Saturday, November 14, 2009
I like to eat good food, who does not? When I travel, one of the simple pleasures I indulge in is eating local food. Interestingly, I find that the food sometimes reflects the place and its culture as a whole. I also find that, for whatever reason, the places where I like the food tend to be the places I like in general. For example, traditional German meals are simple to understand, hearty, rich in taste and more than adequately serve the purpose of filling one up, yet the food is not particularly dramatic. I like Germany, Germans and German food for these reasons. Singapore is no exception to this rule.
Food in Singapore is colorful, spicy, uncomplicated and overwhelmingly comes from the sea. It is impressive, yet functional and modest at the same time. The decision of what to eat is relatively simple because all of the traditional eateries have exactly the same menus. Don’t assume this to mean there is a lack of variety, however. There are large outdoor food courts like Newton Circus and there are open air restaurants, like those found along the Singapore River’s downtown waterfront. The decision on exactly where to eat is much harder, given that they all serve the same things. This decision is complicated by the fact that all the vendors have a spokesperson who accosts any passersby and attempts to convince them that their food is the best. This is a scene not unlike what one may encounter in various red light districts around the world. While it makes the decision process harder, it does offer the opportunity to successfully haggle for various discounts or extras such as a free round of Tiger beer.
I have always preferred seafood to any other form of food on the planet. Glorious was the day when my parents had a Thanksgiving dinner of steamed oysters, hush puppies and beer instead of the tired old turkey. I like spicy food as well, so the choices in Singapore suited me. Another interesting thing about the East is that any creature is fair game for the table. One sees it all in Singapore-eels, stingray, various things neither I nor most marine biologists could identify.
In the US, some creatures never make it to the table because they are considered inedible, though we have never actually tried to eat one. On a side note, the catfish is one of the few creatures in the U.S. to go from undesirable to mainstream in a single generation. Hooray for the catfish! The rattlesnake and the bullfrog have only seen limited success at best.
My first meal in Singapore was barbequed stingray. It was pretty good; a little stringy but good. A stingray would have never made it to the table in my house growing up. When my brother or I caught a stingray it was promptly executed, with extreme prejudice, I might add, so that it would never sting again. Then it would be tossed in the water to be feasted upon by crabs and the like. Speaking of crabs, my next meal was a chili crab. I am not sure exactly what kind of crab it was but it was huge. Imagine a very large Dungeness crab steamed, its shell smashed and covered with a spicy red chili sauce. Uncomplicated, exciting and impressive all in one, and, yes, it was quite tasty.
I like the food in Singapore and I like Singapore. Its food is a good reflection of the place and its culture.
When I first started taking pictures I avoided photographing people. My mom always asked why I never took any pictures of people. I think it was for a number of reasons, although it was not necessarily intentional.
I began getting serious with photography when I was living for short periods of time in strange cities all over the U.S. Starting anew every few months does not lend itself to lots of company, so that ruled out photographing the people I was spending time with, for there were none. Then there was the issue of taking candid photographs of strangers.
The problem here is two-fold. I did not want to be intrusive and did not have enough money to get a decent telephoto lens to shoot from a distance. I certainly did not want to approach people and ask permission, not that I am at all shy about doing this. Once the person knows they are being photographed, it all changes for the worse. A photograph then becomes a snapshot. It appears staged and true emotions are masked by an artificial smile.
Lastly, in my spare time, I generally like to get into the outdoors away from people and such was the case in the beginning. In those days I spent 40 hours a week surrounded by strangers in various states of infirmity, dealing with their problems inside the confines of hospitals with all manner of smells and noises associated with the treatment of said infirmities. Needless to say, I was in need of a little fresh air, away from people. My photography hobby was secondary to wandering in the wilds hobby. Most of my photos were landscapes and such; the lack of a good telephoto lens also limited good wildlife photography (and still does to this day).
