Beyond the Superficial in Looking for Idiosyncrasies
On Monday of last week, I came across an article on the South China Morning Post that caught my attention. It was about an episode on the Netflix series Love, Death, and Robots, an animated anthology. Normally, I would have taken no notice of the article, but it also included a handful of screenshots that looked somewhat familiar to me. In fact, it eerily felt like déjà vu looking at some of those screenshots; because, I think I’ve actually been to some of those places on my photowalk for this blog.
The episode in question is called The Witness. The narrative takes place in a Hong Kong of an alternate reality, where a woman hears gunshots from across her bedroom window. This leads to a chase, in which the woman is pursued by the apparent killer, through an urban maze of city streets, back alleys, and narrow passageways in the early morning hours - crammed with neon signages, clusters of air conditioning condensers, and layers upon layers of residential dwellings piled upon rows of shuttered storefronts.
Overall, the visual narrative was overly fetishized to put it mildly, in its gratuitous use of explicit graphics. But, I must compliment on how observant Alberto Mielgo (the director of the feature) was in capturing Hong Kong’s distinct look with great detail. That said, there’s so much more to Hong Kong than this very overused portrayal of a dystopian world, just as there’s so much more to Asian women than an expression of eroticism. Of course, what is one to expect from Mr. Mielgo, who only scouted Hong Kong for five days?
To be fair, I do not expect Mr. Mielgo to capture Hong Kong as it really is, nor do I imagine it was ever his intent at the time either. The amount of time Mr. Mielgo spent in Hong Kong, in addition to the bias he already held in visualization prevented him from a graphic expression beyond a visual narrative of arbitrary objectification set in a dystopian reality. Fact is, he was not in Hong Kong long enough to create an animated feature beyond just another unoriginal retelling of a very superficial narrative trope - albeit visually detailed.
Admittedly, I am taking liberty in my critique of Mr. Mielgo. But, it does bring me to my point of discussion. The world has become a superficial place, where the norm of instant gratification is standardizing the acceptance of shallow documentation. In the case of Mr. Mielgo, five days in Hong Kong was apparently enough for him to collect what he required to render a dystopian reality with expertise. And therein lies the crux of my problem - not only of Mr. Mielgo, but also of those practicing appropriation with limited exposure.
I mean, how is five days enough to make anyone an expert on any subject? If I were to brush up on my French for five days before a trip to France, would that make me an expert on Flaubert? Increasingly, we are exposed to social media influencers presenting themselves as experts, because of their access to exposure - whether it happens to be five days in Hong Kong, a week in Pyongyang documenting real life in the hermit kingdom, or a weekend in Havana admiring a bygone era of vintage cars to the rhythm of the conga beat.
There is no realistic way for anyone to competently interpret observations beyond a superficial understanding from limited exposure. Without any meaningful commitment of full immersion in the exploration of the setting, subject matter, or any narrative components, the resulting expression of effort can only be one dimensional at best. In other words, the presentation of any appropriation will look like a cliché. Still, it doesn’t mean the effort won’t look good. After all, eye candy is visually appealing at first. But then, it’s empty after the initial exposure.
What separates a substantive attempt in documentary expression from a cliché is the extent of one’s personal involvement and exposure to the documentary objective. Obviously, five days won’t be enough; because, one will only be able to touch the surface in such a brief period of time. Any hope of digging below the surface will ultimately be in vain. Because of that, why would anyone care to take notice of any documentary expression, if the resulting visual narrative is essentially absent of any significance beyond the visual?
To go beyond the superficial, one must undergo the time honored practice of performing studies in exploring the areas of interest related to the narrative objective. Studies are perhaps the most important undertaking of any creative processes; because, the act of voluntary immersion, in both exposure and involvement, presents us an opportunity to become more intimately familiar in better understanding our narrative objective. In doing so, we can begin to gain credibility in the presentation of our documentary expression.
So, what exactly is a study? Well, it is an exercise in exploration where observations are interpreted repeatedly through experimentations of expression, in a chosen media. When carried out with commitment, frequency of exposure and involvement facilitates and increases understanding of the exploration in a substantive manner. In turn, enhanced familiarity heightens expertise in both approach and execution, which invariably pushes the limits of possibilities in productivity, innovation and discovery.
Studies are invaluable. It is what Vincent Van Gogh did in observing how the light affects the colors of Auvers-sur-Oise, what Leonardo Da Vinci did in focusing his attention on parts of the human anatomy, and what Pablo Picasso did in deconstructing objects and then analyzing them in terms of their shapes. It is also what Robert Mapplethorpe did in exploring the sensuality of orchids. And, it is what I have been doing on my photowalks - which essentially is an exploration of environmental aesthetics native to Hong Kong.
In doing so, I’ve come to learn the many idiosyncrasies of the city, which can only be known through an effort of voluntary immersion. Hong Kong is much more than just a model of dystopian reality. There are more sides to Hong Kong than that, like its steel and glass financial façade, its colonial roots, its subtropical vegetation, its many harbors and waterfront promenade, and its varied elevations. Hong Kong is a very colorful place, where concrete exteriors are often painted in pastels, enlivened with murals, or tagged with graffiti.
If it were not for the many studies I’ve conducted, I don’t think I would have realized how uniquely picturesque Hong Kong frames in color - even in the least likely or imaginable of places. And if not for all these photowalks too, I would not have appreciated how much more dynamic Hong Kong is than a static backdrop. Hong Kong is not just a visually impactful background. There are many instances when idiosyncrasies do serendipitously appear - enabling the prospect of interaction between the subject and background.
As for my partners in crime, collaborating with them has familiarized me to the uniqueness of their personality and their appearance. Their idiosyncrasies in expression, gesture, and motion have all become second nature to me. It’s what I seek when I photograph them. To paraphrase from the film Good Will Hunting, idiosyncrasies are the wonderful stuff. They are the little imperfections that only someone in the know will know. It fleshes out what we experience to make it seem sincere, intimate, and real - which makes it special.
Sadly, our world today of instant gratification has no time for idiosyncrasies, let alone studies. The demands of generating more content has homogenized the creative process into a cookie-cutter affair. What results is not sincere, intimate, and real; since, much of what is created is calculated in inception, and then manufactured in presentation. It is a slippery slope, I tell you. Essentially, we are giving up the best bits of our reality by curating our observations with staged expression of documentation. To me, that just feels empty.
Finally in defense of Mr. Mielgo, it was not his objective to interpret Hong Kong. He was only appropriating the aesthetics of Hong Kong for his animated feature. Accuracy was never his objective. If it were, he would never have included a representation of his onetime Berlin apartment in his visual narrative. The exterior Hong Kong offered was the closest environmental model for his narrative construction. Even so, it doesn’t change the fact that what he did was superficial. But I have to admit, his appropriation of Hong Kong was detailed.
All images have been digitized on a Pakon F135, automatically cropped from full negative during the scanning process, and tweaked in Adobe Lightroom. Additional cropping stated under the caption, when applicable.