered by the sound of Styrofoam as fingernails on a chalkboard, it was not the most pleasant of soundscapes.

To be honest, photographically speaking, it was kind of just another market. I’m sure there are many interesting stories amid the various nooks and crannies that I’d like love to explore had I the time and stamina to basically turn my sleep schedule upside-down, but after looking at the photos others had taken of it before online, and then seeing it for myself, well…aside from the obvious challenge of exposing photos with blinding white boxes and various interesting color temperatures, it just wasn’t terribly compelling in of itself, at least at first brush; I’d have to go back a few times to really get the feel of the place. I mean, Keelung is cool in general, but Kanziding is rather standard market fare. I maintain my belief that photography can and does happen anywhere, independent of supposed “interesting” events/people/places, so none of this actually makes a difference in any case.

We’d had our fill of the scene by around 2 a.m. or so, so we sat down for a snack of tasty noodles and dumplings sold out the back of a motorized tricycle parked between the market and the neighboring temple, across from the police station. I don’t know if it was the late hour or what, but I don’t remember the last time I had such delicious noodles.

It was beginning to drizzle as we traversed the series of up-and-down arcade levels (even sidewalks are more of a Taipei thing) back to the hotel, passing groups of young revelers along the Renai Market’s veranda while a man unloaded giant pig carcasses onto the counters inside. Across the odiferous Tianliao river, the streets were deserted, the only sounds the thumping music issuing from some late-night cruiser.

The next morning we consumed the complimentary breakfast on the 18th floor overlooking the harbor accompanied by a small boy yelling in English, “NO I DON’T WANNA!” over and over while the ladies at the next table tut-tutted about the manners of foreign children. The 30-year-old Cosco Star ferry, which we took to Xiamen in 2011, was docked up the harbor a ways, looking rather decrepit, and the much smaller new Matsu Ferry directly across the harbor. After checking out we headed back through downtown once again, noting that the area of the market had been cleaned up fairly well.

I have always been intrigued by Keelung, it being an old port city surrounded by mountains, so full of history and potential yet suffering from decades of opaque urban and social mismanagement. My friend Cheng Kai-hsiang, also a painter, has been observing the city through his art for a while now; I probably wouldn’t say no if someone wanted to subsidize a sabbatical there to explore what makes that city tick…even though I’ve been visiting Keelung over the course of the last few decades, I feel I’d have to actually live there to get a better grasp of what life there is really like.

Still stuffed from breakfast, we skipped lunch in favor of some snacks at the café in one of the old port buildings before passing back across the harbor square (now unfortunately devoid of those delightful Ju Ming umbrella sculptures), by the media center in shell of the ugly old KMT-era train station, now featuring various AR and VR experiences (I wish they’d reconstructed the lovely old Japanese-era train station and made it into a cultural display arts space overlooking the harbor), up to the shiny new station, and back to Taipei and home.


posted by Poagao at 10:58 pm  
Nov 20 2023

A Good Day

Sunday was a good day. Saturday night the Ramblers played another Formosa Medicine Show 10-year-anniversary gig, this time at the venerable Witch House in Gongguan, the scene of many a late night/early morning jam over the past 20 years or so.  Slim was out with an injury, but we managed to throw down a bop or two despite that, buoyed by the excellent curry dinners they serve there.

So I was tired the next morning, and debated whether I should go to the park for tai-chi practice. The Sunday weather was so brilliantly blue that I felt I couldn’t not go, even though I was late due to the aforementioned gig recovery process.  Some kind of event at the outdoor stage had attracted a lot of people, but I managed to spot our group in the midst of the crowd, going through the sword form, so I took out my retractable sword and joined them. I’ve forgotten so much that I am just following along at this point, though my body does seem to know many of the next moves so there’s something left from all those years of practice. In any case it felt really good to get back into it, and of course it’s nice to be able to chat with the fellas about various things (potential running-mate variations for the upcoming presidential election was the topic of the day) afterward.

Chenbl called to tell me he’d heard that Capricorn Monkeys were predicted to be especially lucky for the next day or two, and that, should I feel like buying a lotto ticket, to be sure to buy one at a shop near a large tree. With that in mind, I set off for Longshan Temple, where I had a delicious lunch sitting outside Tokyo Bike before wandering around the area looking for lotto stores near large trees (it’s as good a reason to wander as any). As usual, the area was full of tourists, skewing towards the usual white male/Asian female pairing. I walked up to my usual herbal tea shop, got a large cup of bitter tea to drink as I sat and just watched people go by.

