From the Latin and derived from the earlier Greek, meaning "pertaining to the everyday"
Those who pick up a camera find themselves faced with a question: what shall I photograph? For the commercial photographer, the answer is more readily available; much the same can be said for the newspaper staff photographer, the fashion photographer, the photojournalist, or the freelancer with a target market.
A large-scale outdoor photography exhibition staged in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century on Krakow's famous "Royal Way" that runs through a park encircling the Old Town ably illustrates the matter at hand. Mounted on six-foot tall placards, the full-color photographs measured approximately four feet by three feet. They were of scenes of nature that I myself had no acquaintance with, and unsurprisingly so: they were from all over the world, but were shot from a hovering helicopter with, if to judge by the quality of the photos, a then absolutely state of the art digital camera with extraordinary powers of resolution and lenses of the very highest optical quality. The cost of travel by commercial airliner to as many out-of-the-way locales as these would alone require more money than I have made over the past fifteen years, let alone the camera gear or, crazier yet, the per-hour fee to rent a helicopter and pay a pilot to hover near the steaming crater of an active volcano. If all a photographer need do to shoot the likes of Ed White on his first spacewalk during a 1965 Gemini flight was to ask NASA for a small favor, I'd be less inclined to shoot the gin mill down the street.
Most people can't afford trips to Patagonia or rent helicopters. I'm one of those people.
For the amateur like myself, absent opportunities for professional involvement and unable to attract sponsors (let alone big-money or corporate sponsors), the question is a bit thornier. In my case, the answer is clear: I shoot my environment, the one I live in, the one all around me -- "Amphemerinos."
A Natural History of the Overlooked
Mine is a "natural history of the overlooked" because, first of all, I shoot only what I find, and I shoot it in its undisturbed state. I alter nothing in the scene that confronts me; everything in a picture is precisely as I came upon it; it is in its"natural" state. On occasion I will travel in order to shoot, but to nowhere more "exotic" than a town right down the rail line, or if by car, by bus, or by bicycle, down the road; then, having arrived, I walk, as I very often do in my own immediate neighborhood, where regardless the numbers of times I have explored it in the past, I almost always come across something new. Much of the time, what grabs my eye is the sort of thing that the vast majority of people walk right on by, indeed hasten past, imagining that nothing in their immediate environment is worth notice --hence "overlooked."
What is a deserving subject for photography?
There is no such thing as subject --or object-- "undeserving" of being photographed. Obviously, there exist quite a few things, criminal in nature, that one would be foolish to attempt to stage for the purpose of photographing it, although by happenstance capturing such a scene or activity by virtue of being in that place at that time is altogether another matter. Think of the Zapruder film, or the scenes at Buchenwald upon its liberation, or Kevin Carter's famous 1993 World Press Photo winning shot of a vulture standing near a starving child in South Sudan.
Photographs of this sort usually qualify as photojournalism (or reportage or documentary photography) and as such are given a "pass." Gratifying our desire for knowledge of events worthy of our attention, they likewise often satisfy our expectations for photography itself, namely the public spectacle, the exotic, the gruesome, the bizarre, and the foreign and the faraway. Combat photography --think Robert Capa, only a handful of whose negatives shot from the fore of his landing craft and in the surf as he struggled towards Omaha Beach on D-Day survived a darkroom technician's mishandling-- is one example that comprises all the aforementioned qualities of this sort of photography.
I have been engaged in earnest in photography for almost twenty years, and began to shoot in dedicated fashion in 1999. I have only rarely shown anyone the photographs I have taken (to date I have had but one exhibition), and when I do, much of the time the reaction is mixed, namely bewilderment at the subject matter along with surprise at the composition and colors. The bewilderment often comes of disappointed expectations, specifically of expectations for landscapes, panoramas, "nature," vivid sunsets, beaches, and generally what is oddly denoted as "the picturesque." The interior of an abandoned factory, an overflowing trash bin, or the courtyard a run-down substandard apartment house into which one might never dare enter to explore, are almost reflexively thought to be "not quite proper" a subject for a photograph.
Ambivalent and sometimes unabashedly negative reactions have taught me that as a rule people have been taught, or educated, into ways of seeing without their being aware of this very "education." Very nearly invariably, opinions of what is not just a "good" photograph but what itself IS a photograph --and what is not a photograph-- are the product of what one has been shown. In other words, the very capacity for seeing is itself shaped by what has been presented to us as "worth looking at." The National Geographic magazine on the table in the waiting room of the dentist's office is worth looking at, but not the run-down parking lot behind the dentist's office. Similarly, what's on the television insistently demands to be seen, whereas what's outside one's own window is usually best ignored. It's almost impossible to ignore advertisements for brand-new cars, but a derelict city bus is considered an eyesore. We take dozens of photos of our hotel room in Las Vegas while never taking notice of the graffiti-covered bus shelter across the street --except when wishing we didn't have to look at it.
