The Greatest Photographs You Never Took Part 2

The frustrating thing about photography, and about travel journals in general, is that no matter how evocative your captures, how skilful your editing and how eloquent and expressive your prose, you know that you can never, ever capture the experience of being there. There are many places in the world that lack ‘big ticket’ sights, that have no magnet for visitors: no Taj Mahal no Houses of Parliament, no Uluru. They’re the better for it, but a visitor needs to linger a while and absorb the flavour and texture of the place, and this is often beyond the scope of a two-week visit, and shooting 6×8 windows on these worlds is annoying and futile, like eating chocolate with the wrapper on. It’s not for nothing that browsing photographs of others’ travels is travel porn because it whets the appetite in a similar way without occasioning the gratification that is surely the point of…er…we were talking about travel, weren’t we?

One such place is Cambodia. With the very significant and notable exception of Ankor Wat, Cambodia has little to attract the flash tourist. Phnom Penh has a fearful reputation – although one which has to be taken in the context of Asian cities, which are generally far safer than US or European cities – which puts many casual tourists off visiting.

There really is nothing that can capture the atmosphere of Phnom Penh. The colours are washed and muted, the atmosphere a mix of dust and pepper and spice. The roads are potholed and rumpled as an unmade bed and every building of age is at differing stages of collapse.  There is a palpable menace in the air, but most of those offering menace are very accomplished criminals, policemen, politicians or often all three at the same time. They aren’t interested in you unless you bump into their children or scratch their cars. In fact, I did once do this while walking from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to the bank. I had left everything I owned except the clothes I was wearing and the prepay card I used to withdraw cash back at the FCC. On the way back, I stumbled off the kerb and into a black SUV with no number plates. I’ll never now what it was, but there was a definite ear-curdling screech of shredding paint and I quickly composed myself and walked in a brisk but very controlled fashion the rest of the way down the Riverfront. You have to remember that this is a city which, 10 years ago, was out-of-bounds for those not carrying a firearm. 35 years ago, it was completely empty due to the Khmer Rouge evacuation. People don’t take many photos in PP, partly because it’s not a particularly photogenic city but mainly because they’re mostly too afraid of robberies to risk displaying their camera. There’s some logic to this: Phnom Penh’s crime rate us unusually high for a Southeast Asian city, but it’s still a lot lower than almost any North American city, and most European cities.

So, here is the second non-photo in the series: Australian Man In Cambodia National Football Team Away Shirt, The Magic Sponge Bar, Phnom Penh.

In Phnom Penh, there exists the greatest bar in the world. It’s right near the backpacker guesthouses at lakeside; or at least it was; the tourist industry is filling the lake with sand to form the foundations of luxury hotels now, as though to mark again the end of the era of democratised travel. It sells cheap wine and spliffs, whichever is your thing and it has a PS2 for its patrons to play.

I’d been wandering around Psar Thmei, Phnom Penh’s huge art deco market that day and I’d seen a Cambodian reserve football shirt for sale in a hugely fetching shade of day-glo green/yellow. I really wanted it, but hesitated over buying it as I was still too whacked out by the town’s insanity to properly take in what was happening. Later on in the bar when I saw the guy wearing it, I knew I’d made a mistake.

The Greatest Photographs You Never Took Part 1

All photographs start in the same place: in the mind of the photographer. Their paths through reality vary after that initial blossoming of firing neurons.

Find a photograph. It’s almost certain that there’s one within a few feet, or a few clicks from where you are. Perhaps there’s one on this page. Now, open a magazine and look at an advertisement. Look at the textures, the sumptuous and carefully-chosen palette, the precisely-judged texture of the image; it’s beautiful, at least to someone. Of the millions of photographs taken every minute that this planet turns, such a tiny fraction make it as far as that photograph has that it’s really a miracle that that particular image is printed on that page and that you are looking at it now. If we consider the journey of an image from this point backwards, for each shot that has been published in a magazine, or displayed on a website having passed approval by an editor after editing and retouching, after selection by the photographer from a range of similar images shot that day. And they’re the ones remaining on the camera after the cull of lame, overexposed, poorly-composed runts.

But the captures that never passed the bleep of the autofocus button number even greater and the scenes that existed only in the photographer’s mind are endlessly fascinating to me. They are more beautiful and perfect, more personal than even the most lovingly-crafted final products.

A friend of mine, @frak once advocated not carrying a camera while travelling because the captured images expand to become your only memories of the place or occasion and while my extremely poor memory precludes such a strategy, it is true, I think, that the most beautiful photographs are the ones that you never took. The ones that framed themselves spontaneously when your camera was at home. The ones that were beyond your technical ability to capture but especially the moments that impressed upon you such sublime and mysterious beauty that no lens, no filter and no process could ever but diminish it.

