Steph is a user experience strategist/designer who loves maturing ideas through great design. Having designed and built for the web since its very early days, she has collected a wide range of skill sets through having worn many hats. Apart from co-founding a startup on digital books as product lead, she was the Director of Interactive Technology at a Montreal agency where she led a multi-disciplinary team of project managers, UX and graphic designers, front-end engineers and programmers. She has worked with ASICS, Heineken International, Bell Canada, eBay Canada, Air Canada Vacations and the Rocket Science Group. Steph is currently working on a book on better storytelling in user experience.
Steph is also known for her work in grassroots advocacy on best web practices, most notably with the Web Standards Project, including establishing projects like the International Liaison Group and the InterACT Curriculum, as well as being part of the founding team of the Open Web Education Alliance. She was the founding editor of Web Standards Sherpa.
When not bound to a digital device, she silversmiths, grows edible flowers and has a tendency to cook enough to feed a continent at a time. She now lives on her 4th continent, on her 4th island at the edge of London, UK. Sometimes, she even remembers to tweet: @sniffles.
As usual, our conversation was peppered with tangents and rabbit-holes, a good-natured expression of like-mindedness between friends. I’d teased him for having found us a particularly posh cafe to meet at, but it was nonetheless agreeable—the staff was cordial, the coffee was good and the atmosphere was congenial to conversation.
“Apparently,” he began another non sequitur. "If the Earth was exactly one year old, our individual lives would have amounted to only half a second each.” It was another one of those mathematical manipulations designed to remind us of how short our lives are—and that we’d better get on with what we want to do before our time runs out. That day, my friend and I didn’t dwell on the subject, our conversation continued down a completely different path to the business at hand—some work to be done—but the thought nagged at me for days and weeks afterwards. It wasn’t the finiteness of our lives that bothered me; instead, it was more the notion that we needed to be reminded.
How odd that in order to get us to embrace life, we must first and foremost be spurred into action by the fear of death. I mean, we find similar messages in pop culture, such as in the “Lord of The Rings”, where Frodo forlornly remarked, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which Gandalf the Grey replied, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Or the myriad of 1000 somethings to do, go or see before you die. I am sure you can name a few other films, stories, or non-fiction works that touch on this very vein: time is short, death is imminent, live life to the full.
Perhaps it was something unique to where, when and how I grew up, that I’d never felt this clear definition of life against death, so it’s quite possible I’d not given the subject the amount of thought it deserved. This is despite knowing and understanding death very early—my grandfather died when I was seven years old—so I knew what it meant to miss someone I love, I knew what it was to grieve and I understood that he was never coming back. I understood it could happen to me. But there was never quite this sense of fear. Life is precious, yes, life is a gift of sorts, yes, but we die precisely because we have lived.
Or perhaps, there is an undercurrent of an ancient belief that we never truly disappear, that when we perish, the energy that is temporarily “us” dissipates back into the earth out of which we came; a notion that death is a transformation, not a finality. To borrow Alan Watts’ words: “A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable, for the substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out at the other. We are particularly and temporarily identifiable wiggles in a stream that enters us in the form of light, heat, air, water, milk, bread, fruit, beer, beef Stroganoff, caviar, and pate de foie gras. It goes out as gas and excrement—and also as semen, babies, talk, politics, commerce, war, poetry, and music. And philosophy.”
Yet, I am close to at least one friend who has said to me, “So we’re all going to die. What’s the point in doing anything?”
And I’m not sure all the statistical tricks, mathematics, and self-fulfilling reasoning in the world can sway that depth of nihilism, because these have always been pitched as all about you, what you want to do, how you feel. Write that bucket list, set some goals, plan how you want to tick those off. You have to want it. Now go do it. So goes the spiel.
But I’m not wholly sold on that perspective. That which serves the ego simmers out in the end. It assumes that each of us is an individual, sanctified entity that bears an arm’s-length relationship to the ecosystem we live in. We assume so readily that the world revolves around us. Needless to say, it is an oversimplification of our existence within our society, our natural environment, and the complex interplay between us and these.
There was a conversation I had with an older and much wiser person, who became a friend through being a housemate of another friend. This little episode happened over fifteen years ago, and because I have internalised it to such a degree, I don’t even remember the exact words that passed between us. But the spirit of what he said amounted to something like this: It’s not about the greatness that you are, or not even the greatness of what you do. You alone might not be someone great or do great things, but your actions could influence someone who goes on to do great things—that you’ll never know and can never take credit for.
From this vantage point, in the context of life and death, it really isn’t merely about ticking off your bucket list, but that inherent understanding that everything you do has an impact on someone else, something else, that exists, that might exist. That you are responsible for your choices and your actions. That you have the power to break down that wall within your mind, your ego and seek to bridge that mysterious gap that sets us apart from our next fellow human being. That you can influence beyond what you might ever know, and strive to leave your world a better place than you found it.
Today, in particular, is an ancient and important day: it’s the shortest day in the northern hemisphere and the longest day south of the equator. Traditionally, these are days of feasting, celebration and renewal. This post had been particularly hard to write—I’d struggled for days on these words. Because this is my last post on the Pastry Box, it is a little death of a kind, a set of parting words, if you will. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to write here, and am glad to have had you along for the ride this year— I hope you enjoyed reading. While this is a kind of a goodbye-for-now, it is definitely not a farewell.
There used to be a strangely-placed door in our family house that led abruptly from the kitchen into the back garden. It was an awkward construct that seemed like an afterthought; if you looked from the outside in, you would see a stretch of blank wall, except for that lonely doorway. It always seemed to me that it was trying to sneak into the corner it shared with the outer wall of the dining room, maybe to get closer to the windows.
But from the inside out, it was one of my favourite spots. The floor level had been raised half a foot to match the rest of the house, and I loved to sit on the ledge, legs dangling out into the humid afternoon—I had a clear view on the horizon from that very spot. Against a backdrop of anonymous, deep green trees and shrubs, were two very tall coconut trees.
As a child, I would often stare out at the point where the trees combed the sky. It fascinated me: a careless glance would assume that the clouds that were drifting overhead, but if you knew that the earth was spherical and not flat, who was to say that we were not revolving relative to the sky? If I tried hard, I could imagine that we, the earth, were just floating through the solar system, despite my visible viewpoint of the world being so tiny—just two coconut trees for reference. It was one of my earliest lessons in understanding perspective. Seeing the world for what it is, and seeing beyond what is apparently visible, is both a choice and an effort that one has to make.
