Travels with Diana: A Visual Ethnographer Goes Global
by Jerome Crowder
In the Fall of 2001,1 prepared for a journey unlike any other I have made or will probably make again. As an anthropology professor, I was enlisted to participate in a loo-day Semester at Sea, a program aboard a ship circumnavigating the world. With nearly 650 college students and 28 faculty members, we embarked on a complicated itinerary including China, Viet Nam, Malaysia, India, Turkey, and Morocco.
Before leaving Houston for Vancouver (the disembarkation port), I pondered how much time I would have for ethnographic photography while on shore, exploring each country for about a week. The photographers and enthusiasts gravitated towards each other and began a voyage-long discussion on composition, techniques, digital versus traditional film, printing, paper, and display. Jim Burke, from the University of Pittsburgh, taught a photography class on board the ship. He also shared his vast skill and broad knowledge with anyone who asked; and with a few of us, he revealed his loves: vintage daguerreotypes and a plastic 12OMM camera, the Diana.
September 11, 2001 found us in the Pacific Ocean, two days from Japan. We learned of the unbelievable events at 2:00 in the morning (our time) and immediately logged onto the CNN website via the limited satellite Internet connection. At the time, our ship seemed like the only place on earth that did not have a video feed; so we waited in line to read the printouts distributed throughout the ship and to contact our families via email. While we consoled each other, our shipboard leaders calculated a different course and confirmed a new itinerary one that would change more than once. Our new route would take us from India to Kenya and down around the Cape of Africa, then to Brazil and Cuba before arriving in Miami. After two weeks at sea to Kobe, everyone was eager to disembark and call the States to verify that their loved ones were safe. The night before arriving in Kobe, Jim and I met in the faculty lounge for a beer. He pulled a blue-and-black plastic camera from an old canvas bag, and introduced me to Diana. "These were made in Hong Kong, around 1960 or so. Maybe we will find a few more when we get there…"
I was lost in my thoughts about Japan, New York City, my friends, and the world. I had no idea at the time that this strange plastic box would change my ideas about photography as much as 9/11 changed our course and our perceptions of the world we live in.
At that meeting, I realized we had been on the ship for two weeks, and I had only shot about one roll of transparency film. I was narrowly focused on photographing what I expected to see on land. Diana helped to change that perspective, with Jim's encouragement. "Just give her a chance. You'll see."
Held together by black masking tape and a few warts of plastic glue, Jim's Diana cameras had been modified in ways the clever manufacturers in Hong Kong could never have imagined. In the '6os, they shrewdly marketed the toy camera under more than thirty different names, ranging from Anny to Zodiac. Each has a single plastic lens, a fixed shutter speed (1/90 sec) and a sticky, three-stop aperture (for cloudy, partly-cloudy, and sunny day); the camera body leaks light like a sieve. At first, I dismissed the value of Diana's capabilities. I believed a camera was meant to take a sharp and properly exposed photograph. Diana changed all that. She challenged me to move beyond the assumptions of the tool and concentrate on the subjects in front of the lens.
In Hong Kong, Diana seemed quite at home. She framed the narrow streets with her equally narrow field of view, recording scenes with the subdued click of her fixed shutter. As we walked the markets and broad sidewalks, hiked the mountains, visited the islands, and crossed the bay, I was happy not to be using a 35MM camera after all. I felt freed from the constraints of focus and exposure. Instead, I concentrated on the giant Buddha, the bay shore, and the lives of the people in the New Territories.
