Contemplation

Reflections of a Decade: From Photography to Philosophy

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Untitled. 35mm. 2014.

Today, I would like to share a little bit about myself. In fact, this is probably one of the few posts where I write about myself simply because I turned 30 this year. It will cover many things that not many people know, such as how I went from learning photography all the way to philosophy and how I ended up studying literature. It will cover how philosophy destroyed my world views and mental health. You will also get a glimpse of my internal values in life and my outlook on what I believe to be an increasingly troublesome world. I will share some of my experiences as a graduate student and my views on universities that are pushing “safe space” as default space.

I would like to give a heads up that there are photographs of naked people in this post. All of the images uploaded on here are my own works and were taken when I was 20-25. Also, since I get more views from around the world than Canada, I would like to thank the strangers who stumbled on my blog and those who follows me (even if finding the follow button can be difficult, I will work on fixing this—until then, I usually post on weekends). I hope you won’t take the things I say too personally because they are not directed at anyone (I focus on ideas, not people). This blog is not a safe space and it will never be. Please leave if you are already feeling uncomfortable, but thanks for visiting anyway (no hard feelings). Since I deleted my Facebook, I have plans to open up the comments section once I figure out how to not get spammed by bots.

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I began my photography journey from wanting to be a graphic designer. Actually, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I chose graphic design because my sister studied it at the time. Eventually, my interests shifted and I decided to study photography because I was really into fashion photography at the time (early 20s). I was super knowledgeable in my areas of expertise, I knew a lot of the high fashion runway models, the photographers, make-up artists and stylists. I became somewhat of an intellectual guru of the fashion industry—I even had a fashion blog that I no longer maintain.

When I was an undergraduate student, I was a stuck up little brat who wanted to be the best at what I did with no discipline or patience for anything. I was, and still am the most ambitious person anybody knows—which is probably a bad thing. I pour my heart out in everything that I do and I always try to become the best at everything that I put my mind into. Eventually, I received the “graduating student award” and got to walk the ceremony stage twice. I was of course, very happy. But to be honest, I think a lot of my classmates produced better works. I also didn’t really care much about fancy awards, even if I understand that they reflect my achievements.

What many people did not know is that it was also during my undergraduate years where many things changed. Not only was I interested in fashion, I was also interested in why people do the things that they did. I was naturally curious about everything and how the world works. What is art? What is photography? How does society influence the way we create art or take a photograph? Why are there famous photographic artists who becomes fashion photographers? (i.e. Juergen Teller, Nan Goldin, Corrine Day, Guy Bourdin, etc.). What is the relationship between fashion photographs and sexuality? Where are the boundaries between art and commercial photography?

In addition to all these questions which I will get back to later, I also broke many rules in school, changing the way courses were taught by talking to the head of faculty with a few