So, I have gradually become a photographer of people and, I must admit, I wish I had gone this route long ago. If nothing else, I would be better at it by now. So what is it about taking candid photographs of unsuspecting people that is appealing? For me there are two things. One is capturing the shot. The good ones are always fleeting moments that are easily missed, the proverbial one that got away. So, shooting people with a camera is a little like hunting and fishing. There is a bit of a rush when you capture something really special and of good quality, because it is a bit of a rarity.
Secondly, there is something special about pictures of people, even strangers, we can all relate to as humans. A picture of another human being automatically triggers an emotional response, where as the most beautiful vistas, for example, usually do not. Most humans have some ability to empathize, save the sociopaths among us. We truly see a human when we see a good photograph of one, while a photograph of most other things is simply a photograph.
While my life and job have changed drastically since I began taking pictures, I visit many strange cities and I am crammed among the masses on a regular basis. My desire to avoid people in my downtime has not waned, in fact, it is probably greater than ever. Only now I live in NJ, were avoiding people is close to impossible and my downtime is in such short supply, that I rarely get into the wilds anymore. So I have taken the opportunity to pursue my hobby on my work trips to large crowded cities, cities full of people.
Hong Kong is one of those places and I had the opportunity to go there recently. So, I went out in search of adventure in Hong Kong, from the big Buddha in the mountains of Nong Ping to the Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon. While I always bring my camera on such trips, I was not going on a photographic mission. Actually the only thing I really had in mind was finding some good local eats and something cool to buy at the Jade Market. Besides, I was accompanied by three non-photographers. People who are not photographers tend to have little patience for those who spend lots of time in one spot taking pictures of seemingly ordinary things.
However, I decided immediately that this was the place to photograph people. I noticed here that people are actually doing things in plain view on the streets. For the most part, in western cities, most of the people you see on the street are in transit from point A to point B, very little else is going on. In the East all manner of activities can be seen on the street-food preparation, business transactions, arguments, dining and various forms of revelry and tomfoolery. Also, the age demographics span the spectrum, day and night. It is not unusual to see small children and the elderly on the streets at night. You rarely see either, anytime of day in cities in Europe and the United States. Also, to a photographer, light is important and sometime it is light itself that is the target of the camera. For this, the streets of nighttime Hong Kong are also perfect. The volume, brilliance and variety of neon signs can seldom be fully captured with a camera but it is fun trying.
So, what do I have to show for it besides a few decent pictures and many more reminding me that I am new to the people pictures thing? Well, I think a have been reminded that, as much as I am annoyed by stupid ones, hate crowds of them and long for days in the woods or on the water with a select few of them, people are special and interesting. And pictures of people are special and interesting. I think I will try to get better at it.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
For my regular readers, all four of you, you will likely note that this post is somewhat late. Upon my return from Israel I tried to sit and write about it, but the words would not come. Israel made lots of impressions upon me and I just could not get them all sorted out. And, to be quite honest, I still have not sorted them out.
As you may have noticed I often like to place people into one of two given camps. For example, everyone is either a morning person or night person. There are those who like India vs. those who don't, so on and so forth. I also think people can be divided into dog people and cat people.
Let's face it, most people either prefer dogs or cats. Few prefer both. I am a dog person and my brother is a cat person. While we share some of the same interests, we have very different personalities. I won't go into a Freudian spiel about what makes us dog people different than those cat people, suffice to say we are, in fact, different.
Immediately upon arrival in Tel Aviv, I noticed cats. Lots of cats, everywhere. I also noticed a conspicuous absence of dogs. Perhaps they were all in Gaza or maybe the West Bank. They were not in Tel Aviv nor in Jerusalem. Interestingly, I also sensed that most of the Israelis I had contact with were cat people. Of course, that begs the question of which came first: the cats or the cat people.
Are there lots of cats in Israel because Israel is a culture dominated by cat people and they brought the cats? Could it be that the presence of cats everywhere shaped the minds and subsequently the personalities of the Israelis? In other words to the cats reflect a national character of the Israeli people or is the national character the result of the presence of the cats?
With these questions in my head, I could not help to remember that I saw lots of dogs in India, but nary a cat. And guess what? The people I rubbed elbows with there were dog people!