The door no longer exists since my father extended the dining room, which was probably just as well. The view has also changed. The trees and shrubs were done away with when they built out the area into a car park for a school.
A moment left behind at a particular place is also a moment left behind in time.
The cult of new
As we drove along, it dawned on me that I no longer recognised large areas of this city, despite having been born here. There always seemed to be a new shopping mall being built every time I visited. After many years of being away, the landscape no longer resembled anything that I remembered from my childhood. Gone are the pseudo-jungles that divided pockets of civilisation—the deep green that used to be the background to life here were now bright whites and all manner of man-made colours.
The shopping centres appeared to be slaves to a kind of “location fashion”: as new ones wow and draw the fickle crowd, older ones become forgotten and abandoned. With each new mall comes new brands, new trends and the next in fashion. Thanks to the cult of shiny, I wouldn’t be able to navigate my way from one end of the city to the other today—there is no map for this kind of progress.
The roads were busy but the traffic moved steadily. It was mid-afternoon, though the clouds rendered the day grey and the heat oppressive. Being near the equator and on an island, the weather was generally prone to cloudiness and intense humidity. It had been raining more than usual in recent weeks despite the monsoon season not being truly due for another month.
“Tail end of the typhoon,” my mother postulated. But later on, I was unable to find any decent weather radar map that gave enough detail, so I couldn’t say if the wild weather was caused by the outstretched wings of Typhoon Vongfong that just battered Japan, or if it were due to remnants of storms that would have become Tropical Cyclone Hudhud, which had just hit India.
Occasionally, there had been power outages. Secretly, I wondered if these newfangled commercial shopping havens weren’t leeching on the electricity grid. An elite few must be making a lot of money, while others, largely oblivious to how “progress” happens, were paying for it in more ways than just the cash they handed over at shops.
By way of winding residential roads, we suddenly arrived, and my father expertly pulled the car into a convenient parking spot. I looked around. Several rows of shops stretched away from an otherwise open area—a field of unoccupied, plastic chairs at plastic tables, ready to receive hungry bodies when the local population eventually show up for the evening meal.
The food scene here too, was susceptible to a kind of fashion. The most common topic of conversation here has to be: where is the best new place to eat this or that. In recent years, it had become more of a trend to eat out than to cook at home—food was still relatively cheap, and eating out won points on convenience. Besides, knowing where to go to eat was always an informal measure of social credibility. Looking carefully, it was possible to notice that the average waistline had expanded, and the majority of the people was at least a little overweight.
Stepping out of the car, I wasn’t sure where we were headed but my father pointed out a few oddly-placed stalls perched on the sidewalk. On closer look, they were nothing more than tarpaulins secured over some steel frames. Inside were tables with trays containing pineapples, oranges, coconuts, guavas, dragon fruits, turnips and the smallest winter melons I’d ever seen. Some tarps had been rigged to the wire mesh on one side, presumably to block out the meagre afternoon sun. Bunches of bananas, not yet ripe, dangled in the shade, held up by strings with little stoppers made of strips cut from dishwashing sponges. Confusingly, a single yam sat on top of a small pile of sweet potatoes. As we hesitated over a bunch of bananas, my father paid for two guavas.
Just around the front of this tiny cluster of stalls, a man sold corn, guava, passion fruit and potatoes. Strangely, everything was bagged up in clear plastic bags, except for the corn, which were piled up to one side—they looked particularly good. As the vendor gathered a few cobs for a customer into a bag, I stared at them. Were these native corn, or were these one of those imported species? The corn cobs of my childhood were small but sweet. These looked much bigger. Having been away too long, I couldn’t really tell anymore.
“How much?” asked my father.
“10 cobs for 20,” said the man. After a little internal family debate, we decided it was a decent price for the apparent quality.
The man began peeling off the outer husk and pulling the silk from the top of the corn before placing each of the near-uniform, individual cobs into a clear plastic bag.
My mother looked longingly at the potatoes, and pointed to a bag containing not more than half a dozen of them. “How much are these?”
“10 per bag.”
“That’s expensive!” she protested, pulling her hand back.
“Yes, it’s not cheap these days,” said the vendor, as he continued to methodically husk the cobs. “More expensive than rice, if you’d believe it.”
My mother mused, “Once upon a time, if you were poor, potatoes were what you ate…”
“Now you have to have to be rich to eat potatoes,” the vendor finished her thought for her.
We stood silent for half a minute, unsure what to say next. I couldn’t decide if this meant potatoes were fashionable, or no longer so.
“Come back again,” he eventually said. “These aren’t so good today, they might be better another time.”
The bag of corn weighed a hefty five kilos. We carried that, the guavas and the bananas back to the car, and sat with the bounty at our feet as we headed to our next destination—to the cook, who, in our opinion, made the best fried rice noodles in town.
For many years, he sold noodles from a cart in front of a primary school at night. Then, without warning, one day he simply disappeared. It took a few enquiries from my mother via the local grapevine to find out where he’d relocated to—he’d finally moved his business to a proper shop front at a food market in a different part of the city. It must have been close to thirty years that we’d bought fried rice noodles from him, and to this day, his noodles were still just as good.
As she was preparing to head out for the evening, my host called out to me, “What you should do is to take out all those bottles of vinegars and oils, and taste them one by one.” It was a generous offer on her part, but as I stared into the narrow kitchen cupboard, I realised that it was a challenge as much as an invitation.
Each of these bottles—nine of which were balsamic vinegar, five of which were olive oil—had been individually infused with something different. She’d bought them from a specialist shop in the neighbourhood. Presumably, a collection of these were supposed to extend the palette of available flavours that you could add to whatever you might be cooking.
But I was just trying to put a simple salad together for dinner. After tasting everything, I was at a loss. Some of them were indeed very nice, but I couldn’t help thinking—if I’d wanted a taste of lime, I’d just used lime juice, why a lime-flavoured olive oil? If I’d wanted bacon flavour, why not just panfry some lardons and throw those in? If I’d wanted fig, I could just include fig, why a fig-flavoured vinegar?
The traditional Italian approach is to have two bottles of balsamic vinegars: a good 10-year old for salads, tomatoes, meat or just about anything, and a special 15-year old for dessert, good cheese and steaks. Similarly, just two bottles of olive oils are sufficient—one of lesser quality for cooking, one extra virgin and of better quality for fresh salads. Good oils and vinegars do the job of elevating existing flavours in what you’re making, a bit like turning up the volume on a good song.
“Do you have any plain old olive oil?” I eventually asked. She laughed and said, “No, that’d be boring.”
