The Ethics of Photography

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My sister recently posted this link on facebook. The images are haunting and incredible. They are so beautiful but in a way tragic. When I looked at these photos, I was so overcome by emotion. The photographer captured the different tribal communities with such grace and power and I wish I could print them out and hang them around my apartment.

These pictures are reminiscent of photos that my husband, Espen took while we were abroad. Although his pictures were never staged portraits, they bring a sense of wonder and nostalgia to me. They remind me of all the incredible adventures we experienced in the last year.

For the unconnected observer, these photographs are pieces of art. The difference, though, is that the subjects of these masterpieces are not paid models. Instead, they are real people, from indigenous tribes that are in great danger of extinction. With over 400,000 likes on facebook, I wonder what effect publicizing these photos will have on these people. A once untouched civilization, isolated from modern living, has been thrown into one of the most public places in the world today; the Internet. And while these pictures are important because they educate us about other cultures and lifestyles, I can’t help but ask: Did these tribes know the ramifications of posing for this photographer? Did they know they would be “liked” and “shared” online, on display for the world to see? 

Seeing these pictures reminds me of my own experiences taking pictures in Asia and witnessing others photographing the “local culture”. Espen and I moved from a place of discomfort, where if we did take a picture, we would sneak it, to a place of determination, where we got that perfect shot of a local. I have to admit, looking back on some of those shots gives me pleasure because it helps me remember. It reminds me of the amazing people we met, the foreign and beautiful faces, the poverty, and the wealth that we encountered on our trip. In some cases, it makes me long to return to Asia, to revisit places we’ve been, to explore areas we didn’t get to, and to take more pictures. But should these pictures, like the photographs of the indigenous people, really be taken, and then posted on a facebook page for our friends and family to see?

In Thailand and Myanmar, I found that invention and popularization of a digital camera, had detrimental effects on local people. The Kayan people, aptly named the “Longnecks” for their altered appearances, are an indigenous group whose women and girls practice the art of slowly extended their necks with brass coils. While traditionally, female members of the Kayan tribe extended their neck, or really lowered their shoulders, for purposes of beauty or to protect themselves from being enslaved, the continued practice has been questioned by members of the tribe itself.

In the Western world, this practice might be seen as violence against women, especially since the brass coils can be painfully heavy. However, it is the West who pursue the Kayans, signing up for trips to visit local tribal villages to get a glimpse, and yes, a picture of these strange people. This practice, to me, is barbaric and it grieves me to see members of my own country, through curiosity and ignorance, go out of their way to get a glimpse of the Kayans. In a way, we tourists are enabling a practice we would not allow our own children to endure. And for what? A picture? A memory?

Another incident that shocked and disturbed me when I was traveling was when I witnessed a group of Europeans video tape a nursing mother. My husband and I were taking an old, rickety train over the very famous Gokteik Viaduct in Myanmar and paid an extra $4 each to ride in the first class car. We were accompanied by a number of Western tourists traveling alone and in tour groups.

One group in particular, was especially boisterous and excited about the train trip and took video the whole way. When we traveled across the bridge, a couple people in the group leaned so far out of the open train car door to get a picture of the bridge, their guide was even worried for their safety. I could understand their excitement at being in a foreign country and experiencing exotic scenery. I, too was pretty pumped about going across a very old, very high, and very long bridge.

However, my amusement quickly changed to disgust when we stopped at a train station in rural Myanmar. I hopped out of the train to buy some goodies that the locals were selling including samosa-like dumplings and sliced fruit. After I finished my transaction, I turned and witnessed disgraceful behavior. Two of the Europeans were standing around a nursing mother, her breast exposed as she tried to feed her baby. With their expensive video cameras, they thrust their lenses toward the woman’s chest, eagerly trying to capture every second of the baby’s feeding. Embarrassed, and trapped under a basket of food, the woman looked extremely uncomfortable and started to tap the baby in the face to stop her from sucking.

The Europeans were unfazed by her reaction, only interested in the video they were taking. They humiliated and dehumanized her, stealing from her an essential and important moment she shared with her child, and bringing it home to probably show to all their friends. Like the Kayan women, she was no longer human.

I do not condemn the act of photography or portraiture. Like I said, I love the pictures Espen took. I have also accepted the fact that I appear in stranger’s photographs. In China, Espen especially was asked to pose with locals in front of a monument or in a garden.