There is an early twentieth century school of though in anthropology called culture and personality. Basically this approach seeks to understand the growth and development of personal and/or social identity as it relates to the influences of the social environment. Could these animals be significant influences of the social environment?
With the cat people of Israel and the dog people of India in my head I was reminded of the works of anthropologists Margaret Meade and Ruth Benedict. While they did much bigger and better things, Benedict and Mead were involved in national character studies sponsored by the Office of Strategic Services during the early 1940s. These studies of the French, Japanese, Russians and the British attempted to identify the “personalities” of these different societies. Should Meade and Benedict have considered the dog and cat as either promoting or reflecting the character of a people?
What in God's name have I stumbled upon here? Should the long dead culture and personality school be revisited with this new insight? It is out there, do with it what you wish.
Monday, March 9, 2009
In writing about a trip to India, I think there is some expectation, on behalf of the reader, of profundity in some grand commentary on her current condition. One is expected to rant on the stark poverty, the inequities of wealth and, of course, the unfairness of the Caste system. Preaching about the evils of of Western colonialism, as reflected by India's somewhat sad post-colonial state, is always popular. In closing, an explanation of how the always popular Western do-gooders can solve all of her ills, would be in order. You know, sort of like they are doing in Africa. Well you will get none of that here.
What you will read is ethnocentric, mildly insensitive and lacks objectivity. In fact, I can say with some degree of certainty, that I, being a trained anthropologist, would likely be burned at the stake for avoiding the guilt mongering and social preaching described above. Maybe that is why I chose not to hang around the academics.
I am simply going to tell you that I like India and try to explain why. Just as is the case with morning and night people, there is another dichotomy among Westerners. There are those who like India and those who don't. Although, I think the distribution is skewed in favor of those who don't much like it.
For some reason I have always been attracted to Third World chaos and the order that somehow emerges from it. I find the stark contrasts stimulating, especially the visual contrasts. The Third World is a place of contradictions, like beauty amidst squalor. OK, some will say India is not a third world country, but I have my own classification system. Using my system, a country that has livestock roaming the streets of its capital, where it is unsafe to drink tap water and people can be observed crapping on the side of the road is deemed Third World. Anyway, in spite of these things, or perhaps because of these things, I like India.
I get bored easily. Predictability is the bane of my existence and nothing is more boring than a routine. However, in India, there is no routine, for the routine is never routine. Even the proverbial trip to the store can turn into a life altering adventure.
Getting in a car and going from point A to point B is a s thrilling as any amusement park ride and the things you observe along the roadside result in double takes that serve to take your mind off the impending death, otherwise called traffic, that surrounds you. The potential of death or serious bodily harm always has a way of keeping me living in the moment and constantly taking note of the details of my surroundings.
The chaos of the streets is not the only thing that serves to remind you of the potential of unpleasant experiences. Terrorism, street crime and civil unrest are always effective in bringing one back to their core instincts of self-preservation. These instincts and this level of vigilance is something that is suppressed by many of us who walk modern, safe, first world streets and this is not necessarily a good thing. It is why domesticated rabbits make easier prey than wild ones, their survival instincts have been suppressed. I personally like to reacquaint myself with what my ancestors used on a regular basis to stay alive and besides, it too helps me live in the moment.
The potential for terrorist attacks and other such repugnant acts also results in countermeasures that I find entertaining, depending on where I am in the world. India was the source of such entertainment. Since the Mumbai attacks, security at hotels has been increased, or at least the facade of security has been increased. Initially, it looks quite impressive, sort of like the fake Rolex you buy on the street in New York. Upon closer examination the absurdity is evident.
It is as if the process is more important than the outcome, which I might add, is something I have observed in other former British colonies, as well as in Great Britain. I think an example is in order.
Upon arrival at the hotel one's vehicle is stopped and what appears to be a sweep for explosives is conducted. Upon closer observation, one notes that a hand-held magnetometer is being used on the luggage in the trunk. Being that the car and parts of the luggage contain metal, the magnetometer is constantly beeping. I guess nobody told them that it does not detect bombs nor that the beeping means it has detected something. None-the-less, the magnetometer guy has the required stern look and appears to be dilligent and to have faith in his efforts.