There has been one complaint that a couple of friends have independently made to me about the culture of living in San Francisco. To them, there seems to be a kind of obsessiveness about everything, except that the relentless pursuit of “cool” often comes with a contradictory dilution in perspective. I hadn’t really understood what my friends had meant, but as I stared down the bottles of olive oils and vinegars, I wonder if this was what they alluded to: a habit of deep fascination with something, leading to multiple acquisitions of these things because they were all special, to the extent that the original point of having these things were lost.
The irony is that it’s highly probable this exact willingness to get away from tradition, coupled with the unbounded sense of what is “enough”, are the very bases for reckless innovation in this part of the world—the latest of which, is, of course, the Apple Watch. On that, I remain cynical: we already have trouble putting our phones away, let’s own yet another thing that makes it easier to constantly distract ourselves!
But perhaps a more subtle irony: when the Apple Watch was launched, another announcement came earlier in the day that no one apparently drew a relationship with. On September 9th, some hours before the WWDC, the World Meteorological Organization put out a press release on new record high in greenhouse gas levels in 2013: “The observations from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) network showed that CO2 levels increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984.”
It is a difficult to draw coherent connections between the rise of CO2 emissions to invention of the Apple Watch—or even to hoarding nine bottles of balsamic vinegar in a kitchen—without touching on climate science, the spectacle of media, the built-in obsolescence of tech, the food systems that make us eat more than what we need, the economic vessels whose success is bent on getting us to always buy more. Each of these areas are complicated and contentious systems that are too perplexing to casually explore on their own; how they interrelate, or the totality of their causes and effects are punishingly difficult to grasp. And so, it’s hard to understand what damage we might be doing to ourselves and the world we live in due to the throw-away culture that we inhabit. But then, it’s difficult to imagine what could be different without jumping off into the extreme and opting-out completely, into a mythical self-sufficient cabin in the woods. A balanced existence is, ironically, also an uneasy one.
Packing my small suitcase for the flight home took a little more skill and consideration than usual. In the end, I couldn’t help myself: I still flew home with three small bottles of balsamic vinegar and one large bottle—which I know would be a staple in our kitchen—as well as two bottles of Californian-sourced olive oils. We’d just used up our Italian balsamico and white truffle oil from Tuscany, it seemed timely to try something new.
Warm sand enveloped our feet as we clambered clumsily up the dune. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt sand like this. Was this the biggest dune I’d ever climbed? Perhaps there was a time when I was a light-footed child, when I could run up one of these without noticing the strain on my body. The view at the top wasn’t exactly breathtaking; there was still some distance to the edge of the cliffs where we would see the beach, but as the wind whipped against our faces, and I began to appreciate the protection these dunes offered.
Further along the trail that carved through thickets of sea-plants, a well-hidden stairway led us onto a natural platform of a rock formation, with a final few concrete steps towards a quiet beach surprisingly devoid of people. Quiet, only in a manner of speaking, because the ocean was roaring like a beast, and the waves clapped onto the sand then hissed as they pulled back out. Here, one remembers that the ocean is truly one powerful animal—how narcissistic are we to think we rule the earth?
Here, on the western edge of the European continent, barely an hour outside of Lisbon, was a tiny piece of paradise. For the first time in many years, we chose to stay a few days at a resort for much-needed R&R, rather than dive headfirst into urban wilds to explore yet another city for our annual holiday. But this was no ordinary resort; there were only a little over a dozen rooms and a handful of villas available, and for that you pay a premium to be here.
It took seven years from vision to realisation, but everything was done with a view towards sustainability. Just about everything was recycled or reused, and the buildings were designed to be energy efficient. The decor was a mix of modern and rustic, punctuated by dried flowers, once fresh from the grounds, which the hotel staff charmingly dubbed “the garden”—a breathtaking, permaculture project on a grand scale, still in progress. It supplies the hotel’s restaurant with fresh vegetables, edible flowers and fruit. It’s not hard to see that this magical place attracted a certain type of visitor—I hesitate to use the word “tourist”, because there’s no “touristing” to be done here. It was a heavenly place to retreat to, to rest the mind and replenish the body, to fill one’s lungs with fresh, untainted ocean air, to eat good, healthful food right off the land. Here, you take time for what it is: an arbitrary, human construct.
We’d commandeered a particular table for breakfast in the mornings—the one in the far corner, where there wasn’t a view on the water, but where we could see a part of the garden, and talk without being much overheard. Every morning, a boyish young man, cap backwards, tanned by the sun and ocean wind, swaggered towards the hotel kitchen with a wooden box full of eggs, presumably from the chickens in the garden, or certainly somewhere nearby.
As beautiful and peaceful this place was, it occurred to me that I might go crazy if I stayed here too long. The isolation would get to me; if not, then that sure sense that a place like this shouldn’t exist—it was much too far removed from the complex reality of our world. Escape only made sense if you had something you wanted to escape from. And that might be my problem; I would never be able to do it on a clear conscience for any length of time.
Yet, a place like this needed to exist in order to prove that it could be done, that a human-scaled project of this kind could be sustainable. It must also mean that we’ve done a lot of things wrong in this world to get to this point—that this place exists in counterpoint to all the speed, scale and madness that modern capitalism has led us to believe is the status quo.
One evening at dinner, we met a young German couple who’d just married. She worked for a massive hotel chain, and expressed her incomprehension, even incredulity, that this tiny little resort of so few rooms could survive. The irony made me a little sad. How did humanity get to this point where bigger was better, always more, always faster; how was it possible that we produce and consume so much at scale, and justify it economically? At what cost?
In a published conversation called “The Accident of Art” with Sylvère Lotringer, Paul Virilio discussed his concept of the Museum of Accidents and alluded that it was our own arrogance that allowed us to continue to build bigger and faster at the expense of common-sense risk—and that we won’t stop until the price is too high.
Virilio said, rather matter-of-factly, “Take a thousand-seat airplane, that makes one thousand dead.” He then conducted a thought experiment and imagined out loud, “We have invented a flying super-island that can travel at hypersonic speeds. You can travel, for example, to Tokyo in two hours or even one hour, for one Euro. This island is so unheard-of that it has to be made into a mass phenomenon. So I will exaggerate the figures: rather than one thousand people, let’s say, for example, ten thousand. Do you take the risk?” He went on, “Progress in air transportation is a tolerable sacrifice until the day you tolerate it no longer. It is the same thing with nuclear energy. Now we are giving it up: the sacrifice is no longer tolerated. Ecologists are the only ones saying it. We are in a cumulative phenomenon that is in the process of creating an integral accident…”
In “The New Capitalist Manifesto”, Umair Haque provided an economic angle, “Twentieth-century capitalism’s cornerstones shift costs to and borrow benefits from people, communities, society, the natural world, or future generations. Both cost shifting and benefit borrowing are forms of economic harm that are unfair, nonconsensual, and often irreversible.”
