Posts Tagged 'Photography'

Phnom Penh Timelapse

A Phnom Penh friend posted this video on Facebook. I’ve watched it a few times through; amidst the deluge of moving anxiety dreams and before-I-go to-do’s, it’s been a nice way to pause—a kind of moment of stillness, a stand-in for the meditation I’ve been entirely too busy to do.

So of course it’s a terribly idealized depiction of the city. (“What did they did with all the rubbish?” one person commented.) But I have to say that there were moments there that kind of felt like this—riding in a tuk-tuk at night, when the city was still, half-asleep with a cool breeze off the river, and it felt magical and precious and like home in a way you couldn’t quite explain.

It’s good to be reminded of that, even if the moments were fleeting and only one side of what it felt like to be there, live there—good because the move is getting close and I’m starting to stress.

I’ve been waking up unrested, unsettled from tangles of intense dreams, catastrophes that prohibit me moving: car accidents, robberies, deaths, pregnancy. In my waking mind, I don’t feel that worried, am still consumed with the day-to-day’s of a life that doesn’t feel like it’s ending. Except that I’ve started to stress about money. Money’s an easy thing to stress about—it’s measurable, tangible, far easier to stress about than the big blank horizon of unknowns.

“You’re still so young,” a friend told me over dinner. “Even if you go out there and it all falls through, and you have to come back and start over in a year, you still won’t be 30 yet.”

“I know,” I replied, nodding. I’d given myself the same rationalization.

“But,” she smiled, “I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”

I sighed. “Me neither. And that’s what really scares me.”

A Vision at Sunrise, Angkor Wat

I had a vision.

Standing on the ancient stone of Angkor Wat, watching the red fist of a sun rise, reach up through the horizon’s haze to ignite the sky, to silhouette that crumble of bygone glory, to light the ponds in the earth red too, to make them become a mirror between the lily pads—there, I had a vision:

What would happen if everyone put their cameras down?

Few things get me out of bed before 7am, and watching the sun rise at Angkor Wat is one of them. Yes, it’s touristy. But it’s one of the wonders of the world (depending on what list you consult; on the List of Me, it’s there), and getting there before the tour bus hordes, when the day was still cool, early, innocent and young—that sounded worth it.

I didn’t expect it to be so goddamn beautiful. I didn’t expect the sun to blaze like that, be red and burning like that, to glare against the expanse of ruin and palms.

I glimpsed it as I came through the gates. I gave it a quick glance and a gasp. As I scurried along the stone wall, rushing past Apsara carvings and other tourists, I reached in my bag. I pointed the camera, saw the landscape through the viewfinder, clicked. I did this before I even looked at the image myself, gave myself time to soak it in, breathe it in—to simple see it.

We moved down towards a pool of water, “a very good place for photos” our well-meaning guide assured us. Through the politely jostling throngs, we could see that, yes, it was a good photo op. So good, in fact, it was the same image on the postcards that little girls in sweatshirts and messy ponytails clutched, tugged at you—”Lady, you buy, 10 postcards, $1″—a voice too low and raspy to belong to a child.

I watched us all there, taking turns and swapping camera, posing with smiles, embraces: “Look at me, I was here.” It seemed more important to get the photo, the proof, the documentation, than it did to bear witness to the immense and startling beauty of it—to just be there.

What would happen, I wondered, if we all put our cameras down, just for thirty seconds, and stood and watched?

I suspected a silence would fall. I suspected some of us might start crying. I suspected something huge would wash over us, come up from inside us, that kind of humbling you feel in the presence of the world’s greatness, that particular pang in your heart when you see something so beautiful it overwhelms you—a feeling you think is private but that really might be communal, like a great inkwell a monk tattoos from, writing our particular fates with shared blackness.

But that’s just a guess. Really, I wouldn’t be able to know, won’t ever know. We all kept clicking at the blaze of a red sun, in the shadow of Angkor Wat.

A Silence Created By A Mighty Sound Is Still A Sound

Bomb Ponds, Sa Sa Bassac

This is it, I thought. I’ve hit the wall of my own silence.

