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1428 Walking man

0358 Leap 2

3780 Lines 2

5407 Moree sunset 2

4795 Puppy dog morning

0725 Window 2 best

2315 The rocks

4110 Coast

6595 Magnus in shadow

5497 Cages

0814 Straight line

6066 Legs 2

2230 Rail tunnel

4355 Atomic

6177 Industrial sunset

0245 Dashboard

9912 Parrot

1290 Misty road

6081 The real star

2501 Coal

3680 Favoured by local dogs

0209 The staircase

6086 Circumspect

1383 Action selfie

I began writing this on the hottest July day that I recall – bear in mind that, in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the middle of winter – whereas today is awash with rain. It is not, however, a cold day, and the air has a springtime humidity and welcome mildness. Usually such conditions only prevail at the end of August, when spring announces itself prematurely before falling back into hibernation. Yet, nothing about the weather will surprise me this year, as, under the reign of El Nino, under the carbon loading of the Anthropocene, temperature records fall around us like flies dying from heat exhaustion.

While every part of the Earth is being affected by climate change in its own way, Australia, with its often very tenuous, marginal ecosystems, has already been particularly hard hit. This year has seen unparalleled forest fires raging through the rainforests of Tasmania; not the rejuvenating, replenishing kind of fires either, but destructive and devastating fires in a land unused to such dry soil and conditions. Along thousands of kilometres of the east coast, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered its worst ever episode of coral bleaching, with the loss of huge swathes of diverse marine life in once thriving areas. Along the north coast of Australia we have witnessed the largest ever die-off of Mangroves, hit hard by drier conditions and warmer ocean temperatures, while off the coast of western Australia, thousands upon thousands of acres of sea-grass forest has been lost to warmer waters. El Nino years, by definition, produce anomalous conditions, yet with the atmosphere so laden with carbon dioxide and the ocean being the Earth’s principal heat sink, the extremity of those conditions has gone far beyond any experienced in the past.

It is said that winter in Australia will be shorter and sharper in the future, and just two weeks ago the winter bit in a cold spell that briefly had the east in its grip. Then, like that, it was gone – replaced by an uncanny, unseasonal mildness. Perhaps the winter has come and gone; already the trees are blooming with fresh shoots. Meanwhile, our government ignores the severity of the issue, the absolute priority of climate change, and cuts funding for research and abatement. It is what Shakespeare would call “a tale told by an idiot.” And all of us are, unfortunately, culpable and complicit as hell. And yet, as always, life goes on – with its grand and petty concerns, with its glorious vanity.

0713 Modern woman

Modern woman, Sydney, June 29, 2012

8789 Paharganj - Delhi

Banana seller, Parharganj, New Delhi, May 5, 2010

1819 Greyscale Floating markets

Damnoen Saduak market, Bangkok, July 8, 2009

2713 Ferry to Naxos

Ferry to Naxos, September 22, 2013

4175 Elephant dude 2

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 14, 2009

2252 Temple drummer

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Bali, March 20, 2009

2771 Mussoorie

Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India, April 8, 2010 – “Charlton Heston”

 

Most of the portraits I take are of people with their eyes elsewhere. Reluctant to intrude or make them feel self-conscious, I try to catch them when they are looking away. Sometimes they are already pre-occupied and make attractive subjects because of their contemplative mood, other times something might have just caught their eye and they are conveniently distracted.

This selection of portraits may have a wide distribution geographically and socio-economically, but all the subjects have one thing in common – their very personal subjectivity. Who can even begin to imagine what thoughts they are thinking? We may attribute some mundane generalities based on context, but whether their minds are on the metaphysical or the sublunary, whether they are in the here and now, or else, in some daydreaming fantasy, only they can know. As wondrous a talent as human empathy might be, we suffer from the flaw of projection wherein our own responses shape our imaginings of the thoughts of others. We are prisoners of our own minds; of the limitations of having only ever been one person.

9769 Chinese fishing net man 2

Fort Kochi, Kerala, December 28, 2012

This shot is taken in Fort Kochi, actually a distinct region of the city of Kochi, characterised by its Portuguese colonial past. The city and locale combine many traditions, brought through both conquest and trade.

The man in this image is walking on the boom of a “Chinese fishing net” as they are referred to locally. The structures are very curious things, rigged like a ship, long and spindly like a crayfish, they tilt over the brine of the Keralan backwaters, dangling and dipping wide nets. The shots below illustrate their insect-like appearance and hand-crafted elegance.