In fact, the things we routinely overlook that are the very environment we live in are as interesting, compelling, as visually captivating, and very often every bit as spectacularly beautiful as the things we unthinkingly assume --and have been trained to think-- are "worth looking at," and being photographed. Photographs of what people understand as "exotic" and "the faraway" are a good example. Iowans consider Indonesia exotic, but to Indonesians, Iowa is exotic. For me, what awaits directly outside my door is exotic, not to mention what might be inside my neighbor's house.
What is it that "grabs my eye"? However much one who views these photographs might wonder why I so often photograph the things I catch on film, I wonder the more; I myself do not fully understand why such things attract my eye. Forced as I am here, in these confines, to provide some manner of explanation, I would say that to begin with, what interests me most are the unintentional or accidental artifacts of the human environment. That is to say, not the quite rare, altogether exceptional monuments and memorials we like to think speak to who and what we are, but the everyday, the mundane, the ordinary, and the traces and scars on them that are the most eloquent testimony to how we actually live. It is no coincidence that for the most part, such things are adjudged beneath our notice, because as John Ralston Saul has convincingly argued, ours is an unconscious society.
Encouragement for Disapproving Critics
Based on the reception my photography has received over the course of approximately twenty years, perhaps 50% expressed indifference or neutrality, claiming --perhaps mercifully-- to have no opinion either way; 20% were positively put off, upset or irritated, and in a few instances outraged (as with the photos being an affront to Polish national / patriotic sensibilities), and 20% expressed open delight and approval. I am never but grateful for a response whether it be positive or negative, and am especially grateful if the critic offers an explanation for their opinion, as they always prove very instructive.
Those who find the photographs objectionable might try something novel: pick up a camera and build a better body of work, and justify it for us. Tell us why it is that what you see, and the way you see it, is the more deserving of being seen.
Captions: To Caption or Not to Caption
My rejection of the use of captions with respect to the type of photography that I pursue is very nearly total.
When with camera in hand I look for a photograph, what I look for are those scenes that defy easy explanation, which raise questions rather than answer them. One question might be, what IS this photograph? Captions defeat the purpose.
Should a visitor have questions about a given photograph, I am more than willing to respond to the question; simply utilize the comments form on the home (main) page.
Captions are an absolute necessity for many if not most types of photography, as with reportage, photojournalism, documentary photography (e.g., social and industrial documentary), and the like, for the simple fact that such photography seeks to impart a manner of pertinent fact. My photographs share that aim but leave it to the viewer to derive --or, if you will, to invent-- pertinent fact through the exercise of the imagination, or to put it with much greater precision, by forcing the viewer to put the imagination in play, to ask the imagination to play.
Doing so on this site preserves fidelity not just to the site itself, but to the very act itself of making a photograph (properly said, one makes as opposed to takes a photograph), but above all, it preserves fidelity to what one in actuality does each and every time one opens one's eyes to look at, well, virtually anything and everything. Where in your field of vision is a caption telling you what it is you are seeing? In cases where such "captions" exist, we as often as not mistrust them; think of the most prevalent type of caption. It goes by the name of "advertisement." Of far greater significance than the advertisement's "message" is the fact that your imagination is being commandeered.
Visitors to Amphemerinos will have noticed that very few of the photographs on the site are accompanied by captions (and none have been given titles). For reasons that demand an exploration that is beyond the scope of this website, what seems to be a very great majority of people think a photograph sans caption is incomplete, that photograph = caption.
Admittedly, a number of the photographs on this site do in fact deserve, perhaps demand, a caption, specifically those that were taken in and around Oswiecim, unfortunately much better known by its German rendering, Auschwitz, and its neighboring villages of Brzezinka (in the German, Birkenau) and Monowice (Monowitz), all of which sit cheek by jowl. While there exist few people who are unfamiliar with the iconic gate to the Auschwitz I camp with its "Arbeit Macht Frei" wrought-iron scroll work legend, or with the no less iconic main guard tower at the entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau II camp beneath which runs the rail line that leads into the camp, relatively few people are aware that Oswiecim in 1939 was an archetypal Polish village of considerable beauty and charm, or that both Brzezinka / Birkenau and Monowice / Monowiitz were likewise archetypal farming villages. Even fewer people know that these localities are still very much inhabited, with larger populations than lived there before the war, with the remains of the camps themselves "just down the street and around the corner" so to speak. Provided one knows what to look for, traces of those camps and the activities of the Nazis are visible everywhere, such as with the various nearly indestructible bunkers and the many tiny one-person concrete bomb shelters that dot the roads and fields where once there were concentration camp facilities. In such cases, captions afford an understanding that otherwise might not obtain from looking at the photograph only.
Why Are There So Few People in So Many of the Photographs?
Prolonged engagement with an activity of virtually any description brings change in the activity itself. No carpenter with thirty years of experience in woodwork builds the way he did when he began with his craft; the same can be said of the pastry baker, the novelist, the autobody mechanic, the beachcomber. So too is it with me. Initially I was much taken with street photography, but over time my interests underwent a distinct change. One reason for the initial interest was the simple fact of the camera I used for the better part of ten years, the Minolta XG-1 35mm. An inferior camera with an at best middling-quality lens, it was best suited to what I will call the street-side snapshot, but regardless the quality --a Leica, for example-- the 35mm has its limitations, chief among them the rectangular format and the variety of aesthetic constraints that the format imposes on a composition. As my interests changed, it became apparent to me that the 35mm afforded me much less freedom than did a larger-format camera.