However, I wonder how the indigenous people are affected by these pictures. I wonder what they were given for their portraits. I sympathize with these women who are ogled and captured behind a lens. Is it worth the dehumanization of a few to educate the many? Perhaps. But in a way, it is true that a piece of their soul is taken. And their lives will change forever.

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History of a Backpacker

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This last year, I was a backpacker. I carried a backpack that was super big and stored all of my possessions around with me for a year. I also showered less frequently than I would have if I was not traveling and stayed in very inexpensive hotels. Espen, my husband and travel companion,and my trip was meant to be a soul searching activity and an experience of a life time. We hoped to learn about authentic cultures, traditions, values, and spirituality and be better for it. We wanted to see, smell, hear, and eat new things, to fill our insatiable appetites.

However, we did not fall in love with the mixed dorm option where, every night, we would sleep with strangers. I did not let my hair dread, and for the most part, stayed away from situations that could get me in trouble or were disturbing, like going to a ping pong show in Thailand (look it up… but beware, it’s not rated PG). We did not have a crazy, exciting sexual experience with other hostelers nor did we take psychedelic drugs we bought off of some sketchball down an alley. We didn’t join the booze cruise of Australians that putts around Halong Bay, nor did we purchase happy endings from a Cambodian massage parlor. I never discovered, after a drunken night of bad decisions, an inappropriate tattoo on my breast, ass, or face. Perhaps we played it safe, and in doing so, may have missed some ridiculous experiences that we wouldn’t want to tell our grandkids about. But that wasn’t really what we were after.

Don’t get me wrong, we did meet some amazing people during our travels who were backpacking because they were curious like us. We also met others who didn’t seem to interact with locals at all but moved from hostel to hostel in an endless spring break, pursuing easy sex and cheap drinks. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on these fly by night individuals. It is in their right to party like rockstars if they want to. As my previous post shows, I reblogged a very funny article by cianmoloney that does a good job of describing some of the stereotypical backpackers, many of who we met on our trip. But what about the rest of us? The ones that don’t quite fit into one of those five categories. Perhaps to demystify and degeneralize (is that a word? it should be) the backpacker, I want to write about what backpackers truly are and have been in history, perhaps to restore our integrity as explorers and students of the world.

From doing a few minutes of searching online, I found that Ibn Battuta was one of the first “backpackers”. This guy, who lived in the 1300s, is so famous in the modern-day Arab world that an enormous themed shopping center called Ibn Battuta Mall was built in the UAE in his honor! And it’s no wonder. After all, the guy traveled for 29 years! He traveled through modern day Europe, Africa, and Asia. 1

Giovanni Francesco Gemilli Careri (or G-Unit, Gio, or Frankie for short) was one of the first Western backpackers. He started his travels in what is now modern day Turkey, moved through the Middle East and then on to India, China, the Phillipines, and Mexico. I also imagine, and dearly hope, that he did it while wearing this wigGio was able to fund his travels by participating in the import-export business, where he would export, or buy goods in one country and physically import, or sell these goods in another. 2

It seems like G-Unit, Ibn, and Espen and I all have something in common. We all quit our jobs and disrupted our lives so that we could travel the world. Ibn and Frankie are kind of a heroes to me. Not only did they do something no one else was doing at the time, they documented their adventures during their trip and published books about it. (JUST LIKE I WANT TO DO!)

Being a white middle class Westerner from the 17th century, I can assume that some of Gio’s observations and word usage are perhaps not politically correct. The same probably goes for Ibn, a Muslim Moroccan from the 14th century. However, I find both their intentions to be admirable and their ambition and passion to learn about other cultures something to which I can relate. Gio’s book is actually available online here, if you happen to read Italian and you can find Ibn’s translated on Amazon.

Skipping a few hundred years, the most talked about historical backpackers are those who partook in traveling the “Hippie Trail” along the Silk Road. Perhaps more closely related to modern day backpacking stereotypes than the fancy Giovanni or Ibn, these flower children explored parts of Europe and Asia for extended periods of time by doing it as cheaply as possible. While I may have sounded overly critical before about those who trade hygiene and privacy for a few more days of travel, I do look up to these original adventurers. Giving up worldly possessions and comfort, they were pioneers and created a pathway for us modern backpackers to follow.

I came across a blog from an original Hippie Trailblazer, Erik Pontoppidan. His photos alone are incredible to look at.