I’d love to do a gallery exhibition, empty frames of solid colour with a neatly-written description of each never-forgotten moment but I haven’t the money, the time or the reputation to even imagine doing so. So here it is: an part one of an exhibition of the greatest photographs I never took.

I didn’t take this photo in a tiny local bus from Dhulikhel, Nepal back to Kathmandu because the windows were open only a few inches due to early monsoonal rains and I couldn’t get up from my seat because I’d been wedged in for 7 hours. The bus was overcrowded even by Nepali standards. Not helping the atmosphere was the smoke from the cigarettes of the two young Nepalis who were lovingly nursing viciously sharp kukris, pointedly pre-empting any complaints that might otherwise have been lodged.

The window next to me was leaking and I hadn’t moved a muscle below my waist for four hours. I was settling into that almost masochistic state of mind that I find essential to surviving long and uncomfortable journeys when the bus rounded a corner and the bus lurched to the left so that through the ineffectively-open window on the far side I saw for a heartbeat this scene that I would remember among all the others that have made my heart soar. I love the detail on the rice terraces, like undulating cogs or stacked layers in a vast organic machine, so green that it hurts your eyes. I love the way the curves of the slopes draw your eye past terracotta farm shacks to the utterly magnificent glacial peaks of the Himalayas, burning red and gold from the late, lazy sun. The steam that you see rising from the valley on the right of the picture is the evaporation of copious fresh rainwater in the subtropical heat, rising in a haze over the jungle.

I’m glad I didn’t take this photo. A poorly-exposed shot from seat 6 of the local rattletrap would have diminished one of the peak experiences of my life.

Pax Internetum Day 7 – In Defence of the Contrary.

In this last post is two days late, partly because I didn’t want to rush it out but mainly because life has interceded and taken attention away. Today, in this last post on a brief period of peace, I would like to discuss contrariness, negativity and the culture of refusal, and their immense and unrecognised value to humanity. Many of the ideas in this post might come as a small shock to less-travelled American and Australian readers who are not accustomed to the British manner of parsing disaster, of holding out a tarpaulin to plummeting morale and yanking it away at the last minute just for a laugh

As I was walking down the street one day
I saw a house on fire
There was man, shouting and screaming at an upper-storey window
To the crowd that was gathered there below
For he was so afraid

Jump, you fucker, jump.
Jump into this here blanket what we are holding
And you will be all right
He jumped, hit the deck, broke his fucking neck -
There was no blanket

Laugh? We nearly shat.
We had not laughed so much since Grandma died
Or Auntie Mabel caught her left tit in the mangle
We are miserable sinners
Fi-i-ilthy fuckers

Ahhhrrrr-soles

–Derek and Clive, Live, 1976

As the American tendency to amiability and good cheer spreads through that part of society that benefits from the pretence that everything is always for the best and that all it takes to live a happy life is a smile and a ‘can-do’ attitude (a phrase which should earn any non-ironic employer of it a stint in a re-education facility and twenty years suspended upside down in salt and scorpions) spreads through the world, carried on the back of globalised TV, those who are minded to look will see value in the contrary and the negative. Culture and public life over the last 10 years has been so anodyne, so glued to the search for superficial consensus, so firmly fixed to action – or inaction –  without rocking the boat that we forget that there was a time when mainstream politicians stood up for their principles rather than submerging them in a warm bath of populist politics until they emerged, drowned and bedraggled and unrecognisable, useful only for cattle feed. It is this sort of damp and warm environment in which fiery and passionate leaders germinate.

Europe has been here before, of course, most recently during the interbellum period. This tranche of European history is one that half of Europe wants to forget and the other half desperately wants to keep alive. It was a time of economic hardship, when the financial misfortunes of one country could be traced directly to the actions of another. France’s war reparations were so unreasonable, deliberately,  as  a means of seizing the German industrial heartlands which were forfeit to France when Germany could no longer pay. By 1923, Germany was bankrupt and a sinister political movement was well on the way to seizing power in Europe.

I know. This hardly sounds like an argument in favour of adversity, but the crucial point is that the Nazis – in common with all totalitarian movements -  pursued a strategy of imposing order on the chaos of the time, and of imposing consent where there was dissent. In fact, they knew as well as any illegitimate authority that the most effective tactic was to move hard and publicly against those who dissent only weakly and who have no power in order to discourage the power bases of stronger opposition.

It’s startlingly similar to what we see at the moment. Argument has never been more political, the stakes never higher.

So this is a post for all those who are tired of the cosy cohabitation between powerful financial interests and politicians, of this idle assumed consensus foisted on us by politicians, newspaper editors, TV companies and employers. This is a post for those who know that the free market is just another human construct, no more fundamental than taxes or justice, and that humans can change it if we really want to. It’s for people who know that power should never be trusted, truth should never be assumed and authority should always be challenged.