Next is the bomb dog or explosives detection canine, if you want to sound like you know what you are talking about. This is interesting because the dog is so fat. In fact, most dogs I saw in India were well-nourished, to say the least, but I digress. The dog is led to the car where he saunters a few steps behind the handler, as opposed to eagerly approaching with handler in tow. He then proceeds to sniff the front driver's side tire and is quickly taken away before he can lift his leg to relieve himself. Second phase complete, now for the visual inspection of the undercarriage.
This is done super efficiently in that a mirror is used to look indirectly under the car. Unfortunately, only about an area the size of the mirror itself is examined since the guard walks up to the front, sticks the mirror underneath, looks down and walks away. Now that the possibility of a car bomb has not been ruled out, it is time to rule out the possibility of concealed weapons on our person.
For this purpose the walk-through magnetometer is used and, for all I know, they are trying to detect, or appear to try to detect, explosives on our person with the machine that only detects metal. No worries for us though, because while every one of us and our luggage sounds the alarm, none of us are detained.
So the mission for these security personnel has been accomplished. They have successfully wasted almost as much time and man (and dog) power as they would have used if they had actually done proper searches. No worries though, what is more important than actually doing something is appearing to actually do something. The real problem lies in that it does not take a trained eye to see right through the charade.
The anthropologist in me wants to know why it is done this way. It definitely is not laziness, after all they are almost doing as much work as if they were really doing a search. Besides, laziness was not a trait of most Indians I had contact with. Ignorance? That is always a popular explanation for inexplicable behavior, but I don't think this is the case either. The activities I observed were almost ritualistic in nature in that they were merely representative of what should be happening. Anyway, I don't know. Maybe there is a few million dollars in "economic stimulus" earmarked for some academic to study this and some how connect it to evil capitalism and U.S. imperialism.
Luckily the phony security measures did not make me feel any more secure and take away from the experience of living a little closer to death that I rather enjoy in the Third World. Besides, if the security measures are good enough for the Dalai Lama, whom I met in the lobby, then they are good enough for me.
So why do I like India? I guess it is simple. I feel more alive there. All the senses are sharpened and stimulated by unfamiliar things and the gross contrasts that surround me. More importantly, in India, I can better live in the moment and therefore better live.
Friday, February 20, 2009
I try to see the beauty in all things, people and places-even in New Jersey, but this has been hard. I live in northern NJ, having just recently relocated here. The first 28 years of my life I spent in the Carolinas, where beauty is easily found. For roughly the past 10 years I have bounced around the country,living in various places and somehow managing to find beauty even where it is scarce, Baltimore for instance. New Jersey has been a challenge, so much so that I had accepted my fate. Then it hit me.
Every so often I get a craving for salt-not in the form of chips and pretzels, but in the form of water and air. I don't know why but every so often I have to get to the ocean for no particular reason. Well, actually I do know why.
My earliest memories are of days spent on the South Carolina Coast. My family had a trailer there, where we would spend weekends and summers. I recall the smell of steaming oysters in the dead of winter at a place called Morse's. Morse's was the warmest place in town and one of the few places open in the winter. They served oysters, clams, hush puppies, tea and beer. That was it. Place mats were newspapers and I don't recall seeing any plates.
In the summer my brother and I would spend all day playing in Murrell's Inlet, catching whatever we could with our cast nets and rods and reels. Sometimes my mother would take us down to the beach at Garden City for the day. At night we would try to catch the tree frogs that attached themselves to the side of our trailer. Going shrimping with my parents was the most fun, though.
My brother and I would eagerly watch from the bank as my parents held onto poles at opposite ends of a seine net and pulled it through the black waters of the Inlet. We could not wait until it was hauled ashore for use to pick out all the shrimp and toss back the various other creatures, who were unfortunate enough to be in the path of the net.