In other words, in accepting the way we live now, we’ve created a profound, unnamed series of debts that extends far beyond our lifetime. Debts that are owed to our children, and their children, and the world they would live in.
The odd thing about a beach on the ocean was that there were no seashells—everything had been crushed into minuscule pieces. My eyes caught sight of a white plastic bottle wedged into the sand. I dug out my camera from our beach basket, and took this photo that you see at the top of this story. It was just as well I had the camera in my hand given what happened in the next moment: the rising wave I captured in the photo’s backdrop came crashing onto the shore, whooshing past my knees and everything else, drenching a couple of lazing sunbathers, who jumped up, squealing, grabbing their towels to stop those being swept away. We rescued our basket just in time, and I found my well-worn flip-flops wedged between some rocks several feet inland.
All this was never about saving the earth. It’s about doing justice to our own kind, for the humanity that comes after us. It is about being grateful and graceful to the planet that has sustained us for this long, respecting that symbiosis what we’d so vainly thought we could be independent of.
And perhaps that’s what bothered me so deeply about being here in this place. This place shouldn’t have been a retreat, a hidden corner of heaven—it shouldn’t have been special. This way of living should be our ordinary and our everyday, neatly tied to how we live and work, how we eat and breathe.
A Quiet Night Alone in Copenhagen
Last week, we were in Copenhagen to conduct some user research. The apartment we stayed in had a lovely Kawai upright with a warm sound, though ever so slightly out of tune. One evening, finding myself unexpectedly alone, I set about getting acquainted with the instrument. This recording is a piano impromptu—played on the fly—complete with a few false starts.
It was just past 6 a.m., much too early in the morning, but the airport was already bustling. Was it normally this busy? I wondered, as I found the right bag-drop counter, and congratulated myself for having made it before the queue got too long. This should be quick, and I should get home in time for lunch. But the moment I dropped my backpack between my feet, a woman in airline uniform with a furrowed face came up to me and said, “There’s been a three-hour delay.” Ah. Well then, in the lottery of things that could go wrong, I suppose this wasn’t the end of the world, I told myself.
As she was moving away, I hastily asked, “Am I in the right queue?” and that was my first mistake of the day. She shuffled me towards the left, behind a slightly longer queue. I swallowed my consternation. One day, I really ought to stop trying to do the right thing all the time. I glanced ahead: there were only two sets of passengers in front of me. Not the end of the world, I told myself again, and settled down to wait.
Twenty minutes later, we hadn’t budged. This was odd, even for a three-hour delay. I turned my head and noticed that the queue had now snaked around the pillar at the corner. In front of me was a small family, a couple with two young children. They were in good spirits—the boy, no more than three, sat patiently on a large, soft bag. The girl, who was about five years old, held onto her mother’s hand. After an eternity, the passengers at the counter moved on, and the next set of travellers shuffled forward.
I looked at my watch: it had been a whole hour since I stood here. There had been time to do a quick online search, so at least I had an explanation. The delay was due to the aftermath of a computer system problem yesterday which caused havoc, separating travellers from their bags all over Europe. It had since been fixed, but the complexity of modern travel meant that one thing going wrong had after-effects that rippled across borders, countries, time and space. Oddly enough, I felt grateful. Yesterday must have been hell. Even with this wait, at least I would still make it home today—with my luggage. I wouldn’t make it home in time for lunch, but certainly for dinner.
Last night, I’d gotten back to my rented apartment much later than I meant to, but still managed to make a simple, lovely vegetable soup of onion, carrot, potato and watercress. I had the leftovers early this morning, despite it being an unusual breakfast fare by most counts. Though stuck in the queue, it meant I wasn't hungry. Because it was good soup—I wasn’t thirsty either. So I stood for a while, silently counting my blessings and thinking about things that went right.
I was woken from my reverie by a happy squeal from the mother who jumped and gave the embarrassed floor manager a big bear-hug. It seemed as if they’d worked a miracle. When the mother took a couple of steps away from the counter to check on her children, I asked, “Have you got far to go?”
“Canada,” she said, with a resigned shrug, but still, she smiled. “They are re-booking us through Germany, we should make it.”
All good news. Then, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d been waiting in line for so long because they had not separated passengers who required re-bookings and those who didn’t. And if they did— would that have been fair? Would that have been more efficient? Would that have meant a small number of people were happier at the expense of the majority who would have had to wait longer? Would it have mattered?
The little girl was getting restless. On her back she wore a small backpack, the front of which was a large mesh pocket. Stuffed deep into the mesh pocket was a plush bunny, obviously well loved. There was also a smaller toy that I couldn’t quite see, tucked to one side. The bunny was well settled, the elastic of the pocket coming just under his arms, so that his head and ears flopped freely every time she moved.
How strange that as adults we no longer have these symbolic personifications that we are allowed to keep with us: a companion, something that comforts, a sign of familiarity. Being “adult” means we have to stifle these things, our grown-up vices less immediately obvious, deeply entwined with other social notions or afflictions of the self. For some, it might have been the cigarette. But the adult equivalent of a plush bunny today must be the smartphone. We might be less grown-up than we like to think we are. Having created such complex protocols of what it means to be “adult”, we have only confused what it means “childish” and “child-like”. To what end?
Wasn't it 1st Corinthians 13? “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways.” But then, wasn’t it C.S. Lewis who said, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up”?
Having stood in this queue for an hour and a half, I suddenly wished I had my own plush bunny in a mesh pocket on my backpack so I could somehow know that all was well in the world. But then, at home, I have a real, living cat (no doubt peering out the window at birds at this hour) and a loving husband (most likely still asleep)—the latter I am pretty sure I can convince to plot a good dinner for when I eventually make it through the front door.
“Next passenger please!” The airline staff at the counter flashed me a big smile.
I looked back at the ever-growing queue, and counted my blessings.
It might have been due to the poor lighting, or perhaps something in the air. Everyone on the RER E wore the same expression—identical ashen, grey faces. The young man by the door seemed absorbed, staring at point in space where I could perceive nothing; there must be something elsewhere that only he could see. As did the woman in an African dress, seated on the deck below, looking beyond the window panes that didn’t open—and if they did, they would open out to nothing. So strange that we have these windows on underground trains that never look out into anything other than the unlit underground guts of a city. Truth to be told, I reminded myself, the train line goes further above ground beyond one end of Paris. The windows might still serve a purpose there.