I didn’t feel like going home just yet, so I walked through the alleys, trying to find any I hadn’t trodden before, back up to Ximen, where a huge cosplay event was going on in the square by the Red House. Photographers were everywhere, so I gave it a wide berth before catching the subway back to the Water Curtain Cave.

It was such a nice day that I couldn’t stay home, though. I headed back out, up the river to the very nice fish ladder they’ve recently added to the Bitan Bridge catchment (or, as the local birds call it, the fresh fish market), carefully traversing the precarious rocks and protruding steel beams that make up the riverbank there to watch the sunset from the water’s edge before heading over to RT Mart to buy apples. I then picked up some salmon sushi for dinner, went back home and prepared for the penultimate session of the photography class I’m teaching as a guest lecturer at Shih Hsin University this semester.

So, nothing special, just a good day. I just wanted to note how grateful I am that they do happen.

posted by Poagao at 10:37 am  
Nov 13 2023

Temple visit

After a nice long sleep (a rarer thing than it should be), I awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of drums and traditional instruments coming from outside my window. For a while I deliberated whether I should go out and investigate or just continue to lie in bed. Taiqi practice was cancelled due to rain, and I’d grown bored with the VR comedy stuff.

So, investigate it was. I grabbed my bag, cameras and umbrella and went downstairs to see a procession of young women wearing flowery regalia underneath transparent rain gear striding down the hill in front of my building. I circled down past a trio of straw-hatted men struggling to move ancient rusty tricycles bearing temple banners, past some curious tourists by the bridge, cameras aimed and ready, and then back up the hill to the temple, which I guessed would be the center of the activities.

I got there just as groups of men in face paint and temple regalia were just finishing up rushing around the courtyard with palanquins carrying various gods. It was now time for lunch, and everyone retreated to the piles of bento boxes awaiting them. I was photographing a woman putting a raincoat on her child by the stage facing the temple when my attention was caught by another child running around the stage among the aforementioned men in face paint and regalia. Occasionally one of the men would give him a sip from a brown bottle of whatever they were drinking, Whisbih or something. “Come on up!” one of them called to me.

So I went up, and spent the next hour or so chatting with them as they relaxed, ate from bento boxes, and fixed each other’s regalia. They were all from Kaohsiung, at the other end of Taiwan, a long way to travel. I said I hadn’t known there was going to be an event today. “Oh, nobody knows,” a man with a single tooth told me. “We just show up. By the way, do you know what the main god worshipped here is?”

Usually at such religious events, I’ve found that the performers often don’t want their photos taken when they’re not completely made up and posing, i.e. no pictures of them eating, smoking, chewing betelnet (“The dentist said I shouldn’t stop, my teeth are only held in place by the betelnut by this point,” one told me as he chewed), etc. But nobody here expressed any such concerns. A couple of them had even apparently heard of me, though I have no idea how.

“You’re that famous photographer!” one of them said.

“You’ve heard of me?”

“No,” the man said and pointed at his friend. “But he has.”

“I’m not a professional or anything; I just enjoy it,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” said the friend.

Everyone seemed to good spirits, even though their grass sandals were soaked from the rain, their red-and-white regalia full of holes. “From all the firecrackers, I guess,” I said, and they were surprised that I knew that. One of them, a huge man who could have been a professional wrestler, wanted me to cuss in Taiwanese for him. “This might not the most suitable place for that kind of thing,” I said, gesturing at the temple, and he nodded at what was apparently the right answer.

“So you know what’s up…not bad.” The men had apparently brought their families with them on the trek, and some of the kids had joined in the procession. They told me boys as young as three could participate. Apparently the Whisbih-sipping kid wasn’t quite of age. I spent a very long time refusing one of the extra bentos (they also ordered KFC), but in the end I accepted it because they just weren’t backing down. And I was hungry.

The procession trucks started up, igniting a flurry of activity as everyone donned their crowns and headdresses and other bits of regalia they’d taken off to eat. A minute later they were off again. I had practice with the Ramblers later, but part of me would have liked to have followed them as they continued on their way after lunch, braving the gravel trucks and buses as they marched in the rain up Ankeng Road to the next temple.

posted by Poagao at 12:01 pm  
Oct 17 2023

Looking back, pushing forward

Last Saturday night, the Muddy Basin Ramblers played our last-ever show at Bobwundaye, which is closing its doors for good at the end of the month as the entire block is going to be torn down. The Ramblers have a long history at Bob’s, as we call it. In fact I first played with them, informally before officially joining the band, at the previous iteration of Bob’s about a block away. Three of my very early photos still hang on the walls among the murals and posters from shows over the decades. I Ubered into town with Cristina and Zach to find the place already filling up; I saw some familiar faces and chatted a bit before the soundcheck. The murals along the orange walls exuded melancholia; we all knew it would be the last time we played there. A small film crew consisting of two people was going around with a Sony camera and boom mic interviewing various people about how they felt.

