I had a conversation last night that has got me thinking about the incredible ubiquity of images: with digital cameras and the Internet the photographic image has proliferated to a point were it has little novelty. At this point of image-saturation, can we begin to use images in new ways? Perhaps, less as documents and more as tools for reflection?
Here is one way of using the image, both “written images” and “video images” as tools of observation:
In 2005 and 2006 I spent time in Beijing. While in China I both kept both a written and a video journal. There, I observed “everyday” things, including peoples’ homes, the textures of the sidewalks, hand movements used in cooking, the ways people cross the street. Through writing and filming I began to become aware of the things that I was noticing. While, in an overall sense, both journals are about “what I did” in Beijing – where I went, who I met, the two are more characterized by the details of objects, experiences, and social interactions. In particular, observations about things that seemed similar to and different from home, for example, the oddness of seeing plain white tea pots and cups in nearly every restaurant, and the familiarity of Starbucks Coffee shops (ubiquitous in Beijing). The journals are documents of the process of getting to know a place, not simply through its language, but through its social and aesthetic patterns. They are a record of what I thought was beautiful, but also what seemed ugly and surprising, of how I arranged my apartment, and of the foods that I gradually began to like.
In Beijing, I ask my friend Yan Li if she would show me what her kitchen looks like. I’ve been in China twice before, but I tell her that I’ve never really been inside a Chinese kitchen. She laughs, and replies, “I don’t think it’s that different from a Western one.” But, humoring me, Yan Li walks in. Her kitchen is a small one, a little bit tricky for two people to stand inside and move around together. There are vegetable peels on a paper on one side of the sink and steamer with warm water in it on the stove from the meal we’ve just finished. It’s true that the familiar parts of a kitchen are there: a white refrigerator with a few magnets on the door, a gas stove, cupboards above, below, and opposite from the sink, a silverware drawer, a microwave, and places and containers to store dry foods.
But, also, looking deeper, the objects that are there, the details, ways things are organized, are different from my kitchen. Above the stove there is a sort of ventilation hood, essential for cooking with hot oil, but, below, there is no oven. Next to the sink, a typical stainless steel model, there are no sponges for washing dishes, and behind it there is a set of blue and white painted tiles showing a scene from a traditional Chinese painting. In the cupboard below the kitchen’s far window are old large soda bottles filled with rice and also red beans – the bottles keep bugs out in the summer. Next to them, there is a collection of containers of a dark liquid (soy sauces?), and two large plastic jugs of a golden-colored cooking oil. Another set of low cabinets is crammed with cooking devices that can be plugged into the wall. The only one I recognize is a rice cooker, the others, Yan Li, explains are for things like making a flat bread, or eating hot pot, something similar to fondue.
What is the purpose of this kind of “everyday” documentation? Can it change the way we see things?
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