Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

When I first started this blog last summer I envisioned posting new photographs regularly.  I thought it might challenge me to produce better photographs, while also giving me the chance to talk about certain images that I really like.  Since I have yet to do this and am also busy with a writing project I shelved two years ago, I thought I may as well begin now.  Here’s to hoping for a shorter blog post….

Contrary to the pleasure with which I photograph natural landscapes, I find urban settings especially difficult to capture.   It is often hard to recreate the mood of the place.  Since I can’t expect the city to pose for me, the lines and the postures are never mine to control.  The city always explodes past my frame and, unless I’m in the right ‘frame’ of mind, I find this frustrating and daunting.  So without happening upon a particularly arresting pattern of lines or a striking outline of architecture, I tend not to take the camera from its bag.

Of course, this means, too, that I’m reluctant to photograph human subjects within these urban landscapes.  I find myself reluctant to sleuth with the camera, to steal away shots, to fire multiple frames per second into the faces of the unprepared.   But, I know that if I’m going to push my photography, I need to embrace the act of photographing people, preferably alive and moving, within the places where they live (ie. the city).

In Korea, people are most abundantly available for photographing in the shopping districts, which are truly sights to behold.  Thousands of people spill through brickwork streets, pouring in and out of boutiques and brand name stores, purchases in tow.  Scooters rev their way through the flood tide and food stalls part the sea down the middle.  These open-air stalls serve up roasted corn, foil-wrapped sweet potatoes, pork skewers, deep fried peppers, and the ubiquitous tteok bokki, a rice cake/processed-fish concoction served up in a spicy-sweet red sauce.

I’ve walked through an untold number of districts like this and have never managed to capture the scene to my liking.  There were either too many disembodied human parts pressed into a frame that told no narrative, or wide stretches of unpeopled pavement, giving the illusion of a deadened shopping district– something it decidedly was not (if there is a global recession, it’s not recognizable here).


Passerby, Eunangdong

Frustrated by my lack of success, I resolved one evening to focus on a single food stall in our downtown market.  I walked circles around the tented booth and snapped shots from different angles.  The electric lighting seemed perfect against the slightly dimmer streetlights and the rising steam lent a warmth to an otherwise cold photograph of an even colder day.   I finally happened upon an angle that seemed to work especially well; I took a number of wide-angle shots from behind the stall, as shoppers lined up for warm food.  I then waited for the street-cook to serve up a dish of the aforementioned tteok bokki, hoping to capture the hand-off across the grill.  Just as she did so, and just as I pressed the shutter, a boy walked across my frame.

Since this had already happened numerous times, and since the ritual passing of the tteok bokki, which I was waiting for expectantly, had occurred squarely behind his head, I silently cursed at the boy and walked away from the food stall in frustration.

Only later, with the photographs uploaded to my computer, did I realize that this photograph was far more interesting than any of the other shots I had taken.  Despite blocking the food exchange I so desperately wanted to capture, the boy’s pixelated movement covers up an otherwise boring foreground; this also serves to direct the viewer’s eyes to the lighted warmth of the couple, huddled by their own plate of tteok bokki.  The proximity of the boy’s passing body to the camera lens, plus the steamed faces of two female shoppers in the upper right corner fills the frame with a sense of crowdedness, of a street scene spilling beyond the arbitrary cropping of my camera.  The result is (finally) something akin to the feel of the shopping district.

Which brings me to the lesson learned:  if I’m going to push my photography in urban spaces, I need to embrace the dynamism of the place, which means not only accepting unpredictable movements but utilizing them as best I can.

So about that shorter blog post….


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The UN-blue quonset huts straddle the Military Indication Line.  They serve as the meeting place of dignitaries and organizations from both sides. (photo by Geoff Martin)

These UN-blue quonset huts straddle the demarcation line between North and South Korea (notice the raised cement bed running between the two buildings). They serve as the meeting place of dignitaries and organizations from both sides. (photo by Geoff Martin)

There is something ethically unsettling about buying into a half day tour of a military standoff.  At what point in the progression of battle does one side decide that there is money to be made parading tourists along the line of contention? And at what point does that tour become the “must see” destination of a country, like Disney World for Orlando, Florida or The Farmer’s Market for St. Jacobs, Ontario?

