Monday, August 11, 2008
China On My Mind
notes from the Games... (and remember, click ON a picture to see it full size!)
The Olympics are always an expression of culture and society. The most obvious was 1936 in Berlin, but there have been other salient moments when those trying to cover the games have found themselves either befuddled, enthralled, or just plain amused at local customs -- which is alien, especially when you’re the alien. This month in China there are about 40 thousand aliens in addition to all the folks from just down the street, who are trying to figure out a few of the traditions. As it happens, mere weekly participation at a local (Virginia) Chinese restaurant does not, contrary to popular belief, make you an expert in Asian cultures. So even when you return to a place where you have visited before, there will be new surprises. In my last visit, 1988, there were as of yet no cell phones in the country, many fewer cars, virtually none of the fancy upscale shopping centers we drive by in our Press busses (oops, I mean Media Bus). This was a different country altogether, though perhaps it would have been possible to see this coming. Not by me, not then. Now, everyone over the age of seven has a cell fone, and for $15 a month which delivers virtually unlimited service, you can see why. If ever there was a company that lived up to the old Jewish joke about the guy who ran the schmatah business (the rag trade), and who bought for two bucks, sold for a buck fifty, and when asked how did he manage to stay in business, the answer was simple “Volume!” When you have hundreds of millions of customers ready to plonk down your monthy fee, you can keep a business going no matter if it’s doing very well, or just well. Whateever the Americans think they know about Capitalism, no question that lessons could be learned from the Chinese. The government may try and stay on Marxist lines but the people have always had a hand in their own self motivated ‘till.’ One of the more obvious signs of change is the auto dealership which sells only Bentleys. I’m sure they sell more here than in most countries, for the amount of money chasing goods here is staggering. Beijing is overtaking Paris as 3rd on the list of “money spent on art,” after the US and UK.
Why don't they do Synchronized Cannon Balls?
True, none of that money is making its way towards me, but I am hoping we can change that, as well in the next few years. What I can say, is that today, 1 finally feel like I got a picture I like. Well, I think there might be a few at Opening Ceremonies, but in the end, I’m really here for the Track Meet, et al, and that’s what I need to score at. It had been ugly the last few days.
Perhaps the hardest thing about Olympic coverage is the need to feel you are going forward. Let’s face it: does track, swimming, water polo look anything different from the past 7 Olympics I have seen? Not really; maybe the clothing styles have changed a bit, and yes, the venues where the games take place, those definitely change from year to year. That is the charm to be able to scope out ‘the Acropolis’ (Athens), Bar B Que King (world’s 2nd greatest Chinese grilled meats restaurant – Sydney), (skipping Atlanta because I can’t think of anything except perhaps Billy Payne’s limousine. He was the chairman of the committee, and definitely made sure all his friends rode in limousines.)
But in the end, the change needs to take place in your own head, your own creative center. Trying to understand and see something for the umpteeth time, and make it look new and exciting, is the ultimate challenge all photographers face, and even more so in the two weeks of the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, it’s more than easy to just slip into some kind of modified version of “I did this 4 years ago already.. what am I doing here?”
Fresh is the challenge we all face. Sometimes you do it through equipment ( a new lens, camera or altogether new technique) but sometimes its just how you approach that problem, pretending that you haven’t really had a chance to gaze back at your own work for all those years. It’s all about surpassing yourself. Never mind what the other guys do. Compete with yourself, and you will never be at a loss for a helluva good day at the track.
This year, again I have schlepped my Speed Graphic to the Olympics along with my small “Velbon Chaser” tripod (a great little gadget) along with my Canons, and a Holga or two (if you have to ask, you can’t afford one!) For me the issue then becomes, how do I use which camera to say which thing, in which way? Do I have a thematic view that runs thru all the Games? (Hmmm if I do I forgot to write it down.) Is there something amazing in either the spectators or the athletes that at each venue (there are dozens of sites, new and old, around the city where things are happening) which draw me to them with a picture in mind? In the end, I struggle at each place.
Even if there is some kind of ‘obvious’ version I might start with, see if that works, and then take it up a notch and another notch… I am, like all photographers, (with the exception of Heinz and Harry) plagued by self doubt, and worry that things will go the right way. Yet, once you get your teeth into it, the natural juju takes over, and you really start to feel the creative process work. Tonight, I had my first real joy this week. (Well, seeing mini peking duck in the cafeteria for two bucks was OK, but then it was only OK duck..) I went to Badminton, at a gym across town (read that as another 40 minute bus ride) Badminton, which most of us played in the back yard as a kid, and whose racquets were preferred over tennis racquets to use for dispatching stray wasps while mowing the lawn in the 8th grade, seems like a stretch to imagine as an Olympic sport. Boy would you be wrong if you thought that. Speed, agility, and cool nerves. You know, like ordering at the sushi counter the first time. It’s a fun game to watch and the layout of the three courts was cozy and colorful. I definitely made a picture I liked there (and I haven’t looked at anything yet.) But from each location (there were a half dozen, each looked after by a bunch of exceedingly polite, interested and engaging young volunteers) there was something different to see. Then, to capture it. Aye there’s the rub. Well I think I must have done something right, because I popped right out of my three day funk. It’s surprising, once you admit to a total stranger on the bus that you are in a funk, how many of them respond in kind. This place is something special. But like all Olympics, you don’t cover it, it covers you. You make some choices, but you don’t get to make all of them. You can make some things happen, but there are many more which are deaf to your ears. And yet, there are always up beat moments even when you just missed your third errant bus of the day, by a minute. I had this image in my head the first night that I tried running photog style (it’s like trotting as opposed to cantering; you don’t want the cameras to bounce, and because of that, you try and stay at a level keel and because of that, you look unimaginably idiotic) , to catch a bus, and made it just as the bus was leaving. I’d imagined running, out of breath, one last burst just as the bus was pulling away from me. He has no intention of stopping. But I make to the front of the bus and stand there in front of the bus, staring down the driver and volunteer expeditor. They stop, open the doors and I get on. That image, moments later struck me.. where had I seen it? And then I knew. Jeff Widener’s photograph of the young man standing in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square, 1989. One of those pictures whose universal description in a few words, is known by all who were alive and aware then. I made the jump, 19 years, in my head in that split second, and tried to imagine that young man: where might he be today? Is he part of the Beijing Committee? Did he start a small company and sell goods to America? Did he retreat to the countryside, and farm with his parents, so disappointed by the squelching of the Democracy 88 movement? Or could he, perhaps have become a bus driver, and maybe He was the guy driving the MA07 Bus to the Conference Center Hotel, who had to slow down and let me on? We’re just sayin’….. David