The shift in interest itself likewise had to do with limitations. 35mm ifilm is the least expensive of all the available film formats, is easy and simple to load into a camera, and typically features 36 negatives to a single roll of film, which encourages the photographer to shoot liberally, with much less caution and restraint than is the case with other film formats. However, 35mm photography of street scenes and of the people on those streets, in shops, and so forth, limits the way that people can be photographed. The standard 35mm shot of a person passing by, or when passing by that person, is ultimately in passing per se --that is to say, a fleeting image. What it would mean to study a person with the camera, I really do not know; I have not had the opportunity to do it in the way I would like. People, I think, are for novelists, pencil artists, painters --but above all, the writer. What's more, few things are more agonizing than to have a vision of photographs one might make of a person, and have that person decline to be photographed. On a final but more important note, the 35mm format is much less well-suited to the subjects I wished to shoot, for example architecture, and to the compositions I wished to achieve.
The rectangular format is well-sited to landscapes as well as street scenes, but the square format of the medium-format 6cm x 6cm camera produces "tighter," aesthetically stronger compositions. With the switch to the 6x6 and more expensive, twelve-frame (12 negative), 120mm roll film, street snapshots of passers-by took a distant back seat to the aesthetic commitment to "the overlooked," the artifacts of the human environment.
However, other more daunting constraints emerged when I departed for Saudi Arabia, where I spent six years.
The Challenge of Photography in Saudi Arabia
As hardly needs to be said, Saudi Arabia has been very much in the media over the last fifteen years, yet as great though the volume of print and broadcast articles may be, the Kingdom remains very little known, very poorly understood, to a great extent unexplored, and shrouded in an obscurity that is as purposeful and deliberate as it is dense and for all practical purposes impenetrable. Persons of a certain age and place, such those of my generation, may not have as clear a memory of it as do I, but I can clearly recall the National Geographic, Time magazine, Newsweek magazine, and other mass circulation periodicals of the 1970s and the frequent appearance in them of expansive articles about a Saudi Arabia up to its proverbial eyeballs in the oil money that the Kingdom --read, the House of the Al-Saud-- was using to fund all manner of enormously expensive projects, such as irrigated cultivation of wheat and corn for export, and anomalous amusements such as ice skating rinks and indoor ski slopes. National Geographic was especially fond of running such puff pieces, replete with National Geographic's trademark multi-page color photos and fold-outs. Acquainting us with the likes of aerial photos of the Empty Quarter and limitless expanses of brilliant white-sand deserts, the impression generated was one of familiarity with Saudi Arabia, whereas in truth, this "exposure" was deceptive, in the manner of smoke and mirrors, or better yet, making of the camera a tool of photo-journalistic Potemkins collaborating with the Saudi regime in concealing the reality of Saudi Arabia, especially the reality Saudi "society" --a term that applies to Saudi Arabia in only the very loosest sense-- by hiding it behind pretty pictures, often from above, as in "aerial." (Tellingly, because Saudi Arabia refuses entry to tourists, has no tourist industry per se, and strictly controls the movements of pilgrims to Mecca [the hajj], postcards are quite difficult to find. The only examples of such that I managed to locate were shot from either a helicopter or a plane offshore and over the water, at altitude, with the camera peering into the country at such a distance that the details on the land could barely be made out. The significance is hard to mistake.) Peeling back those pretty pictures to see what lay behind them, and even more so, to try to "know" so secretive, insular and guarded a society, is as difficult as it is fraught with risk. So sweeping a statement as the foregoing would be controversial only to those who, unlike myself, have never been in Saudi Arabia.
My direct involvement with Saudi Arabia began in May, 2009. From virtually that moment on, I have done my best to minimize mentioning the very name, "Saudi Arabia," in my correspondence and conversation, for fear of my inability to restrain myself, so great the amount that could be said. To the greatest extent possible, I will confine myself here to matters relating to photography.
Until only a handful of years ago, photography was strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia --that is to say, it was illegal. Famously disinclined to provide explanations or rationales aside from referring to whatever Quranic injunction might be said to be relevant, Saudi Arabian authorities shed light on the reasons for either the prohibition or for the lifting of it. However, this typical and deliberately cultivated obscurantism might serve to explain what by my lights seems to be the enduring suspicion, on the part of police, the military, the Saudi National Guard, the numerous security organs and agencies, and the citizenry as a whole, that while the letter of the law may have changed, the spirit remains the same. In Saudi Arabia, simply carrying a camera, let alone using one, draws a lot of attention. Not a lot of it is positive.
As is obvious simply by looking at the photographs in the "Saudi Arabia" section, my subjects can hardly be said to be controversial or offensive in the sense of insulting religious, cultural, or political sensibilities; furthermore, to repeat what has been said elsewhere here, the main focus of my photography is not people per se, but the artifacts of the human environment. Not only did I exercise great care to avoid capturing Saudis on film without their being aware of it, as is done when people take pictures of the beach when vacationing, I generally went far out of my way, to desolate locations, or to places that at the given time of day or week were completely deserted.