A short section of rusted, barbed wire on sale at the Camp Boniface gift shop for 15,000 won ($13 CDN)

A short section of rusted, barbed wire on sale at the gift shop for 15,000 won ($13)

The answer is relatively simple: you marshal camera-wielding foreigners through the war front after nearly sixty years of a military and diplomatic impasse.  In the Korean conflict, no one is going anywhere, so why not display the theatrics of war to the curious?  As for it being a “must-see”, it is only a matter of time and consistently safe trips before millions of visitors have stood at the line and gaped across at the binocular eyes of North Korean soldiers.

In South Korea it is now something of a rite of passage to go to the DMZ.  Yet, I had never really heard rave reviews (of the level enjoyed after Billy Joel played Seoul).  The experience was largely chalked up as “interesting,” and nothing more.  This, combined with my unease over being something of a war tourist made me hesitant to buy in; yet my brother and his wife were visiting for three weeks and wanted to see the full range of the country.  Since everyone else we knew had done the tour, I thought we may as well do it too.

And so we did.  Last weekend, we took the 45 min. drive north from Seoul and visited the DMZ.  My opinion, I can gladly say, has changed.  The experience was well worth the cost:  walking “across the line” inside a UN-monitored negotiating room; peering out at ‘Communist North Korea’ (as referred to by our soldier-guides) from an observation deck; slouching low through a long tunnel dug by North Korean soldiers for the  purpose of infiltration and surprise attack.  All proved to be immensely informative.

An elite South Korean soldier stands on The Line at one end of the negotiating table.  Vistors are allowed to "cross the line" for a few moments from the other end of the table.

An elite South Korean soldier stands on the Military Demarcation Line at one end of the negotiating table. (photo by Geoff Martin)

I may now be “yet another war tourist,” but I can visualize the conflict a little better because of it.  I have a semblance of the chronology of the war and the subsequent standoff.  In sum, I have a greater sense of Korea-at-war; a fact that is all but absent from the surface level of South Korean culture– the odd eighteen-year-old in camouflage, and nothing more.

The DMZ tour, then, enabled me to actually see, however quickly and cursorily, this entrenched scar running the width of the Korean Peninsula.  The threat is real; both armies continue to seek the intimidation of the other.  Rhetoric is leveraged to extremes.  Small incidents, such as tree-trimming, flare up into axe murders, or the act of raising a flag, into a contest of height and size (the North Koreans are currently winning with a 160m high pole and a 600 lbs flag).

Kijong-dong, North Korea (aka "Propaganda Village" or "Freedom Village" depending on your allegiances).  This uninhabited town was initially constructed in the 1950s to encourage South Korean soldiers to defect

Kijong-dong, North Korea (aka "Propaganda Village" or "Freedom Village" depending on your allegiances). This uninhabited town was initially constructed in the 1950s to encourage South Korean soldiers to defect. (photo by Geoff Martin)

This is a gaping wound that refuses all stitches.  No salve seems strong enough to smooth over the ideological divide, the sixty years of vehement hatred.  This is a crisis now into its second and third generations.  Yet there is internal pressure for reunification, not least of which, from the oldest members of society– those who were children when the conflict began, who were separated from their siblings, and who were kept apart by the militarized border for sixty years.  Now, in their old age, they want nothing more than reconciliation.

My brother, Scott, and I do our small part for the reunification of the Peninsula.

My brother, Scott, and I do our small part for the reunification of the Peninsula.

The DMZ tour, for showing simply “what’s there” and for attempting to contextualize the conflict was entirely worth the time (8 hours) and cost ($44 USD).  I highly recommend.

For details:  http://affiliates.uso.org/korea

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White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

Ever have those days when everyone about you screams forth your name and demands your undivided attention?  Ever have those days when you feel like no one speaks your language?  When the cacophony is so great you can’t hear yourself think?

There are a good many such days here in Korea.

Amidst all the noise (and I am, admittedly, often a contributor and/or instigator of it), there is an underlying awareness that silence will be all the sweeter when the noise has died, the children have fled, and I am alone in my classroom again.  Often, this is the only thing standing between my forced patience and my screaming “SHUT UP” in the faces of eight year olds.

To really know and value silence, to describe that splendid sense of relief when experienced, it is best to work from a negative definition.  Silence, then, is best described as not noise; it is the sheer absence of sound.  Much like John Milton’s assertion that what is Good is best defined against its opposite, Evil, so too are silence and noise co-dependents; two sides to the same coin, as the saying goes.  We depend on both to see our way and to strike a balance.  Without periods of near-deafening noise, silence would be stripped of its harbour-like quality.  In fact, silence, endured for too long, is its own kind of madness (think, Wilson, the volleyball).