Despite it being clear that everyone on the train had origins elsewhere, either in their own lifetime, or stretching back generations or centuries, perhaps I was truly the foreigner here. Me, the obvious outsider who had not yet assimilated into the grim pattern, the unspoken social protocol of the Paris metro. And despite being fluent enough in French to be able to speak almost sans accent, some people would still talk to me in English. Perhaps because my looks betray my Oriental genetic origins? Or perhaps I am a good excuse for a bit of language practice?
“Where are you from?” is a common question I get, everywhere, from almost everyone. When I answer “London”, some people would insist “But where are you really from?” And sometimes, I wonder, what did they want me to say? Japanese? Chinese? Korean? Sometimes, I’d get it straight out: “Are you Japanese?” To which I’d give my usual answer: “No, I am 25% of the world’s gene pool.” Try again. Sometimes, if I sensed a genuine fascination, I’d make them guess. The only person who had ever come close to guessing my origins happened to be language teacher who specialised in correcting accents. Even then, he couldn’t figure out where I was born, just where I had been. At least, I no longer get told “You speak very good English!” To date, I speak three flavours of English: Australian, Canadian and British. There is also the South East Asian English, which I might be able to pull off on a good day.
“Where are you from?” The truth is, in a manner of speaking, I’m a mutt.
Why does it matter? I sometimes wonder. I can eat a Thai bird’s eye chilli raw; that rules me out from most Chinese and Japanese origins, for those in the know. I’ve learned to cook French potatoes as well as any French native. The Canadian in me hands back used crockery over the counter at cafes so I’d leave my table clean. The Australian in me loves and appreciates all manner of sports, and I still make a mean lemon, lime and bitters. I eat (and drink) like a European. And whenever I go back to where I was born, or even wherever I have previously lived, I stand out: I walk differently, talk differently, think differently. Where am I from?
Sometimes, while walking in the street, I’d get “Konichiwa!” or “Ni hao!” shouted at me from somewhere, by someone, typically male. For many years, my immediate reaction was to get angry. And why wouldn’t I? After all, I was having it thrown at me all at once: the inherent sexism, the thinly-veiled racism. Reduced to the colour of my skin, the choice of an examined and cultured life completely dismissed because I look how I look. The tinge of olive in my skin, my straight black-brown hair, my dark phoenix eyes. In shops which sell cosmetics, the beauticians would often smile too sweetly and say, “You need this, not that, you’re...a little dark.”
Once, on my way to a conference in Boston, a man shouted at me, “Go back to where you come from!” If only it were that easy. Then, always, there are those suspicious looks that immigration officers give me whenever I cross a border as they look for incriminating evidence in the pages of my passport.
The more thoughtful folks would ask me, “Where is home?”
Many years ago, my father warned me, “No one will claim us as their own. We are foreigners wherever we go.” It was how I’d learned: home is where I choose. Home is where my love lives, and where my cat chooses to sleep. It’s not about ethnic or cultural roots, not even about material possessions, but an impermanent place to retreat to. A sacred source of creative energy that I cultivate, fixed within a finite space at a particular point in time. And so, “home” has been just the spaces I’ve made to be home. Albeit, on several continents, over the years. I was secretly pleased to learn that my Oriental ancestors were nomads. It may explain why I never felt settled. The downside? The mistrust, the prejudice, the subtle expressions, the unapologetic undertone.
Some months ago I was having a nice chat with an English taxi driver who’d lived in Cambridge all his life. He had been driving his taxi for 30 years. Keen to mine his local knowledge, I asked him what has changed most. “Well,” he began. “You can’t tell where people are from these days. Everyone is from everywhere.”
My nomadic ancestors probably never could have imagined globalisation and what it would bring: a blend of many things, from many places; a blend of people. I am a child of former colonies, of worlds where people who came to our lands took rather than gave. These were the origins I was born with, and then there is the person whom I have chosen to become. Perhaps that is my biggest fortune: I was able to choose to be a citizen of the world. That is my privilege. Unfortunately, there is no passport to match, nor adequate vocabulary in our languages.
At the bistro in Le Marais where we stopped for lunch, two chatty Parisian women at the next table eyed us and our musical instruments suspiciously. When I was left alone for a moment, the elder of the two asked, “C’est une guitare?” and pointed her dessert spoon at the bag behind me.
“Oui,” I answered, confirming that it was indeed a guitar.
“Et celle-là?” She pointed to the smaller, more ambiguous case next to me. And that?
“C’est un ukulele,” I said.
“C’est quoi un ‘youkoulélé’?” She glanced at her lunch partner for any available hint: what is a “ukulele?” The other woman seemed a bit disbelieving, and merely tried to get her mouth around the word “ukulele”.
The first woman asked again, “C’est un instrument à cordes?” Is it a string instrument?
“Yes, it’s an instrument with four strings,” I replied in French. “A little easier to play than the guitar.”
She paused for a moment, absorbing what I had said. “C’est exotique, alors?”
Exotic. That word. How I hate that word. That word which means you are different, you are the outsider, but we haven’t found a reason not to like you, because you are still fascinating, not yet threatening. Exotic, a word also used for spices and resources pillaged from the lands near where I was born: pepper, nutmeg, mace, cloves. And now, palm oil. People had been killed, their lands repeatedly bled dry, their sweat-drenched labour exploited, for the word “exotic”.
Exotic. Did she mean the instrument, or did she mean my origins?
“Well, not really, not anymore,” I said, with a slight shrug and a smile.
The sky was already surprisingly bright, I didn’t end up needing the flashlight I’d brought with me. There is a technical name for this particular time—the nautical dawn—when some things are beginning to be distinguishable to the naked eye. Too soon, it would progress into “civil dawn”, when it would be possible to see most things even if the sun hadn’t risen.
How unpoetic, I thought, as I placed one foot in front of the other, following a trail that I now know well. It was cold and slightly windy. I’d beaten the dawn chorus, so it was eerily silent. For a short moment, I questioned the wisdom of having gotten up so early. As I glanced up towards the west, a luscious full moon still hung in the night sky, dutifully watching over those of us still fast asleep.