When I started my trip, on through when I first got to Phnom Penh, I was on fire. I couldn’t stop writing. It came like a flood, from some damp corner of my brain, out my fingers; it came menstrually, ravenously. I couldn’t turn it off. I felt like, for every hour spent outside, I needed three hours to write everything I saw. I was exhausted, and I was in the zone.

And then, and then… Something in me closed the door.

Other doors have closed too. Or haven’t opened to begin with. I had a crap morning. I’d made an appointment to meet with the Acting Director of PADV, a leading domestic violence NGO. Domestic violence is central to the story I have to tell, though I haven’t wanted to look at it. Or rather, I’ve only been able to look at it sideways, head cocked askew, the way my brother watches TV. I’ve stolen a glance at its countenance, its cruel shadow, and I’ve quickly glanced away.

But I wrote the organization, and someone actually wrote me back and was willing to meet. And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing here in Phnom Penh—standing in a hallway (a skinny dim hallway with a full-length mirror at the end, where I see myself and also something else, a shadow moving perhaps, though I don’t know of what), knocking on doors and waiting to see which ones open.

I woke up with a knot in my stomach and full of nervous energy. I was uptight about the meeting, self-conscious and stressed. I was dreading talking about what we were going to be talking about, something I haven’t been able to find much qualitative information on—the reality of domestic violence in Cambodia.

I never made it to the meeting.

In classic Phnom Penh fashion, I got lost. I tried to look up the address the night before, but Google Maps has proven useless for this city. I got a motobike 40 minutes before the appointment, a confused old man with deep wrinkles and busted plastic sandals.

We eventually found Street 271, but the building numbers didn’t make sense. They stuttered, jumped from 5 to 36 to 300, back to 60. Evens and odds hop-scotched across the sides of the road. Up and down the hot, dusty road, sweating in my tattoo-covering cardigan, scanning the storefronts for addresses, searching for some kind of sense, a logic, a meaning and order, finding none. Sometimes there isn’t one.

We finally found #269, but it was not an NGO. It was a dress shop. I showed the woman, sitting in her pajamas amidst the sequin-studded manequins, the name of the organization. She frowned, waved her hands in the air. I felt forlorn, a kind of panic rising up in me—but why? What for? I felt like I was going to cry.

I handed the motobike driver $2.5, far more than the ride was worth, and thanked him. I tried to call PADV; my phone died. I wove through the traffic to a call center; I got through to PADV, but then the line cut out. I used the internet, wrote them an email, idled while I waited for a reply.

I never heard back from them. I missed my appointment. I felt like I’d hit a wall, alone in the hall with only the echo of my knocking. It was an awful sound, a rhythm like a feeble heartbeat. There was a curious feeling welling up in me, a kind of black hysteria. What was this? I didn’t know; all I was sure of was that I needed to go back to my apartment.

Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe I’ve gone as far as I can go with this project. Maybe I’m not ready, maybe it’s too much, maybe the doors are locked too tightly, maybe the silence too deafening, maybe it’s that way for a reason.

I went out later for food. I ended up wandering further than I’d meant to. I was close to the Royal Palace, decided to stop in an art gallery I’d been meaning to check out, the only independent art gallery in Cambodia, started up last year by a collective of “new generation” photographers.

The slim doorway led to a dusty stairwell. I squeezed up the narrow passage into Sa Sa Bassac‘s gallery space. The nine photographs on the wall constituted Vandy Rattana‘s The Bomb Ponds, photographic documentation of the craters left behind from American B-52 bombings.

(“In my province,” the downstairs neighbor, who translates conversations between my landlady and I, said, “many people still hate the Americans for the bombings.” He smiled sheepishly, boyishly and looked away.

“You know,” I told him, “most Americans didn’t know about the bombings then. It was kept a secret.” I paused. “And most Americans still don’t know about them.”)