Not that it was necessary to go out of my way to find areas devoid of people. One of the more bewildering aspects of the life --in the looser meaning of the word-- I encountered in Saudi Arabia was the unsettling absence of it in precisely the place one would expect to find it. Residential neighborhoods in Saudi Arabia --rather, neighborhoods in Saudi Arabia wherein "real" Saudis live-- resemble agglomerations of family fortresses. A house that is a home is configured as a high-walled compound, not infrequently topped with barbed or razor wire ("concertina wire"), in the great majority with a large steel or iron entrance door, the purpose for all of it apparently being to erect an insurmountable barrier, first of all against the eye. Seemingly always of solid cement block ("cinder block"), most everything is at sharp right angles, and what windows, if any, are visible to the passer-by are few, usually tiny, never open, and always covered, such that even at night it is impossible to tell if anyone is home. I spent innumerable hours wandering through neighborhoods, and never once did I detect odors coming from a kitchen, never once overhead a voice, let alone a conversation or laughter or an argument, never heard a radio or music or an instrument, never saw someone washing a car in the street, and strangest of all, never heard children or saw them at play. In fact, I never saw anyone --except for male servants and drivers, Bangladeshis or Nepalese or Filipino, or some other nationality (never, ever a Saudi servant!). Without exception, the neighborhoods were entirely devoid of life without regard to time of day or day of the week.
The overriding reason I ultimately devoted myself, in my use in particular of the medium-format cameras (as distinct from the street photography produced with the 35mm format), to the "artifacts of the human environment"
deliberately devoid of people, has overwhelmingly to do with the unmistakable message one does indeed receive in Saudi Arabia, namely that its people do not wish to be "known," do not want to be "explored," do not want to be "exposed," feel no need to explain themselves and even less of a desire to do so, and that at the end of the day, Saudi Arabia and its people are to a very great extent unknowable and will remain so provided the society retains its present form. From absolutely everything I have been able to ascertain, both in the sense of what I observed, and what I learned from Saudis themselves through my extensive conversations and interactions with them --always, of course, men only-- and from my voluminous reading, Saudi people, and Saudi society, will have no truck with the sort of self-revelation that over time has become an inextricable element of Western society and which is inscribed in virtually every cultural product produced not only by the West, but today by the non-Muslim world as a whole. Nor, for that matter, do Saudis and Saudi society have much of a taste for another foundational element of the Western mind, curiosity, and the products of it. To the Saudi, anything and everything knowable, the Known itself, has already been revealed. Needless to say, the Quran predates the camera and the novel, therefor obviating the need or desirability of them, more or less ruling out the emergence of a Saudi version of a Henri Cartier-Bresson, and most definitely ruling out a Diane Arbus or, heaven forbid, a Robert Mapplethorpe --or a James Joyce or a Henry Miller or, heaven forbid, a Virginia Woolf or, double heaven forbid, a Simone de Beauvoir, or heaven forbid to the Nth power, a Germaine Greer.
(In the "People" section are plenty of photographs from Saudi Arabia, but they are overwhelmingly not photos of Saudis, and were shot in an area where no Saudis live and very few have need --or want-- to go. More on this below.)
Even so, literally and without exception, every single time I went out with my camera to do some shooting, no matter where it was, no matter how far out in the desert or deep in alleyway warrens, I was stopped by either a policeman, a member of the Saudi National Guard, a soldier, a member of a security organ, or a private security force (as are maintained by wealthy Saudis and Al-Saud princes). Each time, my identity documents would be demanded along with my cell phone, the details of which were duly noted; I would be questioned, and often detained for half an hour or more as records were run on computers and phone calls made. Sometimes I would be detained for a few hours, and one time was directed by an officer of the Saudi Army to write a confession --that is to say, that I confessed to having taken photographs. When once far out in the desert, an SUV pulled up, the door opened, and the driver demanded my documents and to know what I was doing (this was at least fifty miles away from the nearest human habitation). It being obvious that he was not a "security" person, I refused, and asked him on what authority he should demand anything from me. The answer? He was a Qatari --not even a Saudi citizen-- and that was all I need know. Of course, he refused to relent, calls were made, the police came, and on it went. Hilariously, sometimes, at the end of a given instance if being detained, the personnel detaining me would ask me to take their pictures.