At times I look at this shot and feel it is one of the best I’ve ever taken. Then, at other times, it leaves me with a strange feeling of hollowness. Perhaps it is the industrial backdrop and the staunch and grim look on the man’s face. It contains humanity, but doesn’t feel like a celebration of humanity. Though, in a way, that is what it is intended to be.

9298 Chinese fishing nets

9021 Fishing net

The Return

Too much time has passed since I lasted posted a collection of photographs – partly because an air of malaise and pointlessness has set in around blogging, but mostly because I haven’t been excited about recent shots. Ever since my son was born I’ve mostly taken photos of him. This is great in that I have some really lovely images, but not especially interesting for people outside family circles. It’s also true, as noted before, that my range of travel has been somewhat limited, and when we do go somewhere, I’m often too distracted by parenting to spend the time finding the best shots.

Yet, whereas one world might seem to have shrunk, another microcosmic world has expanded exponentially – fatherhood. I say microcosmic because so much of my time is spent with my son, around the house and in the local area. We go through very similar routines most days and visit very familiar places – yet within that I’ve been privileged to develop a whole new perspective on life through watching the development of a human child. Before the weightiness of that eternal, paternal instinct, everything else seems far less important or purposeful. And in that microcosmic universe of my new family I’ve been swallowed somewhat, not unlike the immersion I seek in games – a willing escapism where all is coloured by “I’m a father now.”

So this is a return of sorts. A return to the vanity and exposure of the internet, where I shall post once again my small contribution to human culture, a collection of photos from the first quarter of the twenty-first century, one day to be archived and then utterly lost in the rises and falls and format shifts of the history yet to be made.

4017 Dude upright

4410 Biplane 3

4920 Tree morning

2352 Lady in window B & W

2515 Rusty rail

3933 Happy sunshine

3594 Wedding ring

5569 Leading with the elbow

2377 House wall

1283 Young guys, city

1357 Towel rack

1124 Light thin

0701 Old industrial 2

5812 Making and breaking Guernica

5939 Carriageworks

9882 Parrot head

3000 Crossing infinity

5957 Walk home

2307 Modern times

4574 Blue gate

Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 13, 2009

Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 13, 2009

This photo of a young Hmong girl in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has always given me mixed feelings. At first glance it seems like a gift to any travel photographer – the colourful traditional clothing, the curiously critical look of the subject, the exotic backdrop and setting, and, in truth, I took it without much thought, excited in the moment by the location and keen to capture it all as best as possible. It soon became quite clear, and really, should have been clear from the start, that these children are, rather sadly, paraded about for photographic opportunities in order to make a bit of money. By photographing her I felt complicit in all this and had to ask myself those age old questions about the impact of tourists and tourism, particularly on minority communities. Sure, it brings in dollars, but it’s obviously destructive and warps culture to the point that it becomes some commodified parody of itself.

When travelling, I’m often reminded of a line from Pulp’s Common People: “’Cos everybody hates a tourist, especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.” It’s fair to say that I do take an interest in local concerns and don’t think it’s all such a laugh, but, whatever the case, “the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath” so to speak. Whether I’m helping or hindering people as a tourist, it will always be the case that shortly after arriving I’ll be moving on to the next place and, ultimately, returning home to the decadent cocoon that is Australia.

Prague, June 8, 2007

Prague, June 8, 2007

The elderly gent in this shot seemed to be pausing to pull out a cigarette. I’m not sure whether he did or not – this was the last shot of the sequence – though perhaps I have remembered him doing so and the idea is now fixed. This was taken in Prague on a fine June day in 2007, during my first, only, and rather belated visit to the place. I had long wanted to go to Prague after finding it to be the most talked about city in Europe amongst other backpackers during my inaugural trip around the continent in 1996-7. That was only a few years after the Velvet Revolution and Prague was still opening up to the world – a sexy, dirty and dirt-cheap cultural powerhouse.

By the time I arrived in Prague in 2007, the place had been significantly gentrified. It was striking how clean and well-groomed many of the old buildings were – fresh paint, sandblasted stone-work, clean streets around them. I heard some people – other tourists – complaining about this; as though Prague had lost its edginess and become just another city in Mitteleuropa. For all I know many Czechs may well have felt the same, yet all I could think was how nice it was that this beautiful old city was being looked after properly. Unfortunately part and parcel of this transformation was also a steep rise in the cost of living for locals, partly due to its attractiveness to people like me – tourists. Dammit.

I draw no relation between Prague’s sprucing up and the work this man is doing on the rooftop, which seemed merely a private residence. Yet there was a noticeable amount of construction activity going on – mostly in the way of restoration. It lent the town a sort of spring-clean zeitgeist; an air of getting ready for something, of applying the finishing touches. Clearly my visit was not the focus of all their activity, and I just marched about for a few long, hot days; shooting all the beauty.

