Sunday, February 28, 2016

(Not) Shooting Hawaii

As my attentive fans perhaps recall, my family and I were in Hawaii on vacation. Naturally, I had a camera with, and shot a bunch of pictures of my children, my beautiful wife, and other relatives. In a variety of scenic settings, and so on.

Naturally, also, I tried to internalize Hawaii and figure out something "serious" to shoot. Since I am on the record that a handful of days in a new place isn't enough, it's entirely possible that my near-inability to do anything very satisfying is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, all I can do is report what happened to me, from my point of view.

I could have shot a bunch of postcards (and I did shoot a few). I could have shot some arty pictures of coconuts (I did that too). I could have sought out more of the native people and shot them (not so much here, it was a holiday, after all). I could have shot the wild excess of tourism (I did a little).


But none of that is what I wanted to do. What I want, always, is to reveal something of my own view. Before I can do that I need to have a point of view. You could argue that if I hadn't been on vacation but instead had a full week to shoot I'd perhaps have made something, but I am dubious. My method involves a lot of sitting around doing nothing, and I did plenty of that, and I did indeed wrestle with Hawaii and how I feel about it.

The trouble is, it's complicated. Not, I think, any more complex than Tulane or Chicago or New Zealand or Antarctica. But, complex.

Hawaii is one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans. Something like 800 years after the birth of Christ, in our modern accounting, people rolled in. Polynesians, who possibly knew there was something way up and out there, but that it was far off, eventually made the voyage. It's possible that the coconut arrived before them, coconuts being incredibly good at ocean voyaging, These people brought other stuff, taro and probably some animals. It doesn't much matter. They showed up, the islands felt their footprints for 1000 years, and then the Euros showed up and, as they were wont in those corrupt days, screwed up everything. Sandwich Islanders got recruited, one way or another, to work the Euro's sailing ships. The diaspora was on, and colonization was too.

USA has interests, military bases are built, WWII happens, then statehood. Sugar cane happens somewhere in there. Tourism is now a huge deal.

There are layers and layers of residents, wave after wave of colonizers. The history is dense and fraught, there's a lot of animosity, and a lot of Aloha, as well.

There is the constructed view of Hawaii, Aloha and all that. It probably has deep roots, but a great deal of it is an invention of the tourist industry.

Combing all this out is probably impossible. If you shoot the postcards, you're just replicating the tourist myth. If you shoot the natives, you've just a half-assed National Geo wannabee. And so on. There's more to it.

Visually? Hawaii is a maze of visuals. There's a lot of America: strip malls, Safeway stores, condominium towers, hotels, airports. There's a healthy dose of the Caribbean, complete with Jamaican dudes. There's a little California in the run-down ranch houses with the low walled yards with dirt and palm trees. The hills and mountains don't look like anythng else that I've seen, though. Green and lush to windward, dry and barren to the lee. Unmistakeably volcanos, but aggressively eroded by the constant rain and surrounded by the sea. The Pacific Ocean, always present in Hawaii, always near, and not quite like any other oceans. The resorts, entirely false enclaves capturing a myth of the tropics, a sort of dream of Colonial Europe, complete with short brown people serving you obsessively at every turn, and fantastically expensive.

(A side note, SAP was having their annual boondoggle for their top sales people at the Grand Wailea, when my wife and I went there for dinner. This place starts around $800/night for a room, and it's really far from everything. This is designed to contain and entertain wealthy white people. There are multiple swim-up bars, connected by waterslides. One imagines that as you get drunker you get flushed down to lower and lower bars and then, finally, comatose, out to sea. Speechifying SAP executives, hilariously, made these two announcements in my hearing: "We have taken over the island of Maui!" apparently conflating this sort of freakish Disneyland with the entire island and "Unleash your indomitable will!" which my wife astutely points out is actually something we would prefer a bunch of Germans explicitly not do if that's OK. And all this is also Hawaii, isn't it?)

So, there's a lot going on here. As an Artist of some sort, at least aspirationally, it's my job to comment, to remark, not to simply give you a jumble of pictures. Even if the pictures are "the good ones" it's no good unless they pull together to say something about something. A critic cannot simply recite the plot of the movie, or worse, the plot of the first act of the movie.

To make something of Hawaii I need more time to digest, time to think. It would probably be silly to try to "explain" Hawaii, so my goal should probably to select a strand of the thing and bring it out for you. Perhaps I could show how that thread connects to the other threads.

Maybe next year. I had some germs of ideas even now, but they need time to marinate and evolve.


  1. I lived in Hawai'i for two glorious years in the early 90s. It's still in my head. My boring photos from then reveal almost nothing of my *experiencing* of the islands, which was profound. I feel no need to 'explain' Hawai'i to others photographically. How could I ever translate my feelings into the requisite arrangement of pixels?

  2. This is an interesting post. I experienced the same with photography on vacations - the attempt to make satisfying pictures which turned out "not bad", but "not very good", either. I eventually decided that it's not worth the effort and left the camera at home ever since. After all, I am not a professional photographer who *has* to accomplish something on each assignment (thanks god since I wouldn't be any good at it).

    Given a place with a rich history, it makes me wonder if telling one's own story about the place can be accomplished by a "pure" photoessay at all. By "pure photoessay", I mean one without accompanying text. Can pictures actually "tell a story", or are they just signifiers which point at things or concepts we already know? When I think about Hawaii, there is e.g. the notion of joyful indigenous people, or of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Pictures from either will immediately point me to "Hawaii". Is it possible to set up your own narrative based solely on pictures?

    One last remark: Sorry for the misbehaving Germans - I'm German myself - but perhaps you can find some consolation in that you had them around only for a couple of hours, whereas I have these annoying people around 24/7/365 till the end of my life ...

    Best, Thomas

  3. Great post. I'm on vacation myself right now (sadly only Tenerife) and feel the same dread about making gold out of tourist view dross. In the end it may just be "holiday snaps" but they are valuable, if only to me and my immediate family.

  4. maybe what you shoot is the tension between vacation paradise and the history of the place?

  5. I have visited Hawaii many, many times over the last 35 years (!), and I have yet to "find my mark" as a photographer on those precious shores. Perhaps the very thing - the islands' mystical ineffability - that brings me back again and again. My last attempt at summarizing this aesthetic sate-of-affairs:

  6. oooooh. yeeeeeah.
    someday I will shoot hawaii. maybe.
    waikiki, I saw three or four shots I reeeeally wanted.
    but, first I need a less cantankerous and opinionated (new) point-n-click with maybe a little zoom... that doesn't randomly adjust where the focus is, that isn't annoyed about being forced to photograph red, and doesn't automatically shut itself down at random moments.
    baby steps...

  7. Ok, as indicated, pls unpack (if you will) the horizon photo - (it is the windmills on West Maui, yes?) maybe laik...what were you experiencing, and what do you wish to say?
    I never thought of Hawaii this way.
    Also, the storm is freakin' awesome, what a day! savage cloudrakers those mountains are...

    1. The horizon is actually the observatory on Maui proper. My eldest is pretty interested in astronomy, and to a degree so am I, so I was kind of pleased to be able to see it from our condo on a clear day. There was a day when the horizon was pretty crisp, so there it is.

      This is symptomatic of my problem photographing Hawaii. Lots of interesting personal tidbits and idea fragments, as well as lots of pretty pictures, but nothing that hangs together, no coherent "idea of Hawaii" emerges, nothing distinctive.

    2. heh. It is the classic "Molitor otter photo" yah. I started thinking it might be the other direction than the windmills...

      yeah, Hawaii… so intense! so saturated! all these exquisitely excruciating contrasts.. how to express...