Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.

The title of this post is one of my favourite Bob Dylan quotes.

I'm often reminded of it when overseas--and I encounter one of those sour-faced, wish-I-was-not-here looking tourists. The ones you see tramping down the beach in Bali, steadfastly refusing to meet the gaze of any local in case they (the local) tries to sell them something (perish the thought). The ones who are so worried about being ripped off they spend their whole holiday avoiding people other than tourists from their own country (if only they knew). The ones who are so scared of "foreign" places they refuse to eat local food, proudly restricting their diet to american fast-"food" outlets.

These are the folk who just get wet.

I must admit, this applied to my photography once in the past. I'd been so intent on photographing a location/event, I didn't actually "feel" the location/event. I had spent the day at a cremation in Bali (if you've not experienced a Balinese cremation, as a spectator of course, you are missing one of the most amazing events available to guests of that enchanted/ing isle). But back to my story:

The cremation was the biggest I've ever seen. I shot 10 rolls of 36 exposure Ektachrome (if you don't know what that means, don't worry about it, it's not important . . . anymore . . . sigh . . . ), which for me was huge. I got some of my alltime favourite images of Bali. On seeing some of the slides, a friend asked me why it was such an enormous event, and which really important person was being cremated.

I didn't know. In fact, I knew very little about cremation, and learned nothing more that day. I was so busy shooting the event, I wasn't experiencing it. I was just getting wet. It never happened again.

Now, I know there is a view that the photographer shouldn't get involved in what he/she is shooting. He/she should just observe and record, dispassionately and without bias (do they both mean the same thing? . . I think so . . tough! . . . I like the phrase, so it stays). Since that time in Bali, I make sure I "feel" every place I visit. I love being in places unfamiliar. I love being away from home, in towns and villages and cities I've never seen before, in cultures strange and sometimes unfathomable and often challenging. I also like to take photographs. But since that cremation, never to the exclusion of "being there", and being aware of being there. I try to learn all I can about destinations before I leave home. I try to learn some of the local language, and I always learn some of the recent history (including cultural and political events). I engage with locals as appropriate (and appropriately, as best I can tell). And I assist and encourage my children to do the same, although to a lesser degree (as befits their age and interests).

This approach to travel is a compromise for someone seeking to gather stock photographs. It often means much more time spent doing non-photographical stuff like talking to people . . . lots of people . . . for long periods of time . . . for bloody ages sometimes . . . as Bob Dylan said, feeling the rain, not just getting wet. But it sure as heck ain't a compromise when you're a traveller as well as a photographer . . . it's essential.

A recent example: I was visiting a magnificent pagoda in central Vietnam--I'm not going to identify which so that I don't have to "hide" any details about the old man I mention shortly. I had some images I was happy with, and was having one last wander around before traipsing back to the train. An old gent wandered up to me and in accentless english asked me if I was having a nice day. He went on, by way of introduction, to tell me he was nearly 90 and helped out sometimes at the pagoda. I complimented him on his English, apologised for my very poor Vietnamese, and told him that I was sure he could speak perfect French also. He was surprised and pleased that I would know that, and proceeded to repeat most of our previous conversation in what sounded to my non-French ears like perfect French. We talked for another hour at least. He told me of his education in Paris and London, of life in Paris as a young man, and of his return to a still French occupied Vietnam. He talked of how there were few who who lived under French rule (the majority of the current population of Vietnam was born after the American War, that which we in Australia call the Vietnam War), and he told me how he was mostly pleased that the French eventually had to leave his country, how he was proud that Vietnam was now governed by Vietnamese, but how he sometimes privately mourned the passing of the French at the personal level. Not the Americans, with whom he had much contact, but definitely the French.

He declined my request for a photo. I didn't mind. The images I have of that pagoda are pretty good. Nothing truly outstanding, but fine images all the same. But they mean so much more to me because of the time I took to be there, the time spent with a lovely, gentle old man who was willing to share some of his stories with a foreign visitor. Time spent with my camera discarded on the ground, ignored and irrelevant in the Vietnamese dust. 

How sad had I just got wet in the sweet rain of that day . . .

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