I’ve Set Down My Cameras...Again

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I’m slow at getting it. During my previous visit to Thailand, I realized that photography was intruding on my travel experiences. When I blogged of my realization, several friends emailed to say that they had noticed the same thing. Yet before long, I’d doubled down on taking pictures and buying more photo gear.

On this visit to Thailand, I left my camera in the hotel safe, visited a fantastic store named Lamune and bought a journal (a passport sized Midori Traveler’s journal and accouterments) which fits in my pocket, and spent my time sitting in cafés or on public benches journaling about my experiences. What I learned is that writing about my experiences after having them (though not too long afterward) is a different and more fulfilling process than mediating the world through the camera. I prefer the experience of writing. The camera, which is a powerful tool, isn’t able to capture the lessons that I want, nor is it able to go deep enough and explain my experiences fully.

Likely the most significant moment I’ve had in Bangkok has been my visit Wat Pho late one afternoon while it was nearly empty, and quietly walking amongst the pagodas, examining the ceramic work, watching the sunset, and seeing the artificial light of the Wat’s lamps blend with reddening light of nature. I could never capture that feeling in one of my photographs.

That’s my shortcoming. I know many photographers whose photographs capture their intentions perfectly. That’s why they’re photographers, and why their images are profoundly moving. We all have to choose the art which expresses our hearts most completely.

So I’ve set my cameras aside and returned to deep journaling, writing longhand. I’ve bought all of the journal inserts that Lamune had for my journal, as well as all of their ink for my pen, and judging by the amount of journaling I’ve already done, and I’ll need more supplies soon.

That’s not to say that I’ve stopped taking photographs completely. I’m still using my iPhone for the occasional snapshot, such as the image above taken at the Grand Palace, but my phone now rarely leaves my pocket for pictures. Experiencing the moment is more important.

saigon, 6/6/19

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Motorbikes cross through the intersection, often nearly colliding, as I pull my gear from my backpack and set up my camera. I’ve been in Saigon almost exactly 24 hours, and the clouds are partially blocking and unblocking the sun, creating a chiaroscuro of light and shadow. These light effects are what has inspired me to stop.

But the light has changed, becoming duller and gray, so after setting up all I can do is wait while watching the motorbikes and cars negotiate who has the right of way through the intersection. 

Two different riders pass by and show interest in my camera. The first is a young man who says “wow!” while the second is someone older than me with a gray goatee who looks at the camera, looks at me, smiles and nods a knowing smile. I wonder if he’s previously used a view camera.

During my previous visit to Saigon, a man came up as I was taking pictures with my Mamiya C220 and talked about how his father used a similar camera (I assume he meant a twin-lens reflex) when he worked for a newspaper. Then he suggested that the camera belongs in a museum. The Mamiya is a work of art, and I agree. I wonder if he would say the same about my view camera.

The cloud cover grows heavier. It rained some an hour earlier, though there isn’t any precipitation forecast now. But the signs are ominous. The light shifts, the contrast rises, and I’m able to take my photograph. Afterward, I eat a quick dinner and return to my hotel. Twenty minutes later, a storm lets loose, and the bonsai outside my window heave to and fro in the wind as the rain slams against the building.

The Artist’s Spirit

I was rereading issue #66 of Lenswork Magazine and came across Bill Jay’s short discussion of why he photographs. Although this is a difficult question for anyone to answer, I think that if you were to ask other artists what compels them to create, after some thought, I doubt that their answers would be much different. 

For years a friend of Jay’s has been puzzled by his devotion to photography. When she asks why he photographs, he can't provide an answer that isn't ”empty” and ”untruthful.” But later when he's out with his camera, he finds the answer. Were she there at that moment he would answer:

”Look...this is life. It is everywhere, and it is here for the taking. I am alive and I know this, now, in a more profound way than when I am doing anything else.”

What a masterful respomse. The artist is most alive, most aligned, and most connected while creating their art. For some of us, it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. For others, it’s what gets us through the week to the weekend. That time of creation is the most important time of all.

While reading Jay’s comment, I was reminded of a scene from The Fast and the Furious. Despite the rest of the franchise devolving quickly into GI Joe meets Hot Wheels, particularly after Paul Walker’s death, this first film is one that I think will stand the test of time. In it, there's a scene where Dom, played by Vin Diesel, is showing his father’s car to Paul Walker’s character Brian. Dom’s father died in a racing accident, and Dom carries the guilt of permanently injuring the driver who caused the crash. In a moment of intimacy that we don't find in any of the other films, (the clip is below) he confesses his motivation for racing to us by saying ” I live my a life a quarter mile at a time. Nothing else matters, not the mortgage, not the store, not my team  ... For those 10 seconds or less, I'm free.”

That's the artist’s spirit. 