The show itself, a retelling in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of our second album (and first Grammy nomination), Formosa Medicine Show, started slow but quickly gained momentum as the audience dug into the vibe. And after two sets on that tiny, crowded staged, everyone jostling each other to get to our various instruments between songs, the show concluded in several raucous encores and exultant applause. I spent the time in between sets sitting on the curb outside, away from all the chatting, drinking people, just staring at the lights of the evening traffic and enjoying the cooler weather. After the show I had a few conversations, some good and some downright bizarre, before catching a cab back to the Water Curtain Cave to sleep. Hard to believe it’s been nearly 20 years of doing this kind of thing.

Sunday morning I woke up to a flurry of discord messages asking if I was down to do the VR improv comedy show I’ve been involved in for the past few months. But no, I was not down; I wanted -no, needed- to go to the park to get some tai-chi practice in. Yes, dear readers, perhaps even those who remember my Monkey Learns to Push blog of yore, I am back at it after a long, mostly Covidian-inspired hiatus filled with intermittent indoor VR-game-driven aerobic exercise and the occasion jaunt up the hill out back. To be honest, aside from the health benefits of practicing tai-chi, I missed hanging out with the fellas in our group at the park. Though Teacher X has long retired from teaching, Little Qin, who studied along with Teacher X back in the day, is still instructing. As such, Little Qin is technically my 師叔, but his style is different from that of Teacher X. In any case, just showing up is an accomplishment for me, and going through the sword form and the empty handed form felt really, really good after all this time, even though I’ve forgotten most of them. Push-hands too, with the delivery guy and a newer student who didn’t know me. It was…ok, though I am really rusty and inflexible after so long away from it. I just need to keep it up. Alas, I am unable to continue my old tradition of going to Gongguan for delicious Lebanese pitas afterwards, as my beloved Sababa closed years ago.

Speaking of returning to things: I’m also teaching photography again, this time at Shihsin University, just for this semester as a guest lecturer, although I might be open to a more permanent arrangement in the future. In any case, teaching university students is…different, I have to say. Previously when teaching at the community college, pretty much everyone in the class wanted to be there (except possibly the sullen band of Influencers who showed up that one semester fishing for Likes and Follows), but, while many of these students, all of them seniors, seem inspired by photography and work to improve their skills, a few seem to be more interested in what they see as an easy credit before graduating. Still, the ones who are interested are quick learners, picking it up faster than most of the community college students did, and that’s just using mobile phone cameras. There will be an exhibition at the end of the semester at the end of the year, and some kind of related event. It will be interesting to see where all of this goes.

posted by Poagao at 11:42 am  
Sep 06 2023

Dusting off the ol’ YouTube page

So I’ve been going through my YouTube channel and adding better thumbnail/title images to help with legibility. Before now I just let the app choose them, resulting in random images with no information, but I figured some housekeeping was in order, so I’ve been selecting appropriate photos I took during whatever trip it was, or barring that, appropriate stills from the actual footage of the videos, and adding big, bright text with the video title to them.

I started using YouTube in 2006, not long after it started up the year before. I’d only started my blog five years prior. Back then the resolution was awful, and videos were limited to just a few minutes until I managed to convince them to let me upload longer ones – everyone was amazed when I started uploading nearly hour-long videos, before just anyone could do it. The resolution was still crap though.

Back in those days I could slap whatever music I liked onto the videos; this was long before the idea of “copyright strikes” became a thing and we were all forced to start using “free” music, i.e. music someone worked hard on and got virtually nothing for (this does not necessarily strike me as much of an improvement). As a result, many of my earlier videos are now inaccessible, and others only partially accessible. Sometimes YouTube would straight out strip all the sound from my videos, because some CEO in a corner office somewhere was worried he might not be able to swing a third yacht or whatever when someone heard a snippet of a song on my video and didn’t pay to listen to it. Being a musician myself (though I don’t rely on it exclusively to subsist), I do know that most artists who sell through producers see very little of the actual money their work makes.