In a back room, sweaty and lit by sunlight, was a table laid out with maps from Rattana’s expeditions to the bomb ponds—black-and-white line drawings circled with highlighters, neon halos and Khmer scribblings. A single typed half-sheet of paper told a story, held a key, a small sound of knocking, knocking…

From primary school to high school and even through university, the history of Cambodia has been put into silent mode for the next generation. Yet a silence created by a mighty sound is still a sound. It is a sound that has been muted.

When I was young I never knew that this sound already existed in my head and body, that gradually it would amplify if I didn’t find understanding. Perhaps others have had the same experience. I don’t know.

My parents told me that this sound stays with us forever once we are affected. They told me as long as we enjoy the sunrise and the bird’s song in the glorious early morning whilst celebrating our noble humility and forgiveness, then this sound would fade away, receeding back to where it came from.

But still I do not understand why this sound exists.

I stood in the heat, in the echoes of street, and nodded. Thank you Vandy, I thought. Thank you.

Fuck you, I love this song. And orange turtlenecks.

Where Glen E Friedman and Travel Blogging Intersect

Friedman/Fairey collab that happens to hang in my living room

I didn’t expect to get so sucked in. I didn’t expect to get so inspired, and I certainly didn’t expect my interview with photographer Glen E Friedman to have anything to do with travel writing or blogging.

Which it didn’t, not explicitly. But in talking to Glen, crosslegged on my bedroom floor for over an hour one Monday morning, in asking him about his drives and motivations, about what inspires him and what doesn’t, I saw so many parallels to my own experience in the travel blogging world that I couldn’t help but write something up about it. Our chat served as a kind of check, about what really matters to me and what I really want to do with my writing.

Glen is old-school. Some would say “an idealist from a bygone era,” and I suppose I can appreciate where they’re coming from. But that wasn’t my experience with Glen. My experience was that he didn’t want to fuck around, that he didn’t want his time wasted by people who didn’t actually care or didn’t want to work hard, and that he truly truly believed in what he was doing and had done. And fuck if you can say that about a lot of people.

But in fact, the most personally inspiring part of my interview with Glen didn’t make it into the actual published interview (up in two parts, one and two, on Hi-Fructose). Because, well, an hour-long interview is really fucking long transcribed.

I was intrigued by Glen’s frustrations with the contemporary art scene, and asked him about it. He went on a kind of rant (homeboy can talk) and some of the lines he used I’d actually read in other interviews. But as he described the scene of it all, what is really the inherent bullshit in any artistic scene, I couldn’t help but think of what one writer dubbed “the circle jerk of travel blogging” (don’t worry, I won’t dog you out):

There’s definitely some people out there that are doing some good stuff—Shepard’s name goes to mind—but there’s a ton of shit out there too. And it makes it boring and frustrating to go to a museum or an art gallery and see the stuff that gets the credibility, because the people hobnob with the right people, you know, or they get high with the right people or had sex with the right people, or they’re just in the scene. I have a strange feeling that if you’re in the scene, then you’re probably not very good. It’s all about the emperor’s new clothes in art. I’d say maybe 5% of people actually have a real talent for what they’re doing and aren’t just getting over. And that’s in most of the fields, whether it’s in music or painting or any kind of craftsmanship that’s considered an art.

It’s a pretty bold position, but as he spoke, I replaced “art” with “blogging,” and well, the same held true.

“I don’t know what suddenly makes so many people artists these days,” Glen wondered aloud. He talked about a laziness, a getting-over attitude, enabled by the ease of having one’s voice heard these days; when he was young, you had to be really driven—you had to really want it. Everything was DIY, because there was no other choice. No one was making any money off their bands or their skating; you did it because you loved it.

It reminded me of my own beginnings in writing—the little callous on my thumb from the pencil ridge, fingertips covered in glue from making zines, waking up from a long night with bits of poetry scribbled across my arm because I hadn’t had any paper on me. I didn’t do it for page ranking, I didn’t do it to “travel the world and get paid”—I did it simply because I couldn’t imagine not doing it. Because there was a voice in me that would not be still.