The Bronica S2A

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I poked my head into a camera repair shop in Ho Chi Minh City while en route to sell my Olympus Pen F Digital at a different store. The Olympus was a fine camera, one of the best that I’ve ever owned, but I was finding digital to be too cold of a medium for me, and I worried about Olympus’s future. They’d just announced that they’d canceled production on the Pen F a few weeks earlier, just after they’d announced a high-end camera aimed at nature and sports photographers. Why cancel a camera aimed at street photographers, a field of photography that's currently wildly popular, and release one aimed at a niche market like high-end nature shooters? It didn't make sense to me and I worried that Olympus had lost their vision.

The repair shop, as expected, had cameras littered about on various tables, some fully assembled and others in pieces, their electronic circuitry exposed for all to see. The shop was tiny, and there were no other customers there but me. This store was on a busy street and I wondered how the owner could afford to be there. Other stores nearby sold used cameras, so perhaps they sent him business.

He also sold a few used cameras. A glass case at the rear of the shop displayed his wares. A silver-bodied Leicaflex 35mm grabbed my attention, though it didn't have a lens. And, in the lower corner farthest away from me, a Bronica S2A! I'd never seen one in real life and certainly didn't expect to find one for sale in Saigon. In fact, I didn't expect to find any used film cameras for sale in Saigon besides 35mm. The Bronica was one of two medium format SLR cameras that I've been wanting to hold. The other was the Kowa Super 66. 

The store owner and I examined the camera together, and he was clearly pleased that I recognized its value. Since it was positioned so obliquely that I almost didn't see it, he likely had placed it in the corner due to lack of interest from previous shoppers. After all, who buys film cameras, especially ones that shoot 120 film? Looking at it carefully I could see that this Bronica was clearly for a shooter, not a collector. The stainless steel (yes, stainless steel) was lightly scratched and a small piece of the leatherette was pulled up in the corner. The leatherette on the waist-level finder had shrunken and some glue was exposed. And the mirror showed signs of where fungus had once been. 

Besides age, these Bronicas suffer from other problems, mainly issues with film advance. The internals of this camera iis complicated, and from what I've read the gearing is extensive. My experience confirms this since advancing the film requires rotating the advance knob many more times than on my Mamiya C220. Earlier models, such as the Bronica S and S2 had softer gears which were prone to stripping, while the S2A had harder hears, and a clutch system that keeps over-exuberant users from breaking the camera. 

One of the first things I did after buying the camera was to put a roll of film through it and have it developed by the one lab that I've found in Saigon that processes film. The shots came out perfect.

The price of the camera fit in my budget, and I told the owner that I would be back after selling my Olympus. I was offered a better price for my Pen F than expected, not as much as I paid, but nearly double what an online store in America had offered me, and I returned to purchase the Bronica.

The owner was in the back of his shop, and perhaps he had decided that I wouldn't return. I paid him and loaded the camera into my camera bag. Then we visited for a few more minutes. His English was good, and my Vietnamese is non-existent, but we still managed to communicate. He lamented over one of the cameras on his bench, the top piece pulled off exposing its electronic parts. There's nothing you can do, he said. You can't repair them. I believe him. I've found that the Vietnamese can repair almost anything. Their ingenuity is astounding, but even they have their limits, and that camera seemed to be one of them.

I bid the shop keeper goodnight and returned to my hotel. Who would have imagined that I’d find this camera under such circumstances?



Ghosts

Ghosts walk the streets in Hoi An. Recently I was delivered to a friend’s spa early in the morning for a visa run. We arrived to find my friend standing in her doorway with three prayer sticks in hand, praying. Upon finishing she placed two sticks outside her spa, and a third near a building across the street. 

I asked her about her placement of the prayer sticks. Usually, I’d seen them set outside of someone’s business or home (here they’re often the same place), but the one across the street confused me. 

My friend, I learned, years ago had lived in the mountains, and, desperate for money, came to Hoi An with her two children. They slept on the streets and somehow transitioned into staying in the building that sat across the street from her spa. Although now the building houses shops and is very presentable, back then it was dilapidated and dangerous. Water poured through the roof when it rained. The conditions were so bad that she feared that building might tumble down on her and her children. But it wasn’t always that way. 

During the war US troops walked through the streets of Hoi An, shooting the residents. One of those killed was the husband of the family that owned the building. His wife, heartbroken, died soon afterward. Their daughter, who was away studying in private school (they were a wealthy family), returned and, overwhelmed with grief from losing both her parents, took her life. Afterwards the building deteriorated.

But their daughter hasn’t found release. Instead, she haunts the building and the surrounding area. When my friend moved in, she began to pray to the daughter asking that she not reveal herself to her, or her children; that she not frighten them. She makes this request daily, and the girl has left them alone.

As time passed my friend started selling soup and her fortunes improved. Now she’s very successful. And each day she prays to the girl, asking that she not haunt her or her children. Each day her prayers are answered. Others haven’t been so lucky. 

