All entries for November 2006
November 30, 2006
I’ve travelled enough to know better than to expect things from new places and new faces, so when I set out on my journey to Siem Reap on 18th of November I had no expectation in mind. Travelling has become so blasé to me that it’d killed me a little inside. I took a late flight from Beijing to Kunming – a city in the south of China to catch a connecting flight to Siem Reap the next day. The hostel I stayed in overnight in Kunming was extremely nice: quiet, inexpensive, clean and full of messages from travellers on the walls. I left in a rush the next morning, having had no time to explore the city. The plane from Kunming was packed with Japanese tourists. Two hours after we took off I noticed weird swampy places beneath us; I never flew this close to the ground, and the sun was never this bright to let me see the tiniest details miles beneath our plane. When we arrived at the Siem Reap airport I found myself in a Khmer building resembling a hotel. It only had one floor for both departures and arrivals. The planes were so close to the terminal building it felt like we just got off a big bus.
Exchanging money was a silly idea. The locals love their dollar. The American dollar. A taxi ride to the centre of the town cost me 5 dollars; any other means of transport would cost even less than that. But the point is, they love their dollar, it’s impossible to trade with them in their local money. They whip out big calculators when you start asking how much it is in your local money.
Our office was in the gallery of a western restaurant Carnet d’Asie. It featured an air conditioned gallery, a gift shop and an amazingly beautiful garden restaurant. We all had expensive laptops, even more expensive cameras, free WiFi and great meals. Nothing reminded me of Cambodia except for the very tanned waiters.
There were 28 +/- of us, ‘poor’ Asian photographers willing to learn from the top photographers in the world. I was assigned to Antoine d’Agata, along with Sherman Ong (Singapore), Vera Mulyani (Indonesia), Adisorn Srisaowanunt (Thailand), A.K. Kimoto (Japan), Chan Moniroth (Cambodia) and Johnsi Nagaradjan (India). By the end of the workshop we grew into one big family that shared ideas twice a day (working lunch and working dinner) and went out nearly every night to ‘push the boundaries’ in order to challenge ourselves even more.
My project involved stalking children selling postcards on the streets. My initial idea was to make a photo essay about disabled people (not landmine victims), but having failed to find any I had to rethink the idea. The second favourite subject of my photo-interest is people. However, I had and still have moral objections to taking snapshots of people’s lives. I particularly dislike it not just because it’s an invasion into their privacy, but also because of how we later come to make sweeping generalisation about the people in the photos: we interpret what we see without having the slightest clue about the identity of that person and his/her story. Antoine heard me out and said that photography is essentially aggressive and violent, and if I had objections to how photography is made I should try a different way, focus on one person, get to know him/her and only then take the photos. It sounded like a challenge to me: to talk to a stranger who may not speak English, get to know him/her and earn their trust – it didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d do on a daily basis, but it was a compromise, so I agreed. Walking out of our working lunch I stumbled upon a child named Aot who was trying to sell me postcards. He spoke fairly good English and explained to me that his father was a gambler, travels and has a girlfriend, and his mum stays at home and makes souvenirs for sale. He also told me that the children selling postcards profit 50% from each sale, but they’d be lucky to sell three sets of postcards per day, which would only make them USD1,5 to bring back home. I bought a set of postcards from him for 2 dollars and thanked him for giving me such insight into the postcard selling industry. While I was working with Aot, some other street children joined us, curious as to what Aot is doing talking with a tourist like me. In the crowd of children I spotted a little girl who had a very beautiful smile. Her name was Kuhen, 9, and she was selling postcards with her bigger sister Kar, 14. The next day I went back and decided to focus my work on the two sisters. I was determined to take them to Hotel de la Paix, the boutique hotel for the super rich tourists, where they charge 420USD for a night. Cambodian children pay 10 dollars per month to get education. If they can’t pay that, they drop out. Compared to that desperate state of the deprived in Cambodia, the numerous boutique hotels in Siem Reap just seem absurd.