A Veritable Wasteland (photo by an anonymous Haveman Brothers planter)

A Veritable Wasteland

One moment, in particular, stands out in my memory as the first time I experienced the tangible weight of silence.  To this day, four years on, that surreal moment remains my “safe place” (in psycho-speak); that place I imagine when I need to get away, to escape the chaos around me (ie. my classroom with twelve pairs of hands grasping at my shirt and an infinite number of vocal chords shouting out my name).

I spent the spring of 2005 working on a tree planting contract in Northern Ontario. We were flown into a veritable wasteland by helicopter and abandoned in an updraft of ash and dirt.  A forest fire had ravaged the landscape two years previous, churning on oxygen and engorging itself on combustible softwood and accumulated deadfall.  Our arrival, immediately following the spring thaw, meant that the natural color palate varied between off-yellow grasses and blackened soot.  It was lifeless in sight and post-apocalyptic in feel.  We pitched our tents against scattered outcroppings of Canadian Shield, beneath the wraith-like silhouettes of charred and limbless tree trunks– their exposed roots twisted about like fingers clawing from a grave.  A low, damp fog clung to the landscape, crawling up off the slender lake, cold as a corpse, and wrapping through the cleavage of two rounded hills in the distance.  The Dolly Partons, as the rock formations were affectionately called, dominated our view, poking up through the cloudy blanket, re-situating us whenever we were turned about.

This environment, dead to life below and blanketed in from above, would seem the best candidate for an uncanny, isolated silence.  And it would have been, had it not been for one small machine.

In the evenings, I was charged with maintaining the camp’s water system and electrical generator.  That generator, parked on a skid beneath a rotting, plywood A-frame, dominated camp-life.  It signaled our camp’s location while we were still two kilometers off; it pounded loud through our morning and evening meals; it threaded its way between every conversation, ceaselessly combating the rising decibels of our weary voices.  We lived under its full dominance of sound—because nothing was louder, we heard nothing else.  But as with all things constant, we grew somewhat accustomed to its grating, in that we ceased to really hear it– the irritation having shifted to our unconscious.

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

On the first night, I waited until the last voices floated through the darkness past the membrane of my tent, and then crawled out from my cocoon of fleece and goose-down.  I slipped through the door flap and stood beneath the full arch of a star-lit sky.  Casting my eyes down, I felt my way through the loose rock and dry twitch, laying out the beginnings of a worn pathway to the dining tent, the outhouse, and the still-hammering generator.

I stopped by the dining tent to see who might still be up.  A few toasted bodies were sitting in muffled silence about the woodstove, tilted bottles of Blue sticking up between their legs and resting against their gloved hands.

“I’m cutting power,” I called in to them.

They mumbled their acknowledgment through layers of wool. There was a slight shifting.  Their cigarettes flared red in the night, as they sucked in the evening’s last inhale and resigned themselves to abandoning the warmth of the fire for the cold of their tent.  The generator, ruling complete in the night against the lesser noises of a sleeping camp, now churned wildly, echoing loud off the rock face across the lake and resounding throughout the naked, treeless valley.

With the cold night air biting at my exposed hand, I hurried in a bundle to the A-frame and promptly flipped the switch, not wanting to delay my return to the pile of blankets within my tent.  The motor idled down, muttering as though beaten unfairly and too easily, before gasping out its last exhaustive breath and clanking, matter-of-factly, to its death.

In the sudden vacuum of noise, a deeper silence than any I had ever felt, washed in around me; thick, like corn syrup.  It caught me off guard.  I could hear nothing, as if my ears were stuffed tight with cotton balls; the usual noises of the night were ten kilometers off, at least. In the chambers of my ears there still echoed the pounding intensity of the generator’s whirling groan.  The sheer noise of it all, I began to worry, had permanently affected my ability to hear.

Though minutes seemed to have passed, sound finally began to creep forward with the slow lethargy of a sloth.  I heard the world infinitesimally; each strand of sound identifiable and unique: the sound of a single cricket beyond the A-frame; the scuff of my boot against cold dirt, as I stood back to look about; the crinkle of my jacket shell.