And I wouldn’t say I’ve sold out or even sold myself short. But it’s easy to get caught up in the scene of it all. It’s easy to see all the recognition other people get and to want it too—to want something measurable, to drive traffic, something to point to: “See, it actually matters; what I have to say matters.” And if you’re a decent writer, it’s easy to write the kind of stuff people want to hear, that garners retweets and comments and link outs. And it’s even easier to get lost inside all that.

Glen’s always followed a higher call that went beyond this scene or that scene, the cool kid club. He’s done his work in order to inspire other people, and he’s really held himself to it. To be fair, he’s had the luxury to hold himself to it: he begun being successful at age 14, and has supported himself through his art his whole adult life. But despite that, there’s always always the opportunity to get lazy, to ride the gravy train, to put your images on a tshirt and make a fuckton of money cause who can’t use more money?

It’s also easy to get frustrated with the scene, to point the finger and scream (internally, of course), “For fuck’s sake, write something real, not just what’s easy or convenient! Write about what’s inconvenient, about what’s difficult and painful and scares the shit out of you.”

In my best of moments, I’d like to be able to take a more loving, tolerant approach. I’d like to not roll my eyes and shittalk (which I’m of course guilty of), but to somehow say to all those writers: “You’re fucking better than what’s easy, than what drives traffic, and you deserve to let that voice be heard.”

But I’ve got a big enough job just trying to hold myself to that standard. Cause, you know, I still have to pay the rent too. And I’m sure as hell not gonna do it transcribing Glen Friedman interviews. But what I will get from it is a reminder, like a small stone you can carry in your pocket and rub when you’re bored or lonely or nervous—of what it really is I want to do with my writing.

Candy, Travel and Love in Los Angeles

On a smog-sighing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I met my soul mate. Possibly two soul mates.

Tuesday was a charmed day, my last full one before I hit the highway and headed back up the green spine of California. I ultimately failed in my scurrying attempt to cram in everything I hadn’t gotten to in the previous days—but I did encounter, sheerly by happenstance, two kindred spirits, cosmically bound in a coruscating tango set to the tune of my greatest loves: the unexpected beauty of travel, and sugar.

I got to Glaco’s Soda Pop Stop the round-about way. I learned about the Highland Park neighborhood (where Glaco’s has operated since 1897) through Trekking Los Angeles, a non-profit that aims to leverage cultural tourism to bring financial benefit to underserved communities. A pretty bad-ass ambition, and especially interesting given the recent spark in the ongoing debate about the cultural benefits/damages of tourism at World Hum and Matador. But how would it play out practically? I tried out one of their neighborhood guides.

The Highland Park guide focused mostly on art galleries and community spaces, which though interesting yielded a pretty incomplete neighborhood guide. I cruised past several of the galleries, finding only one open, and discovered the crowning Southwest Museum to be closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage.

What I ended up finding coolest was just wandering the streets. Far from trendy and slick, Highland Park is a diverse, working class community (not too different from Oakland) filled with raspado carts, 99 cent stores, auto shops, old women walking under the shade of umbrellas, panderias displaying Nescafe, Santeria markets, Food4Less, fast food chains, the lonely hiss of traffic. And art. Graffiti bloomed electric in the alleys, while murals covered the sides of buildings, highlighting local history, cheerfully advertising for businesses or bilingually encouraging you to recycle your motor oil. If it hadn’t been for Trekking Los Angeles, I’d never have ended up in Highland Park.

But Yelp led to me to the real gem of the neighborhood. Judging by the magazine articles taped to the front door, Glaco’s is far from undiscovered. Which is a good thing. Because under the fluorescence and atop the linoleum lies one of the most killer collection of sweets I’ve ever seen. I’d come to the holy land of sugar fiends. Cane sugar fiends.

I walked starry-eyed through the aisles, along displays of glass bottles and vintage candy. As I stocked up on candy cigarettes, Bubble Up and chocolate taffy, I perused some of the ingredients list. High fructose corn syrup was nowhere to be found. At the check-out line, I asked the grayed, smock-wearing clerk if the sweets sold were all in fact original recipes, free of all the chemicals and crap found in American candy today.

