Choosing What to Photograph

When I’m in Vietnam, for example, I take pictures mostly like a tourist, so that I can remember places & people & events; occasionally I photograph more self-consciously, looking for the same sorts of things I look for when taking pictures at home: pattern, quality of light, strangeness, color. For the last couple of years, until it became hard for me to walk around outside, I’ve been obsessively photographing clouds. I don’t generally like vistas or landscapes, though there are exceptions such as the lush absolutely flat rice country of the Mekong Delta. I like abstraction. I like sequences.

I take lots of pictures & erase most of them off the memory card & never think of them again. As a Buddhist, I suppose I should be drawn to the relatively new movement of contemplative photography, which emphasizes spending a lot of time looking before squeezing the shutter. Several photographers I admire have used this method–or at least taught it. Minor White was a pioneer of the contemplative aesthetic & he was the teacher of John Daido Loori, who founded the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, in which I am a student. Maybe I just don’t trust my technique enough.

As a poet I am committed to technique as a means of elucidating subject matter, but when I pick up the camera, I keep my technique basic. I usually use the aperture priority setting on my camera, which allows me to set the f-stop & control depth of field, letting the camera figure out the correct shutter speed.1 I find it hard to compose in the viewfinder, so I usually crop pictures in my photo-editing software, where I also tend to either punch up the color intensities, or mute them–often all the way to black & white.

With the self-portrait sequence, I decided that taking photographs of my face while I’m ill2 is just too, well, “in your face,” so I settled on taking pictures of things I can hold in my hand. Question: “What has someone’s left hand holding a common object got to do with the self? Where is the self?” Response: The self is a composition of different, ever-changing objects, relations, conditions–or so I was taught in Buddhism 101. The hand & the object hold each other. They need each other.

Whatever the specific object chosen for the self-portraits, it has to be small enough to hold in my hand. The specific objects were not chosen according to a particular plan other than a kind of intuitive attraction, sometimes rooted in childhood memories. That is one source of numinosity–but color plays a part as well, because it seems so fundamental, & cultural allusion. Culture & allusion–a technique from literature–come from widely differing modes of cognition & feeling, but both have operated in the process of selection. And I think this is true of most of my photography–not just the recent self-portraits.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. With these self-portraits, though, there is virtually no technique since I am using my iPhone 5c, hand-held.
  2. I hope I’m not being melodramatic: I have a diagnosis of cancer, but I won’t know for a few days what kind & what treatment I’ll need & my prognosis. Perhaps I’ll get off easy.

Geoffrey H. Hartman, Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

Long associated with the Yale School of criticism, Professor Hartman examined a wide range of subjects, including Wordsworth, Judaica and trauma.

Source: Geoffrey H. Hartman, Scholar Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

I met Dr. Hartman in 1985 when he was lecturing at Northwestern, where I had landed with an NEH Summer Seminar fellowship to study the British Romantics. He seemed like a friendly, American element in the massive fortress of Yale School criticism. That was also the summer I heard Umberto Eco lecture—a presentation that was followed by a Q & A taken over by Stanley Fish, who tried to undercut Eco’s optimistic pragmatic approach to language with his own slick nihilism, but wound up gutted like a flounder, standing there in his ice-cream suit at the back of the auditorium while the somehow rumpled & elegant Eco turned to speak with a group of undergraduates. I was there when titans grappled! That was a good day to be a fly on the wall.

Hanoi Spleen (Another List of Five)

  1. The ugly cathedral really is ugly, a cement monstrosity deposited by the French, who, when the were driven out of Hanoi in 1954 razed the 1000 year old One Pillar Pagoda, an architectural marvel. It has since been rebuilt. Now the city is infested by twenty-something French hipsters smoking their execrable cigarettes in the coffee shops.
  2. The German hipsters are a little less annoying, perhaps because Germans have no history in Vietnam.
  3. There are hardly any American hipsters–just a few fresh-faced college students with almost no awareness of their country’s history in Vietnam.
  4. The Vietnamese word for tourism is du lịch; for history the word is lịch sử. Because the unbarred letter “d” is pronounced “z” the two words sound & look like mirror images of each other, at least to my insensitive Western ear. I know nothing about Vietnamese etymology, but I don’t think lịch is the same word / syllable in these two words, Vietnamese compounds working differently from those in Germanic languages. The joys of false etymologies & strained analogies!
  5. Compared to traffic in HCMC or (from what I have been told) Bangkok, traffic in Hanoi is not so bad, but it is bad enough. For my first four weeks here I was able to join the dance–and it is a dance–but the last few days it’s just seemed chaotic. Usually, at a major intersection, when the light changes there is a liminal period during which the more aggressive motorbikes continue through as the bikes from the perpendicular direction begin moving out. Usually the side with the red slows & stops, though individual scooters will continue to dart through along the edges or go up on the sidewalk to skirt around. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes the liminal period of one direction goes on so long that it overlaps with the period of the other direction, which is when you have chaos, the dance broken down. So, now, go cross the street to get to your favorite coffee shop on the other side.

Eating & Speaking

I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.

The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.

The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.

When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1  When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.

I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.

 

 

Show 1 footnote

  1. See “John Paul Sartre on Bad Faith,” Neel Burton, M.D. Psychology Today, 2012.