And gradually, each strand was overlaid by another equally unique sound.  Overlaid and cross-stitched, as if the world, though sundered, was now, piece by piece, being sutured back together: my sense of the aural universe expanding exponentially; concentric circles of noise and life pulsating out from the A-frame. The point of origin. The Absolute.  Like a rock tossed into a placid lake, the ripples of sound fanned out across the barren landscape, spilling forward through the undulations of terrain.  The single cricket’s call was now returned by a colossal wave of chirps.  Twitters of life, where none seemed to exist before, twisted out anew from the brittle charcoal and ash-strewn earth.  All appearances to the contrary, this place was very much alive– its root system stretching out, like the awakening of youth; its animal life microscopic but multiplying; its collective noise much louder than any mechanical roar.

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

I imagined myself the progenitor of it all; at the flip of the switch I could roll out sound like Aslan’s roar.  This pleasure in sound greatly outweighed the inconvenience of my nightly task.  In fact, I very quickly came to relish the act.  Each evening thereafter, I would rest my finger on the switch and then stop for a moment, filling the chamber of my head with the generator’s blaring rage, numbing myself so that the supreme absence of sound, and nature’s virtuoso chorus that followed after, might be all the greater, all the more incredible.  Although alone and without an audience, I would drop my finger with the showmanship and confidence of a magician with his wand.   Just as the generator sputtered through its final breath, I would suck in the cold air through my teeth, filling my lungs to capacity so that not even my breathing could disturb that saturated, soundless peace.  Silence, at last, would permeate the night.  Then, with my ears quickened to the pleasure of sound, I would stand straight and hear the wind off the lake, the sputtering hiss of gasoline in the funnel, the infinite chorus of insects.  I would drink in the palpable sound of a world created new.

The Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

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While the following does not quite fit the criteria for my “word-for-word” (mis)translations, I thought it such vividly morbid stream-of-consciousness that I dug it up from the archives.

On the eve of Halloween, I asked my writing class to frighten me with a descriptive paragraph about a haunted house.  After reading out the submissions by flashlight in a darkened classroom, I couldn’t help but copy a portion of one of them.  To create the desired effect of spoken-word poetry, please read aloud, in rhythm, and in one long breath (maybe turn the lights out too):

The haunted house is empty and scary on top of the hill broken windows and screams and evil laughter and ghost and skeleton is die people.

(The lack of punctuation should not reflect negatively on my ability, or lack thereof, to instill basic grammatical rules in my students.)

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcan Barva, Boquete, Panama

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcán Barú, Boquete, Panama

- photo by Geoff Martin

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After having inhabited the Land of Narnia for about two years of my childhood, it seems I cannot pass a lamp post by without framing it in my camera lens.  Street lights are one thing, ever-present in their monotony, like gray-clad sentinels positioned by regimen at precise intervals.  There is an aesthetic in that, to be sure.  But lamp posts are something else altogether.

Appearing as they do in park spaces and along forested trails, lamp posts are suggestive of human presence, as if the world of men and women lies just beyond the next evergreen.  They exude a warmth not found in all the white haze of light pollution.  The lamp post is an antique, a relic of the past, a bearer of contemplative nostalgia.  Unlike street lights, you can’t be lost beside them.  Regardless of your direction, the lamp post signals home.  It is an electrified equivalent of the candle-in-the-window.

In the wilderness, where electrical lines have not yet run, there is abandonment.  In the city, where orange, conical light illuminates the limitless stretch of asphalt and concrete, there is alienation.  In the park, where the wilderness meets the city, there is tranquility.  And where there is tranquility, there is usually a lamp post close by to safeguard such peace of mind.

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Jeff Wall, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in cinematographic photography, imaginatively captures the invisible man's high wattage, underground apartment.

After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue Jeff Wall, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in cinematographic photography, imaginatively captures the invisible man's high wattage, underground apartment in this 1999-2000 photograph.

A few weeks ago, I turned the final page on Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1947 American novel about the coming-of-age of a nameless, black orator and activist.  Needless to say, it made for interesting reading alongside YouTube clips of Barak Obama’s campaign and speeches.

In Ellison’s novel, the protagonist pens his story from a forgotten, concrete cavern beneath New York City under the glow of 1,369 light bulbs he has strung from the ceiling.  While stealing electricity from the power grid above, the protagonist charts his journey through varying gradations of racism: his childhood in the explicitly racist South; the groveling, white-dependency of his all-black university; the subtle colour hierarchy of his white allies in “The Brotherhood.”  Along the way, he unconsciously collects the cultural artifacts of racism in his leather briefcase: a slave-era chain link, a black dancing doll, a fetishized “love-letter” from a white woman.  In the final unraveling of his public life and as Harlem riots above ground, the bloodied protagonist strews his baggage throughout the sewer system—an offloading of the symbolism of racial oppression—and stumbles into the forgotten cavern by the burning light of his high school diploma.

