By Job Honig
I had thought of writing this guest post for a while — as a kind of response to Tom’s essay on street photography. I have struggled with all the issues he mentioned for some years now; how to create meaning and avoid the pitfalls; how to add something to what is already out there. A daunting task if you see the work of some of the best in the genre. And why go for less, even when you know you are just a beginner?
Actually, street photography was never really my field. I have lived in Holland for most of my life, and my photography never revolved around the street. Sorry, that’s a lie: when I was 17 or so, I saved my money to get an Olympus OM-1, and I did street. Or better: shot portraits at the local cattle market (this was in the late sixties/early seventies; I’m that old). Those farmers had faces I couldn’t resist, and they seemed to overlook my presence: a shy young man, with a camera so small and silent they seldom noticed it. I still have the negatives, waiting to be scanned.
Then I did landscapes, boring ones. And nudes, exciting ones, but not until I was in my late fourties. I didn’t like low key or just the female form; I wanted them to express my feelings — frank, bold sometimes, but always respectful, even if nothing was left to the imagination. They were to be about my model, about myself, about how two people respond to each other in such an intimate setting (I usually worked 1-on-1). More than anything, they were to be portraits. Portraits with a hint of sublimated desire, because, after all, that was what I wanted to express.
About four years ago I moved from a tidy town in Holland to an Asian metropolis: Taipei. The culture shock that resulted still resounds. I had to re-invent my photography, myself. My experience proved useless, my photographic taste was shaken beyond imagination. My environment shocking due to a lack of care I could not understand. I felt (and often still feel) displaced, my mouth taped shut because of the lack of a common language and understanding; my ways of expression no longer applicable — or even possible. I also couldn’t travel very much: the best of Taiwan is inaccessible by public transport, and for me to try to drive here would amount to a suicide attempt: a kind of Russian roulette with cars and motorcycles as bullets.
‘Landscape’ is almost impossible, there being empty space whatsoever (unless you are a mountain climber, which I am not). Nude modelling is “not done” in Asian countries, and locations scarce. So what was left was the street; and only the street. I tried and tried, but fell into the very pitfalls that Tom described, most of the time. Every now and then a nice portrait in one of the many old-fashioned markets. Many were butchers, I later discovered, and when I realized the risks I was taking (none of them ever threw their chopper at me, thank God), I pointed my lens at food stalls. Since half of Taipei is cooking for the other half, it’s something you can keep doing forever. But a question came creeping up my mind: “What’s the use of this?” What does it tell me, except that Taiwanese can cook and like to eat? Nonetheless, some were okay, I think. And some were even good, but those were not the ones that got liked on tumblr, usually. So I stopped shooting.
That is, until I found myself in Vietnam, Laos, and some countryside in China. And then, miraculously, Vietnam and Laos were totally different. People seemed much more open and responsive. Suddenly I could interact. Without language, but nonetheless. I’m still asking myself “Why?” Because they used to be colonies? Because a westerner is less of an outsider there? Because they are not islands like Taiwan, where people tend to be more inward-looking? But then I went to China; which should be rather similar to Taiwan, shouldn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. When I walked those old streets, I found people who were as curious about me as I was about them. Some stoically ignored me when I took their photo, while others opened their faces in the warmest smiles one can imagine.
It is a selecton of those photos I want to show here: street portraits. Real people, having lived real, hard-working lives, but with a personality that is hard to overlook. With joy, even, despite the hardship they must have been through. People who, if photographed, usually pick their best suit and assume a pose. But who even (or especially?) when they don’t, demand utmost respect. People who probably just wondered what this weird pale foreigner was doing in their street, their village, their fields. People whose mouths sometimes fell open because of my blue eyes (not joking!) For me, all of that is what gives them meaning.
I had the time of my life. In Asia. Now to find a way to do the same in Taiwan.
Below is a selection of additional photographs from China & Laos