Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Isn't It Hot?

There's a whole genre of photos I think of as 'affluent white guy goes to Thailand.' You probably know the ones.

Small ancient woman in funny hat selling colorful things.
Guy in funny hat in rice paddy. Maybe with ox.
Solitary monk looking serene.
Line of young monks. Saffron robes.
Distant mist-enshrouded hills/ridge beyond green fields.

Etc. The theme is generally serenity with a bit of the mystery of the east. Look how foreign and strange. Look how serene. How strangely beautiful. You can shoot these things outside of Thailand, obviously, and you needn't actually be white to do it. But here's a question for you: why isn't it hot in these pictures?

I've never been and don't have a lot of interest. But every single written or spoken description of the area says: chaotic, loud, often squalid, and mind-destroyingly hot. I literally cannot bring to mind a single written description of anywhere in southeast asia that suggests anything of serenity.

The pictures and the descriptions seem to be from completely different places. What on earth is going on?

I'm pretty sure that when amateurs go to Laos or wherever, they're not really there to take photos of Laos. They're there to crank out the pictures they've seen online or in magazines of the Mysterious Orient. And so we get nothing of their impression of Laos at all, nothing of their experience, nothing new, nothing true. Just copies of copies of copies of false pictures.

See also Havana, Cuba. It is apparently also not at all hot in Havana, but all walls have a patina of peeling paint and yet none are freshly painted and none are bare. The Communists, one is left to assume, have perfected a way to preserve paint eternally in a picturesquely peeling state. One wonders if all the beautifully preserved Chevys are part of this strange alchemy.

And so it goes with the various photo-tourism spots. It's devolved to trophy hunting, and that's a shame. You spend ten grand or whatever getting out somewhere really interesting, someplace about which surely, if you have more sensitivity than a melon, you have some strong reaction, impression, idea. And you squander that by shooting the Trophy Photos instead of something personal, something meaningful. Something, one imagines, perhaps even important.

People are different, and I know I am slower than most. Still, a major reason I never consider going on some photo safari is that I know I cant'd do anything in three days. Chuck me into Vietnam or Nigeria on a whirlwind tour, and I'd be lucky to crank out a couple trophies. There's just no point in shooting, unless I've got a month to sort through the impressions and develop an approach. I might go, but I wouldn't shoot. Well. Snapshots. My wife in front of the Eiffel Tower, my children in front of a charging lion, that kind of thing.

On the one hand, I can see that there is pleasure in producing even lame Steve McCurries, but on the other hand, what a waste.

Are you serious, or are you just noodling at a piano you cannot really play?


  1. Bangkok is chaotic, loud, often squalid, and mind-destroyingly hot. Chiang Mai, where these images are usually found, is more tranquil and a lot less hot.

    This being said, the reasons you are only seeing these pictures are multiple:
    -people travel on package tours, and the group will only stop at "picturesque" spots.
    -the Internet presents you with "popular" photos first, and these pictures are the most popular.

    If you look for them, you will find different pictures of Thailand (or Laos, Cuba, etc...). Some people take them, although they are a minority.

    1. Yup. That was pretty much my take.

      I read a book, The Last Unicorn, about doing naturalist work on the border of Laos and Vietnam. Hot, humid, jungle. Mostly it was words, but even the few snapshots included (b&w, awful reproductions) managed to convey something fecund and dense about the area. And the words, well, they were pretty evocative.

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