Saturday, September 24, 2005

A Few Snapshots From Life

Many years ago I lived in Kenya for 2 years as a US Peace Corps volunteer. I had a Canon camera (which I still have) and several lenses, whose capabilities I did not understand. I took probably 800 pictures during my two years there, back in the days before digital photography, when picture taking meant rationing precious film and financial resources. Most were terrible. And more importantly, few really reflected my life there. Only a smattering of pictures of local foods, for example. No pictures of the smoky atmosphere of a dingy eatery. No pictures of the old Iqbal hotel, where I spent many a wonderful evening snacking and chatting. Many pictures of my students, but somehow none really conveyed what they were like, and the lot that I had were not nearly enough. Nor did I manage to capture well the markets, houses, and buildings of Meru where I lived. I had some nice pictures of animals I took in national parks, but the lion that strolled past me in Meru National Park or the elephants that surrounded us or the baboon that ate all our food at the campsite were gaudy tourist images. They said nothing to me about my own experience.

The same thing happened in 1991 when I went to India with my wife-to-be. I took lots of pictures of forts and castles and temples and statues, and little of transportation, street life, food, clothing, or people. My picture taking skills had improved, but the problem of subjects remained. I hadn't captured my experience of India.

Heeding the lessons I learned, everywhere I go in Taiwan I carry a camera with me. Some ordinary pictures from an ordinary life...

I'm in my fourth year as an advisor. For graduation it is traditional for our English language majors to do a class play, and my class is adapting a play called The Foreigner. Here Doreen flashes her beautiful smile as she waits to audition for a role.

Sharon and Tom try out for a part.

Phoenix, the director, displays her vivacity and energy.

Kiki and Jolly watch the proceedings

One ubiquitous sight in the parks of Taiwan: old men playing chess.

My daughter, the goof, models her new glasses in front of another river penned up and useless for urban parkland and scenic development.

Traffic stacks up in front of China Medical College as local junior high schools, the university, and the large teaching hospital all get out at the same time.

Here's the reason we don't have TV at home: so the kids would develop the habit of reading everywhere they go.

Here's something that's been in my life a lot lately: Axis and Allies. Our family made a Big Board so we could play in ease and comfort. Zeb and I usually get a couple of games in on the weekends.

Here's where we went to get our scooter registration renewed. Service, as usual, was friendly and quick. The service staffer even overlooked the fact that we owed a fine. "The policeman's not here yet, or else you'd have to pay $800," she told us conspiratorially.

One place we've been going to lately is the large market in Fengyuan near the foreign police station. Prices are lower than in the Taichung markets. Here we stopped for breakfast at a local diner, and the cook is busy making some potstickers for my kid. They were wonderful.

The second most crowded nation on Earth after Bangladesh.

A young girl makes change early on a Saturday morning. For many children, life is an unending round of school, homework, and the family business.

My kids are slowly learning to use a camera, in this case my wife's old one. We gave them both digital cameras when we went to Sri Lanka last year, but now I regret not splurging on something higher quality. They just can't learn much from using a cheap digital job with bad plastic lenses. Nevertheless, they love taking pictures.

Taiwan's variety of meatballs is endless. We saw some imaginative ones that were multicolored and made with fa tsai (hair moss)

Part of the market is covered, but the market has long since outgrown its original area.

I love the wonderful colors of vegetables.

Keeping the sun off the customers.

Here mom and Zeb plunge into a crowd. I enjoy traditional markets very much, except for the noise.

As in many places in Taiwan, vendors selling similar objects all crowd together. This is a very efficient arrangement for consumers and suppliers.

One thing people don't really think about when they see the words "traditional market" is the omnipresence of scooters beeping and honking, shoving fumes in your face, and threatening you with burns and bruises.

We always buy spring roll wrappers from this shop because....

.....they are made in modern, sanitary conditions.


Shuang Bao Tai, deep fried dough with a very light sprinkling of sugar. Chewy and delicious.

Chess is everywhere.


Anonymous said...

These are great shots Michael, I want to a collage like this too!

And congratulations for not owning a TV! Do the kids complain a lot about it?

M.C. said...

I, too, bring my camera with me everywhere, though I'm still working on overcoming shyness and self-consciousness in taking pictures that include people. And it wasn't even until, I don't know, a year ago (?) that I started posting pictures regularly on my blog. At first I felt my attempts were laughably inferior to the fantastic images that were already displayed on other websites, but eventually I came around to the idea that my photo sets were never meant to be stunning, print-worthy images, but all part of my record of life in Taiwan, in all its mundane splendor.

The thing about taking pictures with a larger audience in mind is that you forget to take pictures for yourself, documenting details that you hope to remember 10 or 20 years or however long from now. Basic things like the way light falls at a certain time in a certain room, the faces of your favorite sidewalk vendors, a funny pattern on your apartment's wallpaper... Ultimately, that's what I value in my own pictures, and the blog just happens to be a good place to dump them, while showing a little slice of life to internet passersby. It's these kinds of 'snapshots from life' that I enjoy about your sets.

I hope your kids DO get excited about taking pictures, even if they only have cheap cameras. I was about 10 when my dad lent me his Nikon something-or-other camera for a class project, and I remember feeling quite a sense of accomplishment, learning how everything worked on my dad's 'real' camera (as opposed to my mom's 傻瓜象機). My dad, in particular, always encouraged me to try new things with photography. I arrived here with a rather cheap Coolpix, low pixelage and all, but I had to learn to get in the habit of taking pictures first... anyway, I tend to credit the quality of most pictures to the photographer's own eye and luck, rather than the camera itself. ;) Even now, with the fancy new camera that was my birthday present, I still can't take the pictures I want if I'm not fast enough, or tall enough, or brave enough... What I'm saying is, there's no shame in starting off with a humbler camera, and then your kids will be all the more prepared to take on a better camera when the time comes.

Michael Turton said...

Daniel: the kids have never once complained about not owning a TV. No, I can't believe it either.

MH: I love the pics at your site. I had a photo-mad dad but naturally whatever he was interested in I wasn't. So I had to learn painfully.

I am slowly getting over my inhibitions about taking pictures of people. The telephoto helps a lot, and if you learn how to place the camera, you don't have to hold it up to your eye, so they don't know you are pic taking. I admit I enjoy the whole process of setting up the shot -- loitering as if I was unnoticeable -- "Don't look at me, the fat foreigner with the expensive digital camera, I'm not here, no sirree!" -- trying to get them when they are not looking or their attention is elsewhere. But lately I've gotten bolder about taking pics of people to their faces. Sometimes they shy away, once a guy came out of a shop and yelled at me, but most of the time I get a shocked look. I always show them the pic too. People enjoy someone paying attention to them.

I went to Fengyuan market the other day just to take pics of shoppers. Unfortunately shooting people is not any easier than shooting animals, so I didn't get any shots that I like. I hope to get a whole web page up on People in Markets someday....night market tonight!