His eyes shone, a web of smile wrinkles appearing. “Our products only contain cane sugar.” My heart fluttered. My wallet opened.

Turns out the clerk was John, the owner of Glaco’s and the man responsible for turning it from an old-school deli to a cornucopia of candy. Being a fairly mellow Tuesday afternoon, John commenced to guide me around the store, explaining his philosophy and pointing out beloved brands.

John was all about the taste. He wasn’t a new-agey health nut (obviously)—to him, products made from natural ingredients like cane sugar just taste better. “The big companies are all about cutting costs,” he told me. “They don’t care about taste.” He told me how he remembered, as a kid, when 7Up switched from using lemon and lime oils to extracts. “It was terrible,” he lamented, with the touch of nostalgic heartbreak reserved for unhealed childhood wounds. “Now this,” he picked up a bottle with care, “is the good stuff. Original Dr. Pepper formula, with Imperial cane sugar.”

John and I proceeded to bro down about ingredients for about 20 minutes. Coming from the Bay Area dining scene, it’s all about quality, natural ingredients, even at the bar—squeeze your own fresh juices, make your own simple syrup, even your own small-batch Vermouth, increasingly. It’s a trend based on taste. But for John, it’s no trend. The vintage candy and soda thing isn’t a gimmick, isn’t hip. It’s just the way sweets were always meant to be. A square-shaped old man with smiling eyes and a die-hard passion for sugar, I almost asked if he had any single grandsons.

Thirty dollars and one mean sugar buzz later, I headed clean across town to Culver City, the undercover hotbed of hipness. Some of LA’s most prominent contemporary urban art galleries are housed in the unassuming tract of wide streets and windy sidewalks, including one often featured on one of my favorite street art blogs, unurth. I checked out the whimsical exhibition by Brazilian street artist Nina Pandolfo at Carmichael Gallery, and chatted up the friendly dude gallery sitting. He told me not to miss the current exhibition two doors down, at Roberts & Tilton. And oh man, am I glad I listened.

The white walls of the gallery’s main room were lined with a single ring of photographs, hung right at eye-level. The black-and-white images were haunting, gritty, unflinching, and ultimately beautiful. They were the work of Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton is a kind of a Renaissance Man of contemporary cool—a pro skateboarder, photographer, artist, editor of a magazine, and, after reading the press release for his current show The Seconds Pass, a damn good writer, I’ve decided:

There is a scribble of asphalt and meandering ribbons of concrete tangled all over North America in a contiguous line of material that connects each of us to whomever else is also in contact. I sometimes marvel at this, walking from my front door and standing on the asphalt looking down at its grimy blackness, wishing I could rest my ear down on it and hear everything like the Indians in an old western film. The pavement I’m standing on is connected to other pavement, concrete, or steel to almost anywhere I can think of. Certainly everywhere you can drive to. Someone in Burnt Church, Tennessee is standing on gravel that is connected by touch to my street, just like someone is in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can be in New York City in 3 days from my home in the suburban sprawl of Orange County, California without ever touching the earth.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken from cars. On the road, in transit, the photos captured those fleeting moments, those “ephemeral winks” that slide past the glass like a poem of images, a slideshow of humanity and place. Walking, biking, waiting for the bus, staring out through the windshield—they were snapshots of those little moments, seemingly small and sometimes lonely, that are somehow connected, or connect us.

I’d been roadtripping for 9 days, riding the veins of America, the journey of it as much a destination as the places themselves. Dusty towns, gasping palm trees, billboards and cacti, strip malls and faces, faces—it was like a projection of something, a movie flickering on my windshield, disappearing in the side-view mirrors. And a thread of something laid underneath it all, tying it all together, like some obscure plot line I couldn’t quite grasp, but that kept nudging, whispering at me in its language of images, the roar of the wind. It was the road, the black asphalt itself—and god-damn, if I could take a decent picture, it’d look something like the ones lining the walls of that gallery.

It might have just been the cane sugar coursing through the blood, but things were beginning to make sense.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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