I learnt to lie rather virtuously to get into places I need and take the shots I want, so bringing a poorly dressed street child into a five+ star hotel wasn’t a problem for me. The staff gave me all the assistance I needed: they managed to intimidate my little model, but were themselves intimidated by my confidence, so I could feel the tension that Kuhen was feeling and could capture those emotions. During the two short hours of shooting there was one thing that struck me most: it was how sober, how conscious Kuhen was about the state of things. She knew she was in an air conditioned hotel, she felt the softness of the carpets, she tried the very comfortable sofas and enjoyed riding the lift. But she had no frown on her face when we walked out of the hotel. She never expected to stay there, never wanted for that trip to become a lifelong adventure, she didn’t dare to dream and she knew she’d be back on the streets selling postcards again. She was happy to walk out just as happy as she was to walk in. I meant to name my final project “Sober”, but Antoine said it was too subtle and we agreed on “Walk on by”. The music I chose was from the Velvet Underground, Stephanie Says. It was ironic that the projection show of my work took place in Hotel de la Paix with all those rich people attending the event.
In between working and messing around I managed to get a god-sister (think along the lines of god-mother, god-father and the like). She was a very charming girl, a waitress in a café where we often had our working drinks. Chhay Raksa is her name. I also had the honour of sitting next to a transvestite when my mentor attempted to challenge me to trying out homosexual intercourse with a shemale. Too bad she only fancied my groupie Sharman. In between partying too hard and waking up too early me and Johnsi got locked out of our guest house. Knocking to wake up the poor landlord was too amoral for us, so we slept on hammocks on the street under the starry blue sky. Johnsi claims she saw three falling stars and made a wish on each one. I got bitten during that night all over my back and legs and now I’m wondering if I have malaria. Chen Moniroth, our Cambodia girl married me and gave me a ring made of money. But the marriage didn’t last, she soon divorced me and married Johnsi. I begged my way onto a plane back from Siem Reap to Kunming, then ran through the whole of Kunming airport to catch a connecting flight that was due to take off 30 minutes after I landed. All in all I had a great time in Siem Reap and I’m grateful to every single one of my friends who showed concern and support and provided encouragement for this adventure!
November 15, 2006
Paul Pillar: The terrorism threat may be exaggerated these days, but even a hyped threat can be real.
John Mueller: ...in a large number of instances the “connection” of these murderous terrorists [the number of deaths inflicted since 9/11 by al Qaeda and al Qaeda types across the globe outside of war zones has been around 800 or 900] to al Qaeda is atmospheric at most.
James Fallows: What it suffered five years ago on 9/11 was terrible and unprecedented and paradigm-changing. But it does not mean, as current political discourse seems to assume, that we need to live in fear and assume the worst forever. <......> Should the United States act as if Mueller were right and then, despite its best efforts, be attacked, that would be terrible and tragic—just as it is tragic every day in America 100 people die in car crashes and 50 are murdered. But acting as if he were wrong and continuing to distort the country’s domestic politics and international relations out of excessive fear would be even worse.
Fawaz A. Gerges: Far being a breakthrough for al Qaeda, 9/11 was a disaster for it. Transnationalist jihadists such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are now isolated, even within the Muslim world and among Islamists themselves. The balance of forces has shifted dramatically against global jihadists in favor of local ones.
Jessica Stern: The one area where all the Roundtable participants seem to agree is that terrorists aim to make us react in ways that threaten our security, in essence doing their work for them.
The multiplication of terrorist organizations around the world bears resemblance to the multiplication of religious movements in the past century. It calls on more leaders, addresses more particular concerns and caters for more narrow interests. Each one of them, minor or major, has some kind of power (if mostly destructive) in hand. It also means it’s harder for the observers to classify the groups and deal with them. Like a Chinese saying goes “it’s easy to fight the Devil, harder to tackle the demons” (大鬼好斗，小鬼难缠).