My Pet Baby

I’ve had some pretty interesting pets in my time – not so much for variety, we’re talking dogs and cats – but insofar as they had very entertaining and distinct personalities and lived to ripe old ages. We tend to anthropomorphise pets, seeing distinctly human traits in their behaviour, and, ironically, in return, they zoomorphise us, reminding us that we too are animals. This anthropomorphising is hardly surprising with dogs, considering they are humanity’s first experiment in selective breeding and have co-evolved with us from a species which already lived in social groups and understood social dynamics. Cats, on the other hand, are largely wild and transit between the domestic realm and the night-time hunt with ease. We still tend to humanise them, but they are too independent to be anything other than selfish parasites much of the time and, whilst they can be loving and loyal in their own way, it seems largely to gravitate around their own gratification.

It has been almost twenty years since I last had my own pet and have, in the meantime, had to make do with the cats at my parents’ house, or stolen moments with other people’s pets. Recently, however, around fourteen months ago, my partner V and I got a rather special kind of pet – a human baby. We acquired him by fairly traditional means – insemination, gestation and then, nine-months later, birth, and he is, without a doubt, far and away the most interesting pet I’ve ever had.

Magnus - dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Magnus – dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Never before have I had the opportunity to observe, up close, an infant primate – an animal, just like all the other pets I’ve ever had, but one with the potential to do quite incredible things – including rocket science. Let’s face it, however cunning our old Poppy might have been, she was never likely to create an ap or design a new form of propulsion for interplanetary probes. Not that Magnus has done any of these things yet, and, of course, he may never do. But so much is possible, and the possibilities, when contrasted with the present period of utterly dependent infancy, are a constant reminder that Homo Sapiens is, far and away, the most sophisticated animal on the planet – and, initially, the most helpless.

Before Magnus was born, before we even knew his sex, I jokingly referred to our child as ES1 – Experimental Subject  # 1. Because, despite being a very small sample size, I knew that what awaited me was a fascinating opportunity to study a human baby and get a truly intimate sense of how skills and knowledge develop, and to see the process happening before my eyes. This has been one of many saving graces over the last year and a bit; gaining detailed first hand knowledge of something I only understood in an abstract manner.

It is, however, a frustratingly slow process. For the first month he just lay there, moving his mouth like some automated grub, whose only form of communication was to indicate that he wanted feeding. Both V and I were unprepared for how animal-like he was – his eyes even seemed blank, like there was no one home.

7499 Magnus

Hello, anyone in there?

I’ve heard that some people refer to this period as “the fourth trimester”, as though the baby is still, in effect, in the womb and undergoing an extension of gestation. He certainly didn’t seem human and it was a little alienating, though we loved him to pieces and felt nothing but the deepest care and affection for him. Once he began to smile, after roughly a month, he acquired a whole new level of humanity that had been sorely lacking.

From that point forward, it has been a long slog of small milestones. Yet, whilst it is amazing to see him display new skills: Babbling, laughing, holding things and putting them in his mouth, rolling on his side, crawling, standing – there are such long gaps between these developments that one starts to focus on how long it takes for him to realise how to do something very simple. It is a very longue durée approach and I often find myself wondering why the process is so darn slow. At the moment, when playing with one of those toys where one places different shaped blocks through different shaped holes, despite three months’ practice and a couple of very patient teachers, he still doesn’t really get it. Humans are celebrated for their skill at pattern recognition, yet Magnus hasn’t quite grasped that only the triangular block will fit through the triangular hole, the square block through the square hole and so on. He occasionally gets it right, but this seems more random chance than anything else, a lucky hit. It’s also possible that he just doesn’t see the point, yet that doesn’t explain the bashing frustration he sometimes experiences when it doesn’t fit.

He has another toy, which took him about a month to master – a simple wooden triangle with three round holes in it. This came with three round wooden pegs in the primary colours which could be pushed through the holes. If I placed the wooden peg in the hole, he would push it through, no problem.

Pushing through...

Pushing through…

But, when handed the peg and left to do it himself, he continually tried to push it through the wood where there was no hole at all. In fact, he seemed to have the idea that the pegs had special properties which allowed them to be pushed through anything, because he tried for a long time to push them through the floor, through the wall, and, indeed, through me. This experimentation is admirably human, sure, yet the length of time it took him to understand that the pegs went through because there was a hole there already was surprising.