As the years passed I went through a series of pocketable cameras with ever-larger and more capable sensors, and the quality of my videos gradually improved. One-inch sensors with image stabilization seem to be the sweet spot these days for portability and image quality, and I need to have a device that is pocketable if I’m going to use it on trips abroad. I am much more hesitant to add music now, for obvious reasons, and as screens get larger I also need to work on keeping the camera steady so people don’t get seasick.

It’s been ages since I went anywhere, however, whereas in pre-Covidian times I would generally take a couple trips abroad each year, sometimes more (I think my record is four videos in 2018). Eventually I will travel again, I suppose, and start making more of these things. Post-covidian Poagao is likely a bit slower (and greyer) than antecovidian Poagao (then again you can expect roughly twice the cynicism). I don’t have any particular travel plans just yet; Chenbl has been extremely busy this year with work, but you never know what might pop up; just the other day I was taking advantage of trains between Keelung and Taoyuan being covered by the monthly T-pass, and I felt that old travel itch when I spotted the new Matsu ferry docked at Keelung port, right where Prince Roy and I embarked on the rickety old one back in 2008.

As to the future of YouTube, I can see some kind of AI-driven uprezzing/stabilization/content-fill bot feature for older videos being implemented at some point (for a fee, of course), and indeed most if not all new videos being created by AI in the future (including product placement, of course). Just input a few keywords and your likeness and BOOM: instant vacation video of you being all adventurous and world-travelling and stuff. Sure, at first it will look weird and cringe, but soon enough the algorithm will fine-tune itself so that nobody will be able to tear themselves away from watching themselves doing things they never imagined doing, or even did, all to a generic “free” soundtrack that we’ve heard a million times. It might even be better for the environment if nobody actually flies anywhere, but that might be over-extrapolating the situation.

Til then, anyway, I plan on continuing to record actual things that I actually do, and I hope y’all keep watching (but it’s ok if you don’t).

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
Aug 23 2023

Another old video

The latest, and possibly final “old” video is up now. It concerns my time as a shoe inspector at factories in Kaiping, in China’s Guangdong Province, in 1993. I had just sustained a serious knee injury practicing Kung-fu in Taipei and couldn’t work as a cameraman for a time, and it just so happened that a company operating out of Manhattan, NYC was looking for people to oversee quality control at the factories of their manufacturers in China. My friend Will Avery and I both interviewed with them; I got the position, in my naivete not thinking too much about why.

I spent several months in Kaiping, living out of a hotel on the wide brown river that runs through the city, being driven back and forth to mainly one factory in Cangcheng, about an hour away, inspecting shoes and communicating with the NY office by fax every day. Every so often I would take a boat down the river from Jiangmen to Hong Kong for a break, staying at the Dynasty Hotel on the Kowloon side of the harbor. I also spent several months in Qingdao doing a similar thing, but for some reason I can’t find any video footage of that time; if I come across any I’ll make another video on that.

It was the classic expat businessperson lifestyle, lonely and isolated, and I missed Taiwan terribly the whole time. Of course I could communicate in Mandarin and did hang out with the workers sometimes, but the folks in Kaiping understandably had poor Mandarin skills, and I had failed to pick up more than rudimentary Cantonese. Qingdao was too close to Beijing for comfort; I did enjoy my time there, but the winter cold was anathema to me.

My “fellow expats”, with the exception of the fellow I was replacing and who soon left, were just annoying, and I avoided their company. One was a grifter trying to scam the company out of as much moolah as possible, and another was a lazy slacker with a drinking problem; he couldn’t even be bothered to get up in the morning to get to the factory, so…more work for me. Eventually I learned that the reason Will had been rejected was because is Black, and while the people back in Manhattan insisted that they were just being pragmatic as they felt Chinese workers wouldn’t listen to an obviously Black man (yet they had no problem hiring white scammers and slackers), I decided I couldn’t continue there and returned to Taiwan.

But all that was 30 years ago, a previously impossible number of years. Will recently visited Taiwan with his wife and daughter, mainly staying at his wife’s family’s place in Taichung, not far from Tunghai University where we studied together in 1989. We found some time to hang out, just like old times. They headed back to Virginia yesterday.

Also yesterday, I decided to walk up to the North Gate for some unimpressive lunch, and then to Dihua Street. The weather was nice up until it wasn’t. I had just bought some bitter tea at the oldest such purveyor behind the Yongle Market when CRACK lightning struck and the skies opened up. I stood on the corner chatting with the tea boss, sipping my drink and watching people run through the typhoon-like wind and rain with their pathetically inadequate umbrellas. The boss treated me to another cup of aloe tea, which unlike other iterations I’ve imbibed was green. “That’s because I included the skin,” he said, claiming that this boosted the drink’s invigorative qualities. It was rather tasty.