Until the concluding chapter, Ellison’s protagonist has only ever been, at worst, a “nigger” to someone’s hatred, and at best, a black pawn to someone else.  Both ends of this racist spectrum are utterly degrading, so he responds by making himself actually invisible, by becoming a recluse beneath the city.  And it is by this withdrawal from society that he finally acquires a powerful, personal agency.  Free from the racial gaze of everyone else, the protagonist is able to finally see himself for who he is and to write his personal story—a story that he suggests in his own epilogue may “speak for you.”

Barak Obama’s presidential win one week ago was certainly a magnificent achievement against the back-story of racism in America.  That his own personal story was so much a part of his victory suggests just how powerful his narrative is.  With two best-selling autobiographies, Obama appears to be a man who knows himself, or at least has considered deeply who he is and what he is trying to do.  Like the protagonist in Ellison’s novel, who emerges from the underground predicting a “socially responsible role to play,” Obama has surfaced with the confidence of a man, seemingly, aware of his own trajectory.  But Obama’s story is no longer only his own.  Obama is, in actual fact, speaking for a whole cross-section of Americans.  He is, now, the most visible of Americans.  Yet, there may be a cruel twist to all this.  His visibility depends upon the projection of a whole range of hopes and dreams.  He is, apparently, the embodiment of change-to-come, but this means that his “real self” remains invisible behind the projected desires of what exactly this change is and what it actually should look like.  Ellison’s novel ends with the promise of re-emergence, but we never learn how the invisible man’s new-found agency copes with public life.  For Obama, public life in the Oval Office, will be as much a test of his policies as it will be a test of his myth.

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Death by Photographs

At 27 months, hockey consumed my imagination.

At 27 months, hockey consumed my imagination.

I heard recently that your body completely renews itself every seven years.  Cellular bit by cellular bit, all physical matter is rejected and then simultaneously replenished; the body shedding itself clean and then growing itself anew. And, through it all, we persist. Our identities, our memories, our essential selves continue.


I was thinking of this while staring at a photo tacked up on our bedroom wall. In last minute packing haste, Colleen and I grabbed a random assortment of photographs and threw them in our suitcase.  In the pile was a photograph of me as a two-year-old, aspiring hockey player.  I have a 1 liter container of Tenderflake on one foot, acting as a single goalie pad, and an adult-sized hat turned backwards on my head, acting as a helmet.  With my mouth biting hard on the plastic adjusters and my eyes peering out from the semi-circular opening, I grip my wooden mini-stick judiciously and stick handle a yellow tennis ball.  Freeze.  I am not Wayne Gretzky (I don’t yet know who that is) nor am I Doug Gilmour (he’s not even on the scene yet)– I am a Family Flyer and I am about to score the winning goal for my father and all of my uncles.


If this seven year cycle is true (and I do admit to not reading any medical journals of late), I am now three fully decomposed bodies removed from that distant, two-year-old self.  This photograph, then, tacked as it is on floral wall paper in East Asia, is the sole material artifact of my former self.  In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes calls it “the living image of a dead thing.”  Of course, I am not dead, but the proof of my earlier existence, of myself like this at this particular moment comes by way of this photograph, by way of emanations transcribed onto a negative.  Memory cannot claim such veracity; it is too fickle (even now, after a lifetime of viewing this image, I had to retrieve the photograph off the wall and change the above description from a “raised arm” and a “large, red ball”).  To borrow from Barthes again: “from a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.”  This picture is me (at two years of age), I am told; but physiologically, it is not.  More correctly then, this picture was me (at two years of age); but to conjugate the verb admits to a sort of death.  This was me, but it is no longer.


Which brings me to the broader point: death seems to lurk beneath every photograph.  I can’t look at any photograph without situating it (the event or the people) in relation to my own life and the event and lives depicted.  In that relation, I see time’s slide towards the inevitability of death.  Susan Sontag says it best in On Photography: “precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”


So when I look at this photograph, I see the march of time; I find myself mourning the passing of that body (three times over!).  I am older and stronger, yes, but I’m also closer to my end.  The camera freezes an otherwise transient moment and now, twenty-three years later, I am pricked by nostalgia and am reminded of the inevitable.

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