There is, apparently, no cause for alarm with any of this, as it seems most babies are pretty slow at picking some things up. Rather, it is simply the case that with so many complex fundamentals of the world painstakingly learned in our own infancy, we forget how many concepts need to be understood to make sense of something like this.

What's it all for?

What’s it all for?

The only thing I have to go on as to how bizarrely naive Magnus’ view of the world must be, is my own inability to understand basic physics when I was a child. One of my earliest memories, which I have mentioned before, is of being in the bath with my father, around the age of three, possibly slightly younger. When he stood up to get out, naturally the water level went down. Yet this made no sense to me and I asked him why it went down when the water now had so much more room to move around in. My father explained Archimedes’ principle to me and I remember having to really think about this to adjust my understanding. What that memory tells me is that babies, and indeed, toddlers, have almost no innate understanding of physics and geometry. I don’t mean complex maths, but rather, very basic stuff like gravity and motion, shape, mass and the like. They just don’t get it, and it takes at least a couple of years for them to work much of it out. We worked it out so long ago in that early automatic phase, that we forget we had to learn such things at all.

Of course, it would be unfair to focus only on these slow-burns when there are areas which he has mastered much more quickly. He worked out how to swipe touch screen phones to unlock them in a jiffy; it took him just two goes to learn to turn the light switch on and off, and he patiently taught himself how to remove and click my camera lens cover back into place in one session.

I've got this...

I’ve got this…

It took him about a week to work out how to replace the plug in the bath after having removed it. He went about teaching himself this with admirable determination; practising positioning and balancing himself in the water so that when he bent down, his face did not become submerged. Once he got it right, he continued to do it, over and over again, until he was completely confident in his new skill. Now when I say “plug, plug” he will crouch down carefully and pull the plug out – most of the time.

What impresses me most of all with all this is the sheer diligence and determination with which he will approach these tasks. Sure, he doesn’t have much else to do, but when he is determined to learn something, he will go at it for literally hours on end. This was the case with learning to go downstairs backwards. He mastered going upstairs in no time, clambering from step to step like a crazy crab. Yet, as with mountain climbing, coming down is the hardest and most dangerous part. Magnus applied himself to this task admirably and after a week or so of patient training and dedicated effort on his behalf, he nailed it.

Stair champ

Stair champ

As with adult learning, often the best results come after one has gone away and slept on the problem. This was certainly the case with the stairs. One morning after we got him up, he crawled out into the corridor and, first thing, without being shown, just turned around and went down the stairs backwards. Go synapses! For several weeks after that we just walked up and down the stairs, following Magnus while he improved his climbing techniques, poised like wicket keepers to catch him if he slipped and fell.

These achievements all mark great cognitive leaps; seemingly simple ideas such as that things have a place, that things can be pushed two ways, that some things bounce and some don’t – these are pretty radical concepts, especially when your operating system doesn’t come pre-packaged with software and has to write itself. To extend the analogy, Magnus is like an automated unit that crawls around hoovering up data, then processing it into functional software that enables him to perform basic tasks.

I can crawl!

I can crawl!

Another thought that has come to mind in observing Magnus is how, at this stage of life, without any understanding of the trappings of human culture or its meaning and purpose, the developed world in which he is growing up is just another environment. It might be very different to the forests, savannahs and shores of his ancestors, yet, without language, and without any sense of the origin of things, the world must, to him, bear no distinction between the natural and the manufactured. In this sense, his way of interacting with his environment is probably no different from that of Homo Sapiens children of a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. He crawls around, puts things in his mouth, babbles nonsense, picks things up, examines them, throws them, tries to eat them a second time, and then moves on to the next thing. I don’t doubt that this is precisely what human babies have done since our species first assumed its present form. We’ve hardly evolved since then at all – just a few tweaks like lactose tolerance – instead, our culture has evolved and we have shaped our environments.

What's this? Fruit?

What’s this? Fruit?

This morning I was letting Magnus wander about in the front yard, playing with the neighbours’ cat, Oliver. Magnus pulled the gate open – he’s nailed that – and crawled out onto the pavement. Oliver followed, and this cute little pair of quadrupeds drifted about, followed by me, an adult ape. They seemed somehow an appropriate pairing; roughly the same height when on all fours, yet there was no doubt which one of them understood his environment more intimately – the cat. Oliver, who has lived with a human baby already, is very patient with Magnus and follows him around like a world-weary feline chaperon. It seems almost unfair that one day soon Magnus’ intellect will far outstrip his, that he will eventually wield so much more control over his environment than a cat could ever hope to do. For now, however, the cat definitely has the edge on the ape. A strange inversion of what is, let’s face it, the perfectly natural order of things.

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