Naturally, on a good number of these occasions I was ordered, as a condition of my release from detention, to delete all the photographs stored on my camera. A great number of Saudis have a solid command of English, but even those with only the barest grasp of the language know the word "delete." Yet whether the person detaining me had a good or a poor grasp of English, no one ever seemed to understand the concept of film photography as distinct from digital; most Saudis' familiarity with photography comes from computers, smart phones, and digital cameras, to the extent that the likes of any sort of camera that is not in the "traditional" 35mm shape, such a a Twin Lens Reflex or a Press camera, or that predates the digital age is utterly foreign to them. It quickly became obvious to me that to try to explain film photography was very nearly futile, but more so, to fail to try was the best policy. With the inevitable order, "delete, delete," I would make a very convincing show of exasperation, annoyance, and reluctance, then press and for a moment hold down a button, pretending to delete my digital images, and with eyebrows raised, give an imploring, distressed look of, "See? I did it. Are you happy now?" It seems incredible that they didn't know it was all an act, but if they did, then they certainly played their roles with genuine professional finesse. It's part of the doubtful charm of Saudi Arabia that I could spend the next thirty years there, taking photographs and going through the detention and deleting rigmarole, and never find out whether it was all just for show. (Unless I really crossed the line, and then.... ?)
To repeat, my interest was to photographs the artifacts of the human environment, not to photograph people. Although I will avoid burdening the reader with elaborations of why this is so, with respect to Saudi Arabia, reasons going well beyond considerations of aesthetics play a very large role in my approach to photography in Saudi Arabia. In a word, it is, as has been said above, a deeply secretive, insular society; one might plausibly say it is highly self-protective to the point of defensiveness, suspicious to to the point of paranoia, and intensely private. Explaining how these impressions are gained is not easy, especially in light of the fact that without in any way whatever contravening the claims made in the preceding sentence, it must be said that Saudis are immensely friendly, unfailingly polite, charming, warm, quick to smile, solicitous, always ready to help or lend a hand, and are possessed with a sharp-edged sense of humor and a delight in the absurd. I never met a people so easy to like as the Saudis. At the same time, one literally never knows where one stands with them, whether their friendliness is genuine and sincere, or a studiously well-maintained facade that, when contrasted with yet other, equally certain realities and truths, amounts to a public face that is mandatory for all. In that respect, it's all Alice in Wonderland. One the one hand, there's the incredible warmth; on the other, the unbridgeable distance they maintain; there's the fantastic openness, and the barred, locked doors and the bizarre penchant for high walls and razor wire; there's the politeness and deference and civility, and the the two faces, the double-talk, the never a straight answer, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't; there's the high religious idealism and lofty self-assessment, and the corruption, the widespread visible rot and endemic filth, the cheating, the dishonesty, the abuse; there's the pretense of egalitarianism, and the basic dynamic of the master-slave relationship made manifest everywhere and at every turn. Simultaneously, one is made to feel welcome, with open arms, while in a hundred ways one is made to understand what a total, complete, utter outsider one is --the infidel contemptuously kept at hygienic arm's length. As a non-Muslim, and an American, one is made to feel an honored guest, and as a non-Muslim and an American, one comes to understand one is inferior, a lesser, and a servant. There's much to say of it... but that's the "other story," which shall not be told here.
In one thing and in one thing only is everything as clear as can be. As a foreigner in Saudi Arabia one rapidly learns precisely where one stands with respect to women. One is instilled with something akin to fear, fear to avoid the barest hint or intimation of the slightest transgression, which is to say: try to not look at them, steer one's way around them --as wide a berth as possible-- and never, under any circumstances, utter a word to them under any but utterly unavoidable circumstances. I do have three or four photographs of women --what one must assume are women, as they are covered entirely in black-- but in three instances they are from behind, and in one, from a great distance. Timid though they are, the shots were very risky; had anyone noticed me taking them, I could have been in serious trouble, trouble of the sort that would have had me relieved should the police have been present. The risks being such, I quickly learned to avoid carrying the camera openly when in places where there were women. On several occasions, an Arabic-speaking companion of mine and I went for walks on the Corniche, the long grassy promenade along the shore of the Persian Gulf where, on weekend afternoons and nights especially, Saudi families --typically very large, with lots of children-- congregate to picnic and relax. My camera never failed to unnerve my companion, such that I would feel compelled to put it away, because --he said-- "everybody" --meaning the men-- was talking about me nervously, worriedly, because of the camera; they were upset at the fact that I had a camera, and there were women about....
...which brings to mind recent (2015 / 2016) articles in the New York Times. This most redoubtable (news-) "paper of record" does, I am the first to admit, have a first-class cooking section with countless recipes that are entirely trustworthy, but one would be foolish at best to extend that trust to its reporting on Saudi Arabia. A New York Times photographer by definition enjoys either outright royal patronage or at the least sufferance, thereby gaining automatic entre, a "free pass" to whatever it is the (powerful) patron would wish have be photographed. Thus one finds in the NY Times pictures of joyous women, in expensively embroidered abayas (full-body covering), absent the niqab (face covering --"veil" would be incorrect, as a veil is gauzy and permits the face to be seen), with hijabs (hair covering) only loosely fitted and with some of their hair showing, in raptures over something they're looking at on their smart phones, and surrounded by men, all of whom seem to have no immediate connection to the women, and none of whom are identified.