Two roads diverged in the downs, and I took the one more trodden but with a much steeper rise. Clambering uphill whilst barely awake was an ungraceful endeavour: I felt as if I was constantly stumbling upwards rather than actually walking. It occurred to me that this didn’t feel too different from staggering home drunk after a big night out, my muscles were creaking in protest as my steps felt scarcely steady; and yet, the body learned to adapt fast and my feet seemed to know what they were doing.
On my left, stood an endless sprawl of tall, yellow canola flowers. An anonymous field of grass spanned to the right, looking grey in the dawn where it would normally be green. I stopped to catch my breath and looked back down at how far I’d come. Checking my watch, I noted the time. It was good, my estimations had been conservative, I’d made reasonable speed. The moon had begun to dip; as it lowered, I climbed. And finally, as the curved crest of the hill flattened out, I knew I had arrived.
Two days ago, I discovered this spot while walking the other way. The first thing I noticed was an odd tuft of little yellow flowers which were not anything that I could identify. They sprouted just on the one spot in the ground, and it was strange because there was nothing else like it anywhere around for miles. How did it get here? Did its seeds fly and land here by chance, or did someone deliberately plant it here? Next to those yellow flowers was a patch of earth on which no grass had managed to grow. It was calling out for a picnic blanket, except I’d left my little woven grass mat back at the house. Well, then, it would be breakfast on my feet. I reached into my backpack and pulled out a little container of yoghurt and granola.
The wind wasn’t brutal but it was testing. Taking a sip of hot tea from my flask to keep warm, I glanced around as I waited. It was very quiet, very still, except for the sweeping sounds of the southeasterly gusts. Towards the south, the next town was still steeped in shadow. Northwards was a broken signpost indicating a public footpath that led down the hill on the other side. Someone had left a lost, lone slipper on top of the post—it perched like a roosting plastic animal.
The unseen sun had begun to paint the eastern sky in shades of pinks, oranges and yellows. A few clouds drifted nonchalantly, going nowhere. Then when the moon discretely disappeared over the edge of the western horizon, there were a few precious minutes of in-betweenness. The true twilight, the point between night and day, where one could no longer see the moon and not yet the sun. I marvelled at the fluidity of the motion, the simple lack of fuss. Then again, it had been this way for many a millennia, who was I to be surprised?
The sunrise began to turn everything gold. I tipped my flask eastwards and drank to the new day. Stamping life back into my cold feet, I started down the path to the north, taking the long way home.
The next morning, I did it all again; this time with an extra vest and a hat, and that woven grass mat. At the top of the hill, it was a little less cold being closer to the ground. Someone had knocked the slipper off its perch on top of the post, it sat a few metres away on the frosted grass. Today, there was a fine layer of fog and more cloud to the west, so the moon feigned invisibility, only peeking out here and there as it began its nightly descent. Today, the sky was more conservative with its colours as the sun rose, with light blues and shades of salmon. It struck me then, that no sunrise was like any other, and that every day was truly a new day.
“What are you doing?”
My husband was just walking into the kitchen, and caught me with a cookie in one hand and a little brass brush in the other — the brush that we’d normally use for cleaning root vegetables. How do I explain? Would it make me seem less sane if I admitted to what I was really doing?
The reality was I couldn’t let these cookies go looking untidy, so I figured I’d sweep down the sides with a brush, one cookie at a time, cleaning off those loose crumbs with the same movement that I’d use to smooth the edges of my hand-wrought silver work. (Do other anal-retentive bakers do this, or is it just me? Maybe it’s best not to know.)
Leading up to our first Christmas in the new house, I had that old familiar itch to bake. It had taken us a long time to get settled, not least because work required the both of us to travel frequently. New habits take a while to form, new adjustments take time. As a result, the cat was the only one who had his territories staked out and his routine down pat.
It’s been about three years since I’d baked batches of anything, other than a brief but extensive study on apple tarts and one poor attempt at a strawberry shortcake. When we’d lived in Montreal, I’d bake cookies for my neighbours every now and again. Or rather, I’d bake them, hand most of the batch to my neighbours on the same day, and coerce my husband to take some to work so I wouldn’t be stuck having to eat the lot. Or any. I enjoyed the baking but dreaded the consuming, thus began a worthwhile symbiotic relationship with my neighbours who couldn’t refuse a sweet treat.
After a while, our downstairs neighbour started sending over the occasional gluten-free banana bread, which I adored. Our upstairs neighbour brought me meals when she knew I was home alone. “Neighbourly bribery", I'd called it, and it went both ways.
So it’s with fond memories of friends left behind that I bake a new batch of cookies, in a new house, in a new town, in a new country—my own recipe of ginger and spice geared to give the adult tastebud an indulgent zing, rather than just a childish sugary crumble in the mouth.
By some form of irony, it was that failed fling with the strawberry shortcake that changed the way I baked forever. Based on an idea from the beloved Nigella, under most circumstances I now freeze the butter then grate it into to the flour. Who needs a cake mixer? Or at least, I’m not getting one until the sad day I no longer have the strength in my arms to whip a batter with love.
A small matter of a fallen fence meant our first conversations with the neighbours on one side weren’t exactly friendly. The ones on the other side work long hours, and we only cross paths when the deliveryman drops our packages at the wrong address. Maybe it was the desire to smooth over rough edges, to create circumstance where cordiality can take seed, to engineer the opportunity for something more than the mere sharing of walls or fences that led to this bout of spontaneous cookie-making. After all, every hand-baked cookie is a little offering, a tiny step towards a conversation, to getting to know another human being as a person, a token of perhaps-friendship.
In the glass jar where the spicy gingerbread men with brush-tidied edges stood patiently waiting, I’d snuck in some Super Evil Cookies—a sinfully demonic compound with dark and white chocolate chips, fudge, butterscotch and honeycomb. No, there wasn’t any other appropriate name for them. A handwritten note on a little festive tag attached to a red ribbon around the jar, and the cookies were set to go, ready to take on the most steadfast and most staunch.
It was so cold in the first class cabin on the boat, the windows were frosted over on the inside.
There was a size-able TV playing a science-fiction horror film—“The Thing”—appropriately set in Antarctica, which merely added to the impression of cold. The DVD kept getting stuck, however, so we saw the opening scene six times and the ending three times, but not much in between.
We were on the 7:00am express boat from Sibu to Kapit, a remote town in the centre of Borneo that, even today, can only be reached by light aircraft or by boat. Some 126 kilometres west of Sibu along the Rajang River, Kapit was once a garrison town founded by Rajah Charles Brooke. Today it serves as an administrative centre for the division of land roughly covering 40,000 square kilometres in the interior of Sarawak.