I eventually managed to run through the deluge across to the Yongle Market, where a most peculiar scene presented itself: In the middle of the hallway amid the various stalls, a yellow dog was pushing around a cage that held a trapped rat; the sudden deluge had apparently driven some of the rodents out of the sewers. The dog appeared to be quite excited, and I took an Instagram story of it playing with the cage, assuming that the owner would take the trapped rats someplace and release them. Then, just as I finished the video and put my phone away, several things happened in quick succession:

The owner walked over, picked up the trap and let the rat out.

The dog immediately chomped down on the rat.

I said, rather loudly, “Oh shit!”

Other people in the vicinity exclaimed, “Hey boss, what the hell are you doing?”

The owner’s wife ran up, snatched up the dog by the scruff of the neck and hit its muzzle until it dropped the now obviously dead rat. She must have known that, had the dog swallowed the rat as it plainly wanted to do, both animals would have been doomed instead of just one.

The rain outside had subsided, and I suddenly felt that I needed to get out of there; I walked over to the riverside and watched the fish jumping out of the swollen waters as airplanes flew under the departing storm clouds.










Thirty years, man. Damn.

posted by Poagao at 12:10 pm  
Jul 28 2023

No Accident

“Look at this!” a friend of mine said the other day, shoving his phone at me. “I took it completely by accident!” 

It wasn’t a bad shot, a tilted, blurry image of some people on a sidewalk. But what had so impressed my friend was that it wasn’t what he usually took, i.e. shots of posed friends eating food, the food itself, sunsets, artsy posters, etc. My friend, in his mind, had just accomplished street photography. He had joined the club and was ready to don The Hat. I appreciated his confiding in me and loved to see him happy; friends are more important than photography after all. But it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the perception of street photography as basically just accidents. 

It’s an easy assumption to make; the very nature of street photography is based on observations of candid, unplanned (by the photographer) scenes. And most people tend to extend that description of the subject matter to the practice itself. Street photography, in their minds, can only happen by accident. Practitioners of other types of photography note the lack of control they usually wield in terms of setting up shots, lighting, models, poses, etc., and conclude that, minus that level of control, one is left completely at the mercy of the universe (although in my experience the universe can and does provide better than I can, so I’m good with that). It also explains the acclaim for photos of actual accidents, mishaps, juxtapositions, etc. within the genre. People posting photos in online critique threads often also add long explanations to their submissions, saying this or that happened “by accident” to stave off any accusations or criticism. It wasn’t their fault, you see, because, well, street, you know…it just happened. By the same token, “Luck” is often used to describe more successful shots, but it boils down to the same thing.

One of the results of this view is a general sense that there can’t be much actual skill or technique involved in the practice of street photography; one is just naturally lucky or not. It’s a comforting thought for many people; no one can be to blame for poor results. In my experience teaching street photography, I’ve found that instructing students who see photos but need help refining how to express what they see through compelling work is a completely different endeavor than advising students who simply don’t see photos and complain that “there’s just nothing happening!” I try to meet students where they are, but this is difficult territory to traverse because I can’t tell others what should strike them as photographable beyond, well, just about anything and everything, depending on what you notice and how you perceive it. They assume that such work “just happens” and all they have to do is be at the “right” spot with the “right” camera and boom: ART. Presented with collected works of street photographs that were accumulated, crafted and edited over the course of several years or decades, their takeaway is somehow that all of these scenes must be just waiting for them, in perfect order and wrapped up with a bow, during a single fast-paced stride down the block, Right Camera held out in front of them to capture that inevitable decisive moment. When it seldom happens, or when they miss it when it does, the walk was disappointing and a waste of time. They conclude that they’re just not lucky and either give up or simply take bad photos of unhoused people they deem “interesting characters.”

Not long ago I responded to a post by a well-known photography blogger concerning street photography, including tips and tricks and other advice, some of which I found rather questionable, e.g.: “Have a friend with you…if you’re a larger male, being in the company of a female works wonders. Women in particular seem to think: Well, she trusts him, so he’s probably all right.”

The thing is, said blogger is not a street photographer, his experience largely deriving from equipment reviews, and has never shown much particular aptitude in that respect. Though I refrained from singling him out, I couldn’t help but observe that, unlike other genres, street photography seems to tempt those who don’t really do it very well to tell others how to do it. I never see people telling others how to do, say, fashion photography without at least having done it themselves with some amount of success, but with Street I see it all the time. When said blogger didn’t publish my comment, I thought: Perhaps he is rethinking the matter.


