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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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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