These boats which make the trip several times a day are surprisingly long and narrow. You could pay RM20 or 20 Ringgit Malaysia for a regular ride, RM30 for a seat in the second-class cabin or RM35 to be frozen to death at the front of the boat.
There was an enclosed deck between the front and middle cabins, and this is where I escaped the freezing cabin to the natural, tropical warmth. They had kept the doors open on either side, and a welcome breeze blew through the deck. It was still not yet hot, but you get the sense that another humid, steamy day was rousing. A young man, not much more than 20, stood smoking near the door on the starboard side. I nodded in greeting and moved towards the other door. We were zipping at a decent speed over the great Rajang River, its water browned by years of deforestation. So much of the tropical jungle I knew as a child have been converted to fields of cultivated palm trees, their yield sent to China primarily as cooking oil. It was a clear, sunny morning, and we whisked past mangrove jungles, punctuated by an occasional river-side village or long-house. I poked my head back into the cabin, where there was an instant drop of 15 degrees1, and checked that my elderly grandmother was comfortable and coping okay.
My grandmother was born in Kapit. I had only visited once when I was five years-old, a trip from which only fragments of disjointed memories remain. This would be my first visit, as it were, as an adult. It was my father's idea to come back for a day or two, though I hadn’t bargained on the 6-hour drive from Kuching to Sibu, nor the early start on the boat that he had in mind.
The boat ride took nearly three and a half hours. When we docked at Kapit, to my astonishment, a couple of uncles appeared (I found out later) and had their servants haul our luggage away. It was likely that I had more family concentrated here than anywhere else—my grandmother's brothers, many of their sons, daughters and grandchildren still lived here—most of whom I had never met.
We had arrived just before lunch. My grandmother was immediately ushered into a local “kopi-tiam” just beneath our hotel—one of the few in town—to catch up on family news and local gossip. A kopi-tiam, or “coffee house”, typically comprises an open space with stalls lining the shop walls, serving various local hawker fare. It is not uncommon to have tables, chairs and dining customers spilling out from the shop onto the pavement. Sitting in kopi-tiams seems to be the usual pastime for the elderly here: they recount old stories, remember old gripes, reminisce over old friendships and foretell the future. My father later remarked to me that Kapit could be a good place to retire in, and I found myself hoping that he wasn’t giving too much serious consideration to the thought.
I was to discover the traditional pecking order in which returning family members would be greeted in turn, with meal after meal of steamed local fish and “native” greens stir-fried with garlic: the sons of my eldest grand-uncle get first dibs at taking us out for lunch, then dinner.
We were picked up by car and driven to an uncle's house. While this doesn’t sound much like anything out of the ordinary, it’s worth noting that because there are no roads into Kapit, all vehicles have to be brought upriver by boat. Every car and motorcycle in the town costs much more here than in connected cities like Sibu or Kuching further down along the river. We drove along a narrow, winding stretch of road, past the local politician's mansion which loomed on the hill, into what seemed like a new housing development. I had little time to take in the scenery or to re-orient myself, we seemed to arrive almost immediately after we departed.
The car pulled into a short driveway with blazing white tiles, leading up to a shaded parking spot. My uncle’s house was a modern concrete terrace affair, complete with fashionable trappings and walls freshly painted white. I stumbled out of the car and looked around. There were many other similar houses sprouting here, for those who could afford it. Here, truly, was the beginning of a mini-sprawl. It didn’t look any different from housing estates one would encounter in other cities in the region, but I did a mental double-take when I realised the scale and cost involved, remembering that everything here had to be brought upriver: all the materials, every single tile, every kilogram of concrete. And yet somehow, the lure of a spacious, modern house and a car or two—social symbols of success—also reign here, just like it does everywhere else.
My uncle had another guest for lunch, a British military man who served in Sarawak before its independence, a man whom they affectionately called “The Captain”. He returned to Kapit every year; an impressive man, considering his age. We sat on Western sofas in the living room, sipping iced green tea sweetened with honey, in the line of fire of a rotating fan blaring bursts of recycled hot air. My father asked the Captain about his past life, and they talked about what had happened in the region around the war. I felt like a little girl once again, not knowing enough of the facts to ask real questions, grasping at straws to understand what the adults were going on about. I looked at my mother, still sharp and beautiful into her 60s, who calmly smiled every once in awhile and said very little. What would she be thinking about at times like this? I have never learned how to be like her, not with my burning curiosity and brash inquisitiveness.
Finally, lunch was served. The Captain, who sat next to me, asked me a little bit about what I do. The difference in social protocol with a younger generation between the East and West has never ceased to make me smile. None of my uncles had really cared to ask me any direct questions, except to confirm that I do, indeed, live in England. After lunch, the Captain rode with us back into town. I inquired about his travels and the nature of his journey back to Devon, where he lived. He mused about the perils of managing laundry on a long trip to the tropics. Too soon, we arrived at his lodgings. As he got out of the car, he winked at me, “Well, I won’t see you in London.” And he was gone.
Early the following morning, my mother and I went around town. Kapit is surprisingly compact, its core being a matter of a few streets. Shops surround the old square, a common meeting point. Above the shops are typically living quarters, or, in our case, a small hotel where we had stayed the night. Almost all the buildings are no longer original, with the exception of two shop-houses on one side of the town square. As the story goes, the permits to remove them were lost or not processed, so they have never been torn down. They sit snug in between their taller, modern cousins of clean lines and concrete, shaming them into blandness.
There is a size-able market, known as Pasar Teresang, which served as a commercial focus for the town and the district. The indigenous people bring their crafts, wares and fresh jungle produce for trading, some of which would end up downriver in bigger city markets for a much higher price. On a sunny Saturday morning, everyone flocked to the town centre for shopping, socialising—and most importantly, eating. I wondered how the shops here survived. Do people make enough to live on? They seemed to. Perhaps this small community, relatively sheltered from external influences, had reached a comfortable point of internal equilibrium.
“Would you come back to live here?” I had asked my grandmother when we had a quiet moment together.
“No.” She was firm about it. When I asked why, she didn’t give a direct answer and muttered words along the lines of “too many people”, “not easy to get around” under her breath. It dawned on me then that things here must have changed a great deal since her childhood and that this was no longer her home.
I was repacking things in my room when my father knocked on my door and told me that they were going to Fort Sylvia. The fort was built by Charles Brooke in 1880 to prevent conflicts between the Iban and the Orang Ulu. The significance of the place was probably more impressive than the artifacts it now housed—it witnessed a peace-making ceremony between the Iban, Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang peoples in 1924.