From Hong Kong, we sailed to Saigon, Viet Nam (officially, Ho Chi Min City). Students and faculty alike immediately noticed the extreme difference in our economic position and those of the people living along the banks of the Mekong Delta. By the time we were in Saigon, I had seen the results of Diana's capabilities. Her images were not typical travel photos. The edges of the images were curved and irregular, demonstrating to me that her range-finder did not illustrate exactly what her lens captured. I learned that in order to capture what I saw, I'd have to aim a little higher and to the left. And that is the issue: my aim and her aim weren't perfectly in sync, and neither were the scenes that inspired me to record them. We traveled to Cambodia to visit the ruins at Angkor Wat and explore the killing fields in Phnom Phen. Diana and I went everywhere introduced me to monks, locals, and tourists; and only later did I realize that I had forgotten to advance my film regularly. Although we watched the sun rise upon the tall turrets of Angkor and challenged the guards at the Silver Palace, the flaw lay not in her character but in my inadequacy. At the temples, I wanted to capture their size and beauty with an ultra wide 15mm lens, forgetting about Diana's simple view. At the Khmer Rouge torture center of S-21, we witnessed the images of all of those who had killed and been killed during the misanthropic years of communist rule. A large shrine (stupa) in the middle of the rice paddies commemorated the lives of the educated people and their families who had been a "threat" to Pol Pot's regime. More disgusting than the fragments of clothes and boxes of bones collected in the shrine was the realization that Cambodia had undergone this turmoil within my lifetime, while I had been in middle school. As we loaded ourselves onto the bus to depart, we asked ourselves how such a horrific, inhumane thing had occurred in our lifetime; no one had an adequate answer—we could only stare out the windows and watch the flooded fields and bobbing boats pass into our memories. Diana translated my bewilderment onto film; she captured blurry images of barbed wire fences, torture implements, and graves. The blurriness of her negatives mirrored our feelings about the situation.
By mid-October, we had passed through the Straits of Malacca and across the Indian Ocean to arrive in the east coast city of Chennai (Madras), India. People were everywhere, riding bicycles through the crowded streets, hanging out of packed busses, living on the sidewalks, while regularly praying in the ubiquitous Hindu temples. The crowded conditions were made worse by poor sewage and overburdened vehicles. My eyes took delight in the abundance of radiant colors from people's clothing while my nose struggled with the pungent odors of urine mixed with rotting fruit, mud, trash, and exhaust.
My students and I visited squatter settlements along the river running though Chennai. As we wandered the streets, residents greeted us, inviting us into their homes to speak with us about their lives. Our cameras (still and video) didn't bother them, and I quickly realized that most of these folks knew of our visit ahead of time. No matter how hard I wanted to be something other than a tourist at the moment, I was a participant in the spectacle of poverty and caste. We were not as foreign to them as they were to us. As we boarded the buses, our guides handed out two-kilo bags of rice to those families who had shown us the most hospitality. This "payback" caused many of our new "friends" to fight for the contents, and the plastic pouches spilled all over the ground. Although we met many interesting people along the streets in this settlement, the story I witnessed may not have been the story of the residents' everyday experience. My photographs from this visit were not any less real for me; they simply document the lives of people we were supposed to meet and observe. As tourists, we assumed that we would see slums; and although life in this part of town is drastic, what we experienced was planned to reify these sentiments. In the end, I reconciled my feelings about our visit through Diana's images, as they captured a disputed reality. Our hosts viewed us as resources and they as our objects. The purpose of understanding the humanity of the slums was overridden by the preconceived notions both of us held for the Other—and we both walked away from the experience thinking about what was not achieved through the meeting.
After detouring around Kenya (because of anti-American protests in Nairobi) to the Seychelles Islands, we landed in Cape Town, South Africa, where we docked for one week. The most compelling visits were those to Robben Island and the shantytowns of the outer city. While standing in the cell where Nelson Mandela slept for twenty-five years, viewing the grounds, and looking across the bay at the city, I found it difficult to believe how he and his comrades survived the Apartheid Era under such conditions.
Although Robben Island is no more than a tourist destination today, apartheid still seems to exist in the shantytowns. As the buses rolled down the streets, residents appeared and greeted us as if they were expecting guests. Memories from Chennai flooded my brain: how could we have an accurate view of life here if we came to see them like wildlife at a park? We were in a Trojan horse of sorts, but we were the people being fooled. Despite my dismay at the drama produced for our benefit, Diana helped me release my frustration and focus on the people rather than charade. The Western notion of "truth" or "accuracy" was just like my ongoing battle with my photography—capturing the "pure" culture on film. And although I thought I knew better, the archetype prevailed; my photographic eye searched for the despair, the poverty, and the struggle. Certainly, it wasn't "authentic," but then what is? Who wouldn't prepare for visitors, especially if they carried with them potential income and the power to retell your story to hundreds of people in America? The people we met told us of their violent history, their strife to make ends meet each day, and the segregation they still experience; but they did so with smiles, song, and beauty.