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1. http://ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu/

2. http://www.digidrift.com/origin-budget-travel-gemelli-careri-original-backpacker/

 

Top 5 Types of Backpacker

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My people, even those who I do not want to be caught dead with. This is a great post about all the types of backpackers I met on my Asia trip and gives some good insight into what I will be discussing in my next post.

cianmoloney

backpacker

Yes, the backpacker. Even us, the elite, the most interesting, carefree and creative humans of this world have our own stereotypes. The backpacker is an interesting animal, and comes in many strains of the well known base type. While there are many many ones, I’m here today to present you with the big 5.

  
Ecopacker

This is the purebred hippy of the bunch. They carry little, and are usually quite agile. They travel alone, but seek companionship when in a place for long enough. They usually stay in a single place for a lengthy while, preferring a homestay or actually befriending a local if they can. At all times they are partaking in some useful activity like volunteering, learning languages, or taking up a local instrument. As for fashion, they wear little (all responsible natural materials) and are usually decorated with some sort of rope jewellery made by an…

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White Light, Black Smoke

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My book is about changing, growing up, a sort of coming of age group of short stories that revisit my struggles as a person living in this big ol’ world with all of its distractions and emotions. I’ve decided to call it “White Light, Black Smoke” based on the Buddhist meditation technique I learned in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

I am not Buddhist. I am not anything, really. However, I enjoy the meditation techniques, the qualities and ethics that surround the practice of Buddhism, and the concepts such as compassion and mindfulness. My husband, Espen, from time-to-time practices meditation to relieve stress, to focus the mind, maybe to get away from me… and I’ve learned from him and other teachers the incredible value of this daily practice.

Purification meditation is especially exciting for me because it’s simple, direct, and fun. I don’t have to try and focus my mind purely on one object, like the sky. If you try to do this for more than a minute you will most likely find that you can’t imagine the color blue or that you have a bajillion and one other things more exciting to think about. But that’s the point, meditation is hard and you have to train your mind to focus so that you can think clearly, and more mindfully.

Anyways, when you do purification meditation, you think of “white light” surrounding you. Encompassed in this white light are all the good qualities you want to possess such as patience, happiness, love, bravery, or anything positive and great. These are “good habits”.

In your body, you have “black smoke”, which is made up of all of your “bad habits” such as anger, jealousy, fear, laziness, or anything negative and awful. As you breath in the white light, you fill your body to the point where you start to push out the black smoke. By the end of your meditation, you should be filled to the brim with white light, feeling good and happy, and maybe even sparkly. And all that ugly, yucky black smoky fog has dissipated and dissolved into the atmosphere.

This is what I experienced on my journey. Each story I share will discuss how I glimpsed white light habits and struggled against black smoke. As it is still early in the game, I’m not quite sure exactly which ones I will talk about, but that is all about the process isn’t it?

Two Things In Fort Collins That Always Make Me Smile

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I’ve lived in Fort Collins, Colorado for a little over two months. The city is located about an hour North of Denver and West of the mountains. Being on flat land, it has succumbed to what seems like endless sprawl, complete with strip mall after strip mall. Major roads tend to be congested around rush hour and since there aren’t many trees, the surrounding area of downtown is not very pretty. However, downtown itself has beautiful architecture and is filled with delicious restaurants, pedestrian areas, fun shops, and at this time of year, white lights that hang from all the trees. Due to cost, my husband and I do not live in the downtown area but have found a very nice two bedroom apartment about fifteen minutes away. We are also close to parks, bike paths, and local fitness centers. I have to admit, though, that whenever I get onto Timberline, Horsetooth, or College Ave. in my car, I cringe at the sight of so much pavement. And being stuck in traffic is never fun. Getting away from congestion was one of the reasons why we moved away from New Jersey. But, there are two things on the streets of Fort Collins that I did not see when I was in New Jersey. Every time I see them, my frustration for traffic and my displeasure of seeing so much cement are instantly replaced by joy and pleasure. These things are; 1) passenger dogs and 2) dancing sign people.