In the longstanding tradition of the New York Times, despite knowing full well better, the photographs are passed off as a "slice of life," providing the impression that they are representative of a much larger whole, whereas in fact such photographs are startling in their near-perfect singularity. Not a one of the hundreds of non-Saudis with whom I became acquainted in Saudi Arabia would do other than laugh out loud at the sheer dishonesty of such a photograph. In virtually any public setting, Saudi women almost always have a male relative or "guardian" --someone demonstrably (as with identity documents) related (closely) by blood-- hovering practically at the elbow in open demonstration of ownership; there is no other way to speak of it.
More to the point, in my six solid years in Saudi Arabia, in the great deal of my time on foot exploring cities and neighborhoods, on the countless trips to the grocery store, to the malls, to beaches, on the Corniche in various coastal cities, and on trips to the hospital and the dentist, so rare and so surprising was it to see a woman without a niqab, a face covering, that I can today recall the precise circumstances of most of those sightings, of which there were at the extreme outside, no more than eight, maybe nine. NEVER, not once wile in Saudi Arabia, did I ever see a speck of hair on the head of a Muslim woman, save for the eyebrows which, in the case of most Saudi women, is either plucked, or heavily obscured with a thick mascara, such that the eyebrow hairs are hard to discern. Here, I speak of "Muslim" women as opposed to Saudi women. There are large numbers of Filipinas, women from Indonesia, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and beyond, and in the case of women from Asia, minor but quite visible fashion tics set them apart from women from the Arab world, who in Saudi Arabia clothe themselves in indistinguishably alike jet-black outerwear attire. (What is worn by them in private can never be known, only guessed at by what's on display in shop windows; Victoria's Secret --enclosed safely inside malls-- does brisk business in Saudi Arabia.)
It is impossible to know who -or what, for that matter-- is beneath this comprehensive impenetrable concealment. However, one of the lines that are never, ever to be crossed is, a woman's hair is NEVER to be visible, ever. Simply to show the full face is so daring --so rique, so bold, so defiant-- that none but the most ferociously independent woman would attempt it.
Of the women I saw in Saudi Arabia, that is to say, Muslim women whose attire placed themselves within that impossible-to-differentiate mass I will designate "Saudi women," somewhere between 35% and 40% were entirely covered, meaning a completely covered head, a completely obscured face (including the eyes), an abaya (body covering) some five or ten centimeters longer than the body, such that the abavya concealed the feet and dragged along on the ground, and with a covering over the hands, such that only the tips of the fingers could be seen (even the palm and the back of the hand is concealed). 100% of the women I saw wore an abaya and a hijab; some minute fraction of a percent --.01%?-- dared be in public without the niqab, the face covering, which permits only the eyes and a portion of the forehead to be seen (it extends from the bridge of the nose down to the chest).
Who, Then, Is in the Photographs from Saudi Arabia?
Perhaps a half dozen photographs have in them people who are identifiably Saudi, most of them male. All of them, however, were photographed within an area where almost no Saudi ever bothers to go: the ghetto (the best word for it, in its several meanings) wherein massive numbers of "Third Country Nationals" are housed, the use of the past participle for the verb "to house" being an instance of grossly misplaced generosity.
In illustration of a notorious indifference to statistics and indicators useful to sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, economists, demographers, precise figures are unobtainable for want of diligence in being collected, but it is estimated that a bit more than thirty-one million people live in Saudi Arabia, of which perhaps some twenty or twenty one million are Saudi citizens. The remainder comprise a vast workforce come from abroad. Saudi Arabia is possessed not so much of what is understood as an economy, but more of something along the lines of an oil-export revenue distribution system. For reasons whose explanation would require many tens of thousands of words and which go well beyond the scope of this website, Saudis "outsource" the work done in the country by "insourcing" the labor. With some few exceptions, most notably within banking, administration, and higher management --where in many cases, a manner of a dual management structure exists, with foreigners complementing a formal, higher-salaried Saudi structure-- the actual work done in Saudi Arabia is done by foreigners. The overwhelming majority of medical and dental practitioners, teachers, and a vast array of technical professionals, are foreigner workers. For the most part, such persons are "invisible," unless of course one has need to go to the hospital, but the utter dependence upon foreign workers at the level of everyday ordinary life is immediately and glaringly obvious everywhere one looks. Taxi drivers, dry cleaner operators, supermarket clerks, fast food clerks, painters, electricians, carpenters, bricklayers, backhoe operators, forklift drivers, restaurant cooks, waiters, plasterers, pizza makers, delivery drivers, garbage collectors, septic tank emptiers, toilet cleaners, street sweepers, gas station attendants --if it needs doing, if someone does it, and it requires actual labor, labor meaning expenditure of energy, a Saudi does not do it, nor will a Saudi do it. When for example I have asked why it is Saudis simply toss garbage and refuse right over their shoulder or out the car window, well, comes the answer, that's what Bangladeshis are for.
The overwhelming majority of actual work done in Saudi Arabia is done by foreigners, and ALL the manual labor is done by men from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and the Philippines. Many other nationalities are present as well, particularly from Yemen, Sudan and Somalia, many of whom are in Saudi Arabia illegally (and, as chaos and economic misery spreads throughout the region, ever greater numbers of the people subject to it enter Saudi Arabia illegally).