While we looking over historical photographs, a small band of European tourists joined us. They were quite obviously struggling with the heat and humidity. One of them pointed at a large clay urn displayed on the floor of the room and said to her husband in French, “But that's Chinese!” Presumably, she was unimpressed. I considered explaining that the Chinese have been here for a very long time, but they were already filing out the sole doorway.
Kapit may not be Paris or Geneva, but it was the place where local warring tribes finally made peace. Ironically, peace isn’t something you can take hold in your hand or point your finger at. Peace isn’t impressive when you have it, but you would certainly miss it when you don’t.
My greatest surprise2 in Kapit was a peculiar discovery hanging in the shops: backpacks and t-shirts adorned with Angry Birds, waiting to be sold. Even in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the jungles of Borneo, Angry Birds, that Finnish mobile game which took the world by storm, had also somehow penetrated here and became a desired-enough icon to be worn on a shirt. Who would’ve thought?
A road to Kapit extending from other river towns, Kanowit and Song, has been scheduled for completion by 20153. The locals, who have waited for over 40 long years for the road to be constructed, are not holding their breaths. For now, the road is a focus of frustration, its delayed arrival feeding the local sense of “backwardness” compared to other cities and towns in Sarawak.
Back on our boat, on that enclosed deck where we sat to escape the freezing cabin, my father had struck up a conversation with a man from Kapit who was very knowledgeable about the tribes of Borneo.
“Everyone wants the road, but they don’t know what ‘development’ means,” he said, waving his hand at the passing mangrove jungles, over the rumble of the engine. Here, the hunger for progress conveniently overshadows any notion of what might be lost and irretrievable. The road will bring with it easy access to the outside world, but it will also be the harbinger of the irreversible infusion of change. Modernity comes at a price: it means being vulnerable to external market demand, playing nice with others, conforming to rules others dictate.
“People are simple-minded here,” said the man. “I don’t think they really know what is coming.”
Looking closely at the riverbank, you might not always see the long-houses, which tended to sit further back from the water. But on certain stretches in the region you might notice the long beams of wood cleft into the hills, slender slivers of grey-brown embedded within deep green; they must have been here for a very long time. On each of these, if you squinted, you could just make out the carved little steps, left behind by wood already cut away. Such a genius solution to make steep hills conquerable. And in a way, maybe as the human race, we have always carved our roads in order to conquer our futures, come what may.
115 degrees Centigrade.
2My other pleasant surprise was that my Kindle Keyboard 3G had no trouble connecting to the Internet. Small marvels.
3At the time of publication, the road is scheduled to be completed in 2017.
On photographic narrative
Morning in Gràcia. After four substantial visits here, I still haven’t managed to get the pulse on this once-Medieval village, long since swallowed by the swell of Barcelona. As usual, most shops are shut; it’s a bit of a lottery to figure what’s open when. The mornings are generally quiet. One gets the impression that only those who don’t sleep much are out and about—some of the elderly, owners of dogs, and parents of small children—meandering aimlessly in streets of shuttered shops punctuated by the odd bustling cafe. Truthfully, this place only seems to come alive after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
Photos captured on such a morning could tell so many stories. Daido Moriyama, who is well-known for his urban photography of Japan, admits that he doesn’t do much processing on his images, and doesn’t quite care which order the photos appear in his books. He believes that the act of “reading” a photo book is a somewhat random process—it’s normal to pick up a photo book and flip through it at random—so he quite likes that element of chance. Oddly enough, this is what Rilke said of reading poetry.
But this outlook assumes that each photo is self-contained, that the “before” and “after” are all successfully captured and predicted in a single moment caught on camera, that it doesn’t matter what appears to happen when. Is there a kind of higher virtue in trying to capture a story within a single photograph, or could we create a richer narrative when photographs are tucked in sequence, laid out in space (and therefore time) on a pages of a book or a slideshow?
It has been almost 10 years since I curated Olivier’s photos which he took around Tokyo’s Yamanote train line, the result of which a visual haiku with a photographic narrative: Ghosts of Tokyo. Back then, we were deeply inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée—that there is this strange, rarely explored territory between a sequence of still photographs and a video. Where is the story, in such an uncharted place?
The people who know this grey area well are photographic journalists, documentary reportage photographers, or those who have worked on stories in magazines. In his book, “The Photographer's Story”, Michael Freeman extensively demonstrates how to create a story with photo stills. He also postulated that it was likely Henri Cartier-Bresson who “saw a picture story as running second best to a single great image” and unwittingly set this as unspoken bar highly prized by photographers.
Perhaps Tony Ray-Jones, celebrated for his work on the English idea of leisure, had the simplest interpretation of all: “The photo story naturally suggests the task be accomplished with more facility. Each has its place. Perhaps we should leave it up to the photographer to choose his weapons of attack. Some ideas are more suited to the individual picture and some to the sequence. Both are extremely challenging. The single picture for me, should have initial impact to catch the attention of the spectator, then it should draw him into it, with its subtleties and should delight, mystify or shock him with its maybe suggestive qualities…it has to sustain his attention. With a sequence, one is playing for or with time. In this respect it is more like the film. It is difficult to change people’s attitudes and make them think with one picture. But with a sequence, time is on one’s side. Again, we have to get the observer's attention and sustain it, in order that our message communicates.”
Morning in Gràcia, and you would notice all the Catalan flags hanging off the balconies, occasionally caught and teased by the wind. Tucked at the back of my mind is a deep worry about the future of this place† which I love, and perhaps this shows up in what my camera insists on capturing this particular morning.
In recent user research I conducted, my interview subjects no longer see a “photo” as something valuable or special. Obviously, this is hardly a surprise: we are surrounded by pictures; our phones, tablets and computers holding uncountable photos that we’d never have enough time to sort through. Our friends and family inundate us with photos on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the like. Yet, all of my interviewees would gladly print and frame—whether physically or digitally—a photo of a special occasion, a special place, with a special person. To me, this means that we are not entirely ready to succumb to a world where images are a merely a stream of our existence: there are moments that we want to pull out and highlight, put a frame around, so that we can hold these closer to our hearts.
But here, in your pocket or your handbag, there is likely to be a smartphone—and therefore a camera. A camera is just a tool like any other, it is merely an extension of your eye. There are many more times where we would just want to keep a record of what we ate, a cool street graffiti we chanced upon, a pretty flower, or even a selfie—but from hereon, there is only a small leap to making the choice of telling a story with what you see.