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.