Fort Collins is THE place for dogs. In my apartment building, every single one of my neighbors has at least one dog. I can hear them barking and running above my ceiling and I see them being walked every morning. We also have a dog park where they frequently visit to socialize. Dog parks are everywhere, even in the strip malls! There are also loads of veterinarians and even an animal hospital that is the size of a regular people hospital. Near my house, there is an organic pet supply store and the humane society is extremely active. It is not surprising, given all of these pet amenities, that dogs are treated as first class passengers when they ride in cars. Therefore, not a day goes by when I don’t see a canine’s head poking out of a back, or sometimes front, rolled down window. As cliche an image as this may be, it is by far one of the most wonderful things I have ever seen. And yes, while it may be dangerous for the dog to be hanging out of a moving car, all I can think of when I see them, mouth open, tongue flapping, ears back, with a huge grin on their faces, is that they are having the time of their lives. They are doing something so simple and loving it so much and I have to admit that I look up to them.

The other thing that I love about Fort Collins is the number of dancing sign people there are here. It is true that many of those who have to resort to being paid to wave around an advertisement on the side of the road might not be in a good place. It is also true that some of those people look pretty sad when they stand still, shaking their large signs back and forth without enthusiasm. I do feel bad for the ones who look too old or too homeless or too sad. But then there are others, the Gene Kellys, the Ushers, the Axel Roses of the sign people that make the best out of their situation and JUST DANCE! And there is nothing better than driving down College Avenue and coming across a kid with head phones on seriously rocking out with his sign. Some of these sign people have absolutely no shame and totally kill it out there. There are head bangers and skankers and seriously coordinated sign flippers. No matter how grumpy you are, if you see someone who is having such a good time doing something that could be so sucky, you can’t help but smile and laugh.

So, this post is a way of saying thank you to the wind surfing dogs and the two stepping maniacs who make my drives amazing and my days start out great.

A Rock Garden

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I recently moved to Fort Collins, Colorado after traveling for a year throughout Asia, Australia, and the United States. After some deep thoughtful discussion, Espen, my husband, and I decided to pick Fort Collins out of all the places in Colorado in which to live for a few reasons. The first is that Espen’s old roomate, Eric, lives here and knew of a job opening where he worked so there was a networking opportunity there. The second reason was that while it’s not directly settled within the Rocky Mountains, Fort Collins is in proximity to some serious skiing, which is really why we moved to Colorado in the first place. We also looked at Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs but found that Denver was too much of a city, Boulder was a little too hip, touristy, and expensive, and Colorado Springs was a little too religious and flat (although it does have one of the best rock gyms I’ve ever been to).

Our first encounter with Fort Collins came in the form of the Tour de Fat, an all day festival sponsored by New Belgium Brewery (famous inventors of Fat Tire Ale and one of eight breweries in Fort Collins) in which people from all over come to town dressed as giraffes, mermaids, Broncos, Spartans, and Minions from the movie Despicable Me, and ride bicycles around a couple blocks. There is of course beer, food stands, and other entertainment. From Eric’s front yard, which is located only a block away from down town, we were able to sit back and watch monsters, people, and animals of all shapes and sizes peddle away on two, three, and four wheel bicycles. As first impressions go, this one was one of the best I’ve ever experienced.

Since then, we have moved into an apartment and I have found a job at a local fitness center. It’s part time and therefore allows me time to write. Espen is in an interview process with one company and we hope that he will be given an offer shortly! For when that happens, our lives in Fort Collins will truly become awesome!!!!! Cuz we’ll have money!!!!

In the meantime, with some help from our parents, we’ve made our apartment a nice home in which to live. With cardboard from a couch and chair set my parents bought me from Ikea and some duct tape, Espen has manufactured a headboard for our bed and a night stand for me that is “so strong you could sit on it!” We were able to find a solid wood dining room table and 5 chairs for $25 at a local thrift store called Arc, and have hit up the dollar store to get other essentials. Espen has also found smooth river rocks and has built a rock garden or “zen garden” to embellish the second bedroom, which is currently acting as a very large closet for all our ski, bike, climbing, and backpacking gear.

Why has my husband chosen to litter our nice apartment with round rocks and pebbles from the river? Why do I keep finding more rocks in the bottom of my Subaru every time I drive to work? These questions got me thinking about the whole idea of a rock garden and what it’s all for. So in this post, I thought I would explore this form of gardening and perhaps gain some insight into why this type of horticulture is so very popular among Buddhists, the Chinese, gardeners, and my husband.

