The exotic will do that to you. You want to capture it, to save it.
This morning I took a picture of my breakfast. I didn’t do it to remember it. I took the picture with sharing in mind.
We’ve come to Bread, Etc., five consecutive mornings. It’s a French place–baguettes, pastries, Edith Piaf singing “Chanson d’Amour” on the sound system the last three mornings–in the French Concession area of Shanghai, where our kids’ apartment is. Bread, Etc. is a knife and fork establishment. There’s not a dumpling or chopstick in sight. They speak Chinese, not French. Ordering has been a struggle. (Even with enthusiastic pantomime, it took a while to explain jam, do you have jam, we would like jam for our bread-that’s-almost toast.) But every morning the Chinese waitkids dressed in their blue untucked gingham shirts and navy chinos smile and wave at us, hello, good morning, and the manager has saved our order on her iPad. Farmer’s omelet for the lady (no dressing on the salad, no butter on the toast, no salami in the omelet–try to picture the pantomime it took to explain all that), avocado sandwich for the gentleman.
I’m not sure anyone saw me take a picture of my sandwich. Not that anyone would care. And not that anyone would care to see it, either. My picture taking, like most people’s these days, is wanton, an example of an ordinary excess.
These images are souvenirs. The clothes hung out to dry above a storefront; on the same line, next to shirts and undies, three large eels, also drying. The London plane trees that line the streets in the French Concession, more than 100 years old, cropped and pruned, their bark blotchy and peeling, so like the sycamores we see on Via Tripoli and Via Pascoli in Rimini. (By now I’ve stood in the middle of Xiangyang Road ten times or more, at various hours of the day, in various slants of light, trying to capture the look and feel of those trees.)
More souvenirs: I want to take home the storefront signs, with their odd use of English. Fashion Warm Pants. Urban Jungle Real Estate. Food Fun Delivered. Seewant. King Man Spa. Flower Fingers. Gag Story. Beast Tattoo. . I want to remember faces. The man mending shoes on the sidewalk (he waved me off–no photo). The man at the foot-powered sewing machine on the sidewalk (he waved me off–no photo). The man slicing open and cleaning a huge eel (he said yes! See the film at 11:00). The hundreds of people in front of the Wanhua Tower in the Yu Yuan Garden, with hundreds of cameras seeing the sights before the seers.
The ubiquitous camera. How does it alter the moment of perception? Does it absent the viewer from the fullness of experience?
Years ago, when our kids were small and went to birthday parties, the video camera was just making its first appearance. It was a machine about the size of a microwave oven that dads rested on their shoulders while shouting direction at children. Sit down! Darcy, stand behind Tanya! Blow out the candles! Blow! Lights, camera, action! I remember thinking: These dopes, they’re not really here. They won’t see the party until they get home and turn on the TV.
Walker Percy, in an essay called “Loss of Creature,” pokes fun at the American tourist who goes to the Grand Canyon, measuring its beauty against countless postcard and poster and brochure and televised images he has seen. If it looks like the postcard, Percy says, “[the tourist] is pleased; he might even say, ‘Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!’ He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be.”
In On Photography, Susan Sontag echoes this idea: “Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a let down.”
As if anticipating the cell phone and its camera and today’s take-a-picture madness, Sontag remarks on the “insatiability of the photographing eye.”
A few Sundays ago we took the kids to the Shanghai aquarium, said to be the largest in Asia. It’s big. And do they have the water creatures: arapaima gigas, lepidosirens, electric eels, freshwater sawfishes, archerfishes and the famous melanotaenia maccullochi; cichlids, thiania subopressa, green water dragons, sphronemus goramy, and a few exotic species like the bluegill (no kidding).
At 11:00 a.m. there was already a crowd. At every display, the locals pressed themselves to the glass, small children holding cell phones to take underwater pictures and video, not so small children holding cell phones to take surface level pictures and video, adults holding cell phones to capture, from their altitude, more global pictures and video of the display. Nowhere have I ever seen such an orgy of picture taking.
The exotic will do that to you. You want to capture it, to save it.