From South Africa, we set our bearings for Salvador, Brazil, our penultimate destination, but the last for more than one million African slaves since the 1700s. This gorgeous, historical city has an internal tension, or duality of sorts, between the old and new, rich and poor, and upper and lower city. I found the fusion of African and Latin cultural elements exemplified across the city and pervasive throughout the religion, language, food, and dress. A friend and I spent an entire day walking the streets taking pictures, speaking with people and realizing that what we wanted to find and what we saw occurred if we let it. Here, we believed, we could meld into the landscape and experience life. We forgot about our own influences as we followed the streets, the people and the light without stopping. Ultimately, we exhausted our reserve of film and energy in the middle of a favela (shanty-town), where we had gone to meet people on our own. We anticipated some conflict but were determined to go because all of the other times we had been set up to meet residents. This time we arrived unannounced and open to the encounter.
Nothing was too different from our other visits to similar urban regions in Africa or Asia—people greeted us since we were obviously not from there, and we were offered food and hospitality as folks laughed while posing for photos. Even some men playing cards on the street welcomed us with a smile. Had we completely deceived ourselves? What is it about human nature that allows us to connect with each other despite our preconceptions? How long does it take to dissolve the idea that in the end, we can learn from each other, no matter the setting? Looking back through the Dianas from Salvador, I realize how my perspective had changed to see the people as humans and not as objects. Their fuzziness only reflects the relationship between people, the lack of contrast only demonstrates the precariousness we share, and the inaccurate composition stimulated me to think of the unlimited opportunities we have each day to read-dress our own perceptions of each other to find a way to better understand what we have to offer each other.
Our last stop, Cuba, allowed me the chance to recompose and integrate these issues. In Havana we were taken to hospitals, schools, museums, and historical places—Hemingway's hotel, the square, and the promenades. We were encouraged to spend our dollars and see their sites. Since our arrival in Cuba, people on the street were continually propositioning us and trying to make a few immediate dollars from tourists. Then, we met Diego, a local who invited us to his home for coffee, cigars, and frank conversation. Our intuition told us to follow him. And we did, day after day. At each meeting, Diego introduced to us more and more family members, and spoke more about life in Cuba. For us, this was the mundane adventure we had yearned for all along, without the pretense of class, tourism, or race.
One evening we stood on the seawall, facing north towards Miami. Diego asked how close I felt heaven and hell really were to each other. I shrugged my shoulders; it didn't matter much to me. "Ninety miles," he laughed. We laughed along, but like the best jokes, there was a thread of reality in this one. "You know, we love America, and we love its people, but we really dislike your government." Diego added, "It is our governments that cannot get along. This is the saddest part, that is the thing that keeps us from happiness—but you and I have found friendship despite them."
Looking back over the many photographs I took, I return to those from Diana because they are not simple documents of people, places, and things. Instead, they are revelations of what I had not seen, or at least, I had not meant to see. My ethnocentric preconceptions of the people I visited dissolved as their figures became less foreign and more relative to their context.
As many of us hide behind a lens to protect ourselves from "the other," Diana shortens the distance between us and our subject. Like Diego in Cuba, the people I met in the streets of Chennai, Cape Town, and Salvador saw me as a tourist; and I substantiated this feeling by using my high-tech technology to document their "reality." However, Diana much like the people I met, did not require much technology to survive. Diana challenged me to appreciate the beauty of the unknown at many different levels.
Jerome Crowder has traveled extensively throughout Bolivia and South America, including twice as a Fulbright scholar in 1995 and 2003. Crowder is a lecturer in the department of anthropology at the University of Houston. He recently completed a 5-month stay as a Fulbright scholar at the Universidad National del Altiplano in Puno, Peru.