According to gardenhistorymatters.com, the first rock gardens were developed in China by Taoist and Buddhists as a way to celebrate nature and their belief in immortals that resided on the top of mountains. Emperors picked up the habit of decorating their gardens with rocks as early as the 2nd century BC. In the 1000s, Japanese architects used the rock garden in conjunction with symmetrical Shinden architecture, and called it “kare niwa” or dry gardens. The Brits also adopted rock gardens in the late 1700s but in 1800s it was expressed that rock gardens should exist for the sole purpose of growing alpine plants.

According to nargs.org, Ida Agassiz was the first gardener to successfully grow alpine plants in a rock garden at her home in Massachusetts.  Shortly after, rock garden societies were created including the American Rock Garden Society in 1934 (now called North American Rock Garden Society), which was started by three women. Around this time, gardeners were also writing about gardening and sharing their views and designs about how to make beautiful rock gardens. For example, Captain B.H.B Symons-Jeune from England, who published the book Natural Rock Gardening, discusses how rocks should be placed as they would be in nature. In the U.S., Lincoln Foster published the book Rock Gardening: A Guide to Growing Alpines and Other Wildflowers in the American Gardenwhich was illustrated by his wife Timmy and became known as the “American Bible of Rock Gardening”.

Beyond the history of rock gardens, I wonder why a grouping of rocks, placed in an artistic manner as my husband has done, makes one feel Zen. I guess first, I need to understand and probably define what the feeling of Zen is to me. In my mind, Zen is when everything feels right, not good or bad, just right.  There is definitely a feeling of balance where in any moment, nothing is thought about, nothing is felt, but at the same time, everything is thought about and felt. It’s relaxation and contentment. Zen just is.

How a bunch of round rocks can be attributed to this feeling is definitely weird, but somehow it does fit. As I look at Espen’s rock garden whenever I try to do yoga or grab my bike helmet or rock climbing harness or water my plant Shnebly, I feel content and relaxed and happy. I’m sure part of that is because I find it silly and adorable that he has gone to all the trouble to jump into riverbeds, go fishing for just the right stone, and lug it back by bike or car to our apartment. But it’s also partially because I think it fits. It’s a perfect representation of who we are and what we strive for and a reminder of what we like and where we feel happiest, that is being outside, in nature. So I guess in the end, the rock garden is going to stay.

Cited Websites:

(1) http://www.gardenhistorymatters.com/2012/01/is-it-rock-garden-rockery-or-alpine.html

(2) https://www.nargs.org/reference/history-rock-gardening-north-america

Diving Head First Into Writing a Memoir

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I  just spent the last year of my life traveling through Asia, Australia, and the U.S., living out of a backpack or car, and spending every waking moment with my amazingly patient and wonderful husband, Espen. During that time, I wasn’t just chillin’, I swear! On the contrary in fact. Traveling is hard work but one of the most enjoyable activitIes EVER.

And on my trip, or gap yea, as we like to call it, I did something I never thought possible… I kept a journal, wrote e-mails to my family and friends pretty frequently, and amassed a compilation of over 200 Word pages. It seems only fitting that I do something with this stuff, these thoughts and experiences, something productive (maybe even legendary) so that they don’t just sit in my Sent box or in a file on my computer, never to be looked at again.

So, I went to the library and took out books about travel writing and memoirs. I’m taking notes and I have a plan. I’m going to write a book, a memoir, about my experiences, how I’ve changed, and what I’ve learned!

Part of this book plan, as instructed by my literary advisors, is to create a platform for my book in the form of blog, twitter posts, facebook pages, etc.

“Well isn’t that nifty, ” I thought. “Not only do I get to try to make something out of all those e-mails I wrote, I get to start another journal on my process of creating a memoir! How fitting!”

And here I am, on the world wide web, putting myself out there! This blog will therefore describe my process, and while there will probably be some whines and struggles, I hope for this to be a positive exercise, one that will make me a better, more thoughtful person, which is just what my memoir is all about.

Since I’m a total newb when it comes to this “social network” thing (I have had a FB account for years but have rarely ever used it), I think this project will also thrust me into the 21st century, and keep me young, because at 26, I should be living it up on my smart phone, tweeting about the most irrelevant things, updating my FB with comments and pics, using Instagram (is that how you spell it?) whenever I see something worthy of sharing, pinteresting thing… but I don’t. In fact, my phone is not Smart. It is a second generation red LG “Chocolate”, with no keyboard our touch screen. But it does have the amazing capability to call and text… sometimes.

So, here’s to being young, being fearless, being techy, and being determined.