On a daily basis since our arrival, I’ve felt like an exotic species. Walking down the sidewalk, we get the look. It lasts a second two. At home we are ordinary as a bluegill. Not here. The look lasts just a moment longer than normal. You’re not from around here. Then, every so often, on the same sidewalk, because this is an international place, we see someone that, well, looks like us.
It reminds me of when our kids were small. When my wife and I went to watch them play little league baseball, there was always a mom and dad who brought the family dog to watch Steven or Katie knock one out of the infield. The dog sat leashed in the bleachers, bored to tears, waiting for someone, anyone, to hit a foul ball. Inevitably another mom and dad would show up with their dog, let it loose, and the two animals would just go bonkers. They were surrounded by humans, lonely in the isolation of their dogless situation, when, suddenly, another one of their own species appeared. Hey, you’re one of us. An ecstasy of eager dog diplomacy would ensue, circling and sniffing, yipping and nipping.
On the sidewalk in Shanghai, we are the dogs. Suddenly we look up and, with surprise and pleasure, see another Westerner. Look, a French poodle! Or, Here comes a German Shepherd! Or, Hey, that guy must be an Alaskan Huskie!
You get used to the look, to being foreign. Sometimes, however, the locals lose it. Particularly when they see a Western child. Kathy Flower, a British radio and television producer, observes in China—Culture Smart, “Westerners traveling with their children will find them the center of attention. It can be a bit overwhelming for very young Western children to have their cheeks pinched and their arms stroked almost beyond endurance. They may have to pose for endless selfies…” This is not an exaggeration, and it’s no joke.
One day our daughter is stopped on the sidewalk by a young woman who gapes at our grandson and asks, in pretty good English, if her friends can take a picture of him, with her. Our daughter is about to say no when the boy, feeling surprised and flattered, says yes. The girl claps an arm around his shoulder and hauls him close. He freezes, totally weirded out, if not terrified, a wooden smile on his face. A few days later, at the Yu Garden, seeing our three-year-old, a woman squeals with delight, rushes toward him, lowering herself to his level. My God, I think, she’s going to hug him. When she holds out her arms, I turn him away from her (he already senses the impending assault), and tell her no. More like: No! You wait, fully expecting, How about a selfie with him, then?
In the next few minutes, I notice a camera with a giant telephoto lens following us, a man aiming at our boy. No.
The camera lens is more invasive, more penetrating than the eye. Stares are not cool. The shutter clicks open and shut like a trap.
These are not mean or terrible people. Far from it. They are simply not mindful of boundaries (nor am I at times), and I have every reason to think it has to do with the device they hold in their hands, a technology that makes every interesting thing in sight (fair, curly-haired three-year-old American child, waitkid dressed in blue, untucked gingham shirt and navy chinos, stooped arthritic shoe repairman on the sidewalk) into an object one would enjoy capturing, saving, and sharing.
Before we leave Shanghai we will go to the Long Museum to see a Rembrandt exhibit. If photos are permitted I’ll have my iPhone cocked and ready, my finger on the trigger. I like to photograph faces; I like to look for small details in the corner or bottom of paintings, the eels on the clothesline. Camera-wise, I won’t be alone. In gallery visits these days we always have to wait for people to photograph a painting before we can get close to it. Why take pictures of paintings? Why not just look at them? Maybe I’m not fully present. Maybe this is secondary seeing, not as rich and full and satisfying as unmediated viewing.
A recent study by the American Psychological Association suggests otherwise, arguing that taking pictures might even enhance our experience–of a Rembrandt, a street corner in Shanghai, or an avocado sandwich. The researchers, Kristin Diehl, PhD, of the University of Southern California; Gal Zauberman, PhD, of Yale University; and Alixandra Barasch, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, contend, “Relative to not taking photos, photography can heighten enjoyment of positive experiences by increasing engagement.”
A secondary question: Must we share? Thanks to social media we are profligate in this regard, some people more than others. Okay, the pleasure I take in my avocado sandwich is enhanced, maybe a tiny bit, by my taking its picture. But restraint is called for. I should keep it to myself. Take a bite, savor and swallow, leave it at that.