When I got a little older my father bought a boat and fished offshore. He took my brother and me on short trips offshore. Unfortunately for me, I was prone to seasickness and got sick on every trip for years. It was not until I was a grown man that I began to understand why I kept going out on the boat, in spite of the seasickness, but that is another story for another time.
Eventually, the trailer was sold and later we moved to North Carolina and the long days and endless summers on the South Carolina coast became faded memories. However, it was not long before I began to crave salt again.
I spent my undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, North Carolina. My choice in universities was logical at the time; it was close to the beach. There I learned to surf and to SCUBA dive. I spent many days drinking beer with buddies and girlfriends on Wrightsville Beach. There was more than one time when a group of us found ourselves immersed in its warm, phosphorescent waters late on a hot summer night. I also spent some cold winter days alone, walking down that same beach.
So, salt has been in my blood for a long time. I find that if I don't recharge myself with a salt fix, then things are not quite right. Well, I had that feeling and pulled out a map. I have a pretty good sense of geography for most of the East Coast, except New Jersey. I honestly never expected to be living or traveling here, but I knew the Atlantic Ocean was close and at this point was going to take what I could get. I needed to see the water.
The first and closest place I came to on the map was Sandy Hook. It is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and home to the oldest operating lighthouse. It looked promising. So, I grabbed my camera hopped in my truck and drove 20 miles get my salt fix and see the Sandy Hook Lighthouse. When I got there, well, I finally found beauty in New Jersey.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Getting in the Christmas spirit can be hard sometimes. I recall a saying about Christmas being for kids and parents. I have never been one to try to get in the Christmas spirit; it either happens or it does not. And sometimes it just happens by accident.
It was dark and cold when I arrived in Hamburg early in the morning. By the time I got to my hotel it was 8:00 AM and still dark. Not having slept all night, I went to bed and slept until 4:00 PM. By the time I got up, showered and left my room, it was dark again. In need of Euros and still waiting on my friends to get up and moving, I left the hotel to find an ATM. The combination of jet lag, sleep deprivation and the cold air that greeted me as I went outside, did not put me in anything close to a festive mood. None-the-less I joined the throngs of coated and scarfed Germans on the sidewalks of Hamburg.
It did not occur to me at the time that Christmas was less than 2 weeks away, but it never does. It always sneaks up on you, unless you are a parent or a child. As I navigated through the crowds, I heard the sound of live music and the smells of food being cooked in the open air.
The next thing I knew I was in the middle of a Weinachtsmarkt or Christmas market. These are ubiquitous throughout Germany during the holiday season. They are a long-standing German tradition and feature booths, shacks and tents with everything from hand-made ornaments to traditional German food for sale. There is music and there are lights and Christmas trees everywhere.
At the Weinachtsmarkt everyone was smiling and, suddenly I was no longer cold and no longer tired and lost interest in my mission to find an ATM. It was then that I just wanted to walk slowly, watch the people and enjoy the Christmas spirit.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
I was in New York on Saturday and went for a walk in Central Park. I could not help but to notice that the leaves were beginning to change. All I could think about was getting back in time to catch them at their "peak" with camera in hand. For a photographer timing is of the essence and I did not want to miss this opportunity because I had never been to Central Park in the fall. I began to obsess a little about the timing of my return from my upcoming business trip to Geneva. Was I going to get back in to catch the fall foliage in all its splendor or was I going to miss it?
It is funny how the mind works. Ironically, I was in a park beside Lake Geneva when it hit me. I had been so captured by the prospect of what opportunities I may or may not have in Central Park, that it totally obscured the fact that I was going to be visiting one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Geneva. I had not taken the time to ponder the photographic prospects in Geneva or even prepare for the trip outside of my obligations for work.
Very simply stated, I had totally lost perspective, in a big way. I was concerned about missing the opportunity to take a picture less than an hour from my house, because I was going to be in Switzerland? It was then I realized what had happend. Traveling for work had become just that-work and I had ignored the unique opportunities resulting from the life I have chosen.
When I flew back into New York I looked down at the countryside to see various shades of red, yellow and orange. I guess I have the best of both worlds.