It’s a message to the contrary.

Pax Internetum Day 6 – The Rise of the Digital Raj

As the British built the Gateway Of India in Bombay and the Victoria monument in Calcutta, so have ARPA, the architects of the internet put in place a testament to mankind’s intellectual development and sophistication which has colonised and dominated information channels in most parts of the world. It is an essential tool in the struggle for self-determination in China, Burma, North Africa and the Middle East, but has also brought a form of cultural imperialism into these previously diverse cultures. The internet and the world wide web were developed by English speakers using a Latin alphabet: even now workarounds are used to handle accented letters and non-standard Latin characters and only last year was support for non-Latin characters baked into the web but it has taken decades and in the meantime, many of the fundamentals of the internet and its culture have been, and remain, Euro-American in flavour and substance. Japan has contributed enormously, but Japanese developers and designers still need Anglophone skills to spread Japan’s bounty outside its own borders.

It’s pleasantly destructive of the mindless clichés about the US that their greatest monument and furthest-reaching contribution to human history is an intellectual one. Long after Reaganomics, Clinton’s illegal wars and GHWB’s internecine election rigging (oh, yes, and his illegal wars) have faded into history, the Internet will stand as a reminder of the vibrancy, innovation and spirit of that great and peculiar empire. And just as we’re about to abandon cliché entirely, we are reminded that the sons of Britain have been instrumental in this victory in the battle of hearts and minds.

Of course, it could be argued that the innovation that constitutes the bulk of the giant upon whose shoulders we stand was the English language. As the US Empire’s legacies have been Internet protocol and the pre-emptive retaliatory strike doctrine, so has Britain’s been concentration camps, wide-area imperialism and the English Language. If it’s true that every empire’s greatest achievement turns into its own undoing, that seems to be the case for the superpowers of the 20th Century. Without the English language, would there have been an internet? I’ll leave you to ponder that because I’m not a sufficiently skilled linguist to know. But what I do know is that English, with its combination of analytic supremacy and easy application to humour and irony, has ruled the world for nearly 400 years, a pliable, powerful tool of ruling establishment and rebel iconoclast alike.

Pax Internetum – Day 5: Pegasus and Mephisto

On Day 5 of what has become  hate mail and a love letter to the internet, we shall see how it has become an  interactive Rorschach test.

I’ve come to view the internet as a kind of flawed monument to the human intellect. In a time when our culture is increasingly accessible, it’s a relatively open, participatory medium giving everyone the chance to have a say. It has democratised information flow, to the extent permitted by inequities in wealth: those with marketing budgets always shout louder. This democratisation has led to a de-authorisation of authority and a devaluation of expertise. The new reality created by an opening up of information has driven people to find new paths and solutions, rejecting obsolete and outmoded forms of information distribution. every day, software developers do things that have never before been attempted and people with vision commission projects that would only have been discussed in the pages of science fiction novels only twenty-five years ago. It has led those who profit from the status quo to defend their business models with a viciousness and ruthlessness that has been breathtaking at times: the litigiousness of the recorded entertainment industry who seemed to lose their cool when they became the establishment that they once fought against is a very obvious example. This, largely, is my perception of the internet.

And I think people are panicking. Deeply-held beliefs are challenged. Axioms which, before this globalisation of discourse were set in stone over the cooking fire are ridiculed, flamed, attacked and defeated. The internet has become a place of conflict and a place of peace. It has promised the earth to many, but has only given them another way to waste their time. Compare the Chinese and Libyan activists fighting for their lives and their liberty to your average messageboard argument consisting of petty point-scoring, tolls, flames and the ubiquitous fake libertarians (almost always Boomers who want to keep their loot but increasingly infecting younger generations with their form of institutionalised sociopathy) who don’t like the idea of having to pay road tolls but will be fucked if they’re paying more tax, and would rather throw their money down the drain of inadequate, often criminally duplicitous private health insurance policies than entertain for one second the idea of universal health care.

The clash of ideologies is getting louder and nowhere more than in the print media, who clearly see the massive threat that the internet represents to their business model. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a tabloid with an internet scare story on the front page. The Daily Mail, whose ethos and philosophy seems to rest on keeping their readers in a constant state of terror and rage, barely seem to be able to pass a week without printing a story with (to be diplomatic) a non-zero deception content about some crime in which Facebook was ‘implicated’, or an expose about how Facebook is hiding in the boot of your car waiting to mug your house price while you’re asleep. The newspapers look at Fascebook, and on the internet in general (although many newspapers seem not to know the difference) and see fear, and they reflect that back at their readers.

We know what we expect from the internet, and we seek it with varying degrees of conscious awareness.