His very next post had my comment pegged in bold at the top, though without a link as if he were protecting me from myself, while he exhorted his followers to just look at the ridiculousness he had to put up with. His answer to my effrontery? “Well, of course! If someone is naturally good at something and has never experienced problems, how would they know what the problems are?” He then posted about how failure was a good thing, and then had some kind of existential crisis before boasting about one of his images making Flickr’s Explore page, with repeatedly updated Like and View numbers for our enlightenment followed by a print sale of said photo for several hundred dollars. This man went on a journey. 

It would seem that even most photographers see street photography to be by its very nature accidental. Anyone can do it, and everyone seemingly does; I’ve seen “Street” listed in the bios of photographers who do everything from salon to product photography. In their minds, there are no problems to be experienced with street photography; it simply is, and the good shots “just happen.”

I’ve listened to people attending exhibits featuring classic street photography works by great artists such as Erwitt, Cartier-bresson, Maier, Parks, Frank, Levitt, Winogrand and Eggleston, and many if not most of the comments centered on the photographer’s “incredible luck” to have been where they were when they were, as if all of these scenes were just occurring all around them all the time. You can hear the frustration in the responses of Winogrand and Eggleston in interviews, resorting to mystic, haiku-like responses, clearly at a loss to describe to others how they perceive the world around them, how they convey their vision and interpretation of culture and society through photography when what people really want to know is how to be lucky.

The only thing one can do, according to the truly astounding amount of “instructional” street photography videos on Youtube by people who for the most part demonstrably don’t know what they’re doing, is increase one’s odds by traveling to as many “interesting” places as possible. Indeed, there is a group of people, mostly older/independently wealthy white people from Western nations who more or less constantly attend modern-day photo safaris held year-round all around the world, mostly in what they call “image-rich” third-world cultures, entering the resulting photos in the slew of online contests that charge for each entry and often “winning” them. And I can’t blame them; it sounds like an incredible life for those who have the means, probably better than sitting around one’s mansion pool snorting coke and yelling at one’s trust fund accountants or whatever else it is rich people do. And if one indeed has entirely too much money, one can attend several Magnum workshops, use the best equipment, and, most importantly, rub shoulders with the people who can get one’s work out there, books published, with gallery exhibitions and articles in the New York Times and The Guardian. There’s a reason virtually all of the internationally published street photography compilations have been compiled by a group of straight white cis British men that could fit comfortably in a single taxi.  

But say as it happens you don’t have access to a shit-ton of moolah, and have to work at a job every day just to make ends meet. You’re not “known” by anyone of consequence, which is a Catch-22: If you’re not known, there’s not much you can do to change that situation. It’s no accident that people such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston came from wealthy families, or that Magnum members in the early days could ask their friends at lunch at Le Dôme: “Hold on, you’re a photographer, how’d you like to join Magnum?” while Maier’s fame came about only after her unfortunate and sad demise, after she had labored to make the work she did while holding down difficult jobs her entire life, and after her work was “discovered” by a random white dude bidding on the detritus of her life at a public auction. 

Wasn’t social media supposed to change all of that, to spread the opportunity a bit wider? It certainly has changed a great deal, but access remains a problem. The Instagram account “Photographers Photographed” typically features well-known photographers caught in the act of photographing. But if you yourself are not well-known, it doesn’t matter whom you caught photographing; the account’s owner only communicates with “known” photographers; your message will not be read. You might have caught a wonderful moment of ol’ Henri himself taking a rare photo with his Leica in 2003 on the streets of Paris, but if you’re not on the list, it might as well not exist.

So in a way, accidents and luck do play a huge role in success in the street photography world, just not the kind of accidents most people have in mind. One can work for decades improving one’s craft, vision, observational and photographic skills to create a compelling, emotive body of work. That part isn’t luck; it’s work, effort and practice. What is luck is belonging to a class, demographic and culture where one’s privilege, means and connections allow for a relatively easy path to success. I personally have had access to opportunities other photographers did not through no fault of their own. Women street photographers have only recently made significant strides in this respect, and while it is not only amazing that it took so long to make even that amount of progress, such longstanding prejudices remain not only pervasive but are largely ignored by those in power. Why do African street photographers struggle to find representation in an international street photography sphere of influence essentially run by a handful of white British dudes? That, I’m sorry to say, is no accident.

posted by Poagao at 8:09 pm  
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