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Across from my room

At night, across the street from my room, the second floor of the homestay pulses red. All night, and I assume, all day. Because the house has tall slit-like windows that remind me of eyes, I can’t help but feel that the home is somehow angry, a cauldron of pulsing emotion - the haunting of hill house. Likely, though, it’s the shrine to Buddha that I often see in the homes and businesses of Hoi An, pulsing with life. 

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Out in the Open

The Aussie came and sat at my table as I read on my iPhone and sipped peach and lemongrass tea. No names were exchanged, but we spent a fair amount of time talking. He was a doctor, a GP specifically, in his early 70s. Years ago he’d married a woman from Hoi An whom, ironically, he’d met in Australia. She met her first husband, a college professor and also an Aussie, in  Hoi An, whom she left him when she grew tired of his escapades with his students. She and her second husband returned periodically to visit friends and family. 

During our conversation, we discussed how different Viet Nam is from Australia or America. I mention that I grew up in the country, raising chickens and cows, seeing them beheaded with cleavers, or waiting for the butcher from Bodega to dispatch and slaughter the cows. He worries he says that his children won’t understand where food comes from. Society has distanced itself from nature, or perhaps the negative parts of life. Beef comes from the restaurant kitchen, as does chicken. Or they’re found in the grocery store, and now it’s easy not to think about the conditions of circumstances under which the animals live, and die. He suggests that I eat liver and brain for my fibromyalgia. I politely decline. 

Later, I see a motorbike drive by with a caged pig on the back. I point, and we both watch silently, then return to our conversation about something completely unrelated. 

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“You Shouldn’t Even Be”

The restaurant I was breakfasting in was nothing extraordinary, which is exactly what I like. When visiting a new town, I like to sit in restaurants listening to the locals visit. In the Silicon Valley region, I usually would overhear conversations about technology; website content, marketing plans, ideas for start-ups, etc. The conversations that I overheard in other areas tended to be more personal.

In a Starbuck’s in Northern Santa Rosa, I overheard a a group discuss the Bible, and the participants were honestly and genuinely debating some of the concepts therein. In Eureka, there was talk of fishing and job hunting. (There’s a nameless town in between that I make a point of driving past after I visited their public library and found an official sign in the bathroom asking the patrons not to pee in the floor drain) Perhaps the most unexpected moment occurred in the town of Lone Pine.

I was in a fast food restaurant when one of the patrons, sitting behind his white 12” MacBook said “the n****r,” and continued with his conversation. I was certain I had misheard. Then he repeated it, and again, and I came to realize that he was speaking of President Obama. 

Although the conversation was loud, and many must have heard him, no one said anything. Finally, the person he was speaking to saw my face, whispered to the man, who fell silent. 

When I finished eating, I walked past him on my way to dump my garbage. He watched from the corner of his eye but didn’t look up. I’m not sure what I would have said if he had. From there I drove to Manzanar, the site where the many Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during WWII, and just sat, reflecting. Cars entered and exited the main gate, and I saw people touring the prison, and visiting the museum. I stepped out walked around, photographed the guard towers, and drove off. I didn’t want to speak to anyone, didn’t want to go inside and see how these Americans were mistreated. The wound was still too raw from breakfast, so I drove off to return another time.

Lone Pine was not my first in-person experience with racism against President Obama. Years before I had been sitting in a gym locker in the city of Petaluma, while the tv on the wall broadcast the President speaking. A person in front of me looked for a moment, growled, and said: “You shouldn’t be allowed to be.” When he saw me looking at him, he became self-aware, regained his composure, and stopped speaking. 

Progressives I know wonder how President Trump, a man who brags of being a sexual assailant and someone who traffics in racist and sexist language was elected. We blame the people in the (derisively described) flyover states, such as Kentucky and Louisiana. The answer can be found more closely in the people sitting and standing right next to us.

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Synethesia

We sit in the coffee house talking of perception. My friend, whom I had worked with in a bookstore, is a great lover of classical music. I remain a mere dabbler. I prefer Vivaldi to Wagner; Tina Goa to Beethoven. Her interests are much broader. Then she tells of times when she would walk around and see music. Not in a poetic sense, but a real sense. Synesthesia. 

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Self-Portrait, Hoi An, Viet Nam, 2019

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The citizens of Hoi An often look at me and ask if I’m cold. True, it is winter here, and many of the locals are wearing jackets, but the 68-70 degree weather strikes me as being just about right. Indeed, I find it a welcome reprieve from the 100-degree weather of Sai Gon. 

I spoke with a woman from Mekong who had moved to Sai Gon four months earlier, and she kept repeating how hot it was in the city. Another warned me when learning of my travels, that it was cold in Hoi An. At the time Hoi An was between 80-90. 

We have a marvelous way of adapting, within reason, to the weather we find ourselves immersed in, though I am beginning to fear how I’ll fare in genuinely cooler climates. 

So I wear shorts, short sleeve shirts, shoes without socks, and relish the cool weather while I can...