The area in which I took the great majority of the "street scene / city scene" photographs were taken in a dense and densely crowded --overcrowded-- area in which the more fortunate of many of these workers in my area were housed. A city inside a city, it is difficult to overstate the extent and depth of the squalor, nor is it possible to exaggerate the wretchedness of the living quarters; I speak only what could be seen by casual investigation and the rare invitation to take a look inside such lodgings, yet there can be no doubt what lay out of sight. The perfectly abysmal living conditions that these men endure is matched by their working conditions, the misery of each being significantly exceeded by that endured by the less fortunate marooned in legendarily hideous desert encampments; I've seen many a gas station in Saudi Arabia where the attendants slept in an alcove in the station toilet. Miserably paid, often treated with complete indifference to the very most elementary human and workers' rights, viewed by Saudis with bottomless contempt and to whom these workers were expected to be grateful, in my opinion these workers are among some of the most abused people on earth, on a par and sometimes worse than what can be found anywhere. And yet, the overwhelming majority of them are Muslim.
At the same time, the area in which I shot the photographs was easily the most vibrant, most colorful, most inviting, and even enchanting area that I was ever able to visit in Saudi Arabia; most everything else was either sterile, forbidding, eerily vacant, or the province of the super-wealthy (likewise eerily vacant albeit ludicrously opulent).
Most remarkably, although almost all the manual laborers housed in this area as well as those I photographed in the area where day laborers congregated to await work, were from Muslim countries, most numerously and notably Bangladesh but by no means exclusively so --most of the day laborers were Yemeni, Pakistani, and Afghani, all Muslim-- their attitude toward the camera was one hundred and eighty degrees out from the attitude of Saudis. What accounts for this? Well, cultural differences to be sure, but even more so, no matter how devout someone from Afghanistan or Pakistan might be, the chances that he was of a Wahhabi frame of mind like that of many Saudis, is rather small. Despite the filth and decay in these particular areas --something for which the inhabitants bore little if any responsibility-- they truly were a breath of fresh air, wholly unlike the inescapable feeling of suffocation one feels in Saudi Arabia, a paradox in a huge country with immense open spaces.
On Cameras, Film Types, and Processing Techniques
The first "real" camera I ever owned was a Minolta XG-1 that I bought in the early 1980s from a pawn shop in a small town in Northern California. Today, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can have instant access to an immense online trove of pictures of almost every camera type ever produced as well as to extensive literature on the technical aspects and operation of such cameras as well as the lenses they either come equipped with or which can be fitted to them. In short, the entire world of photography can be accessed and researched at the press of a few buttons, and with a minimum of effort, just about any sort of camera as well as lenses, darkroom equipment, exposure meters, film, and anything else one might need or want can be purchased online. In pre-internet days, such was not the case. I was the most familiar with the 35mm format, possessed very little money, and the pawn shop offered the best deal I could find. So, the Minolta XG-1 it was.
My reasoning was as follows: better a middling, or even rather inferior camera, than none at all. It would be easy to say that I should have gone to the effort to start out (as a photographer) with better equipment; the statement would not be wrong. By the same token, it might have been better had I undertaken an intense course of self study before ever taking a shot. But, if before you ever started to shoot, you insisted on learning even a tenth of what there is no know about photography, you'd be stuck in a chair for ten years, reading.
In any case, the most important piece of equipment is the imagination. The camera doesn't make the picture; you do.
The cameras I have used to make the photographs displayed on Amphemerinos are:
Minolta XG-1 35mm
Canon T-90 35mm
Yashica Electro 35 GSN 35mm
Yashica CNN 35mm
FED 2 35mm (Soviet copycat of a Zeiss product)
Voigtlander Bessa L (with Helios finder and Jupiter 8) 35mm
Voigtlander Bessa I 1937 folding camera 6x9
Zeiss Nettar 6x6
Zeiss Ikoflex Twin Lens Reflex
Mamiya C33 Twin Lens Reflex
Mamiya C330 Twin Lens Reflex
Rollieflex Twin Lens Reflex
Rolliecord Twin Lens Reflex
Graflex Baby Crown Graphic 2.25 x 3.25
Bronica GS-1 6cm x 7cm
Bronica SqAi 6cm x 6cm
The Minolta XG-1 was a great camera to learn with, and the Tokina 28mm-80mm lens was very well-suited to what I started out doing in Poland in 1999. One thing I was doing, was using the camera in order to teach myself the "how" of using it, as opposed to investing myself with all manner of theory. What this entailed was, in a word, critiquing the finished product, the photograph as obtained, against what I had imagined would be obtained when taking the picture. Often there would be some distance between what was imagined and what was obtained; sometimes, what was obtained was an improvement over what had been imagined. Drawing the two --the imagined and the obtained-- into greater congruence taught me the elements of control.
One such element of control is the choice of film. By no means should film type be treated indifferently. It is directly related to the quality of the image. If you are shooting with color and he image obtained does not have the "look" you want, the choice of film likely has much to do with it. The subject is a vast one, but it needs be said that a given color film manufacturer produced for a certain environment. Fuji color films make much more sense in tropical environments with "hot"" light than it does in the "cold" light environment of Northern Europe; Kodak color films are especially well-suited to the North American West.
Before long, I discovered that the German Agfa color films, in particular the Agfa Ultra 100ASA, was remarkably effective in capturing the quality of light and the range of colors, hues and tones found in Poland. Fuji color films, on the other hand, rendered such colors somewhat falsely. Agfa Ultra today is virtually unobtainable in the wake of Agfa's bankruptcy. Thankfully, there still seems available plenty of Kodak Portra VC 160ASA / 400ASA / 800ASA ("VC" = "vivid color") as well as the even more spectacular Kodak Ektar 100ASA, although these films, being highly prized, command a fairly steep price.
However, inferior brands of color film as well as old, expired negative film as well as slide film can be used very creatively. Film can be "pushed" --shot at a higher film speed than the film is designed for-- and therefore underexposed, which under proper conditions softens an image, giving it a more "painterly" appearance. Likewise, old, expired color film, with its chemical base having undergone deterioration, can produce beautiful effects. Such film is readily available at low cost. However, a measure of risk attends use of old, expired film; one can never be sure what, exactly, will come back from the processing lab; the entire roll might prove to have been so old, or exposed to high heat for a long time, that the images are nearly useless.
Another technique that leads to novel visual effects is to "cross-process" slide film. Almost all modern color negative films are developed and printed with the (Kodak) C-41 process; slide film processing employs E-6. The "cross-process" entails running slide film through the C-41 process.
The color film(s) I have used, the results of which can be seen on Amphemerinos, are:
Agfa Ultra 100ASA 35mm
Agfa Ultra 50ASA 120mm
Agfa RS1000 slide film 120mm
Agfa Vista 200ASA 35mm
Agfa Precisa 100ASA slide film 35mm
Fuji Velvia 50ASA slide film
Fuji Superia 400ASA
Kodak Portra 160ASA VC 35mm
Kodak Portra 400ASA VC 35mm
Kodak Portra 160ASA VC 120mm
Kodak Portra 400ASA VC 120mm
Kodak Ektar 100ASA 120mm
Kodak Ektachrome 100ASA slide film 35mm
Kodak Vericolor 400ASA 120mm
Kodak Aerochrome EIR Color Infrared 120mm
Kodak 100 Ektachrome EVS 120mm
Kodak 64T EPY Tungsten 120mm
Lomography Red Shift ASA50/200
Of the Black and White film(s):
Adox CHS 100ASA 120mm
Agfa Ortho 25ASA 120mm
Agfa Ortho 25ASA 35mm
AgfaPan 25ASA 120mm
AgfaPan APX100 35mm
Efke 25ASA 35mm
Efke 25ASA 120mm
Efke 50ASA 35mm
Efke PL25 2.25 x 3.25 sheet film
Efke PL50 2.25 x3 .25 sheet film
Efke IR820 Infrrared 35mm
Foma 100ASA 35mm
Foma 400ASA 35mm
Fuji Acros 100ASA 120mm
Kodak Panatomic X 35mm
Kodak Plus-X 35mm
Kodak Plus-X 120mm
Kodak Tri-X 35mm
Kodak Tri-X 120mm
Kodak T-Max 35mm
Kodak T-Max 120mm
Kodak HIE Infrared 35mm
Kodak High Speed Infrared 35mm
Kodak High Speed Infrared 120mm
Kodak Technical Pan 120mm
Rollei 400ASA Infrared 120mm
Rollei RPX 400ASA 120mm
Rollei Superpan 200ASA 120mm
And, to Round Things Out: Why No Digital Images?
I am committed to film and to NOT using digital instrumentation for photography. The main, overriding reason for this is, simply stated, the photograph captured on film printed on either darkroom paper (light-sensitive paper) or "regular" paper (cotton, rag, etc). By that I mean, the aforesaid's unmatched aesthetic superiority as an object in itself and when examined --viewed, looked at, apprehended-- in person.
A large number of other, lesser, but in no way minor reasons also inform my choice of traditional image capture, by which I mean the instrument with which the image is received, and the surface on which it is "stored." It may be a cardboard box with a pinhole aperture made with a sewing needle serving as a camera, and the back of a plain brown shopping bag coated with a homemade light-sensitive emulsion serving as film, or it may be a $35,000 special edition Hasselblad loaded with the very rarest and finest film. Either way, for the range of aesthetic values, the superiority over digital is, in my opinion, difficult to contest. If aesthetics are what we are interested in, the variety and malleability alone of traditional media, with its range of instrumentation --types of box + aperture = camera -- and breadth of processing techniques from the inception of photography in the 1820s through to today, together with the potential surfaces on which the images can be placed, each of which provide their own idiosyncratic aesthetics, and all of which can be "mixed and matched" in endless combination, then there is no debate to be had. The traditional wins hands down.
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Prints and digital files are available for purchase.
Prints and digital files are available for purchase.
This website, Amphemerinos A Natural History of the Overlooked ® and all content and images herein are the sole property of Joseph E Marsh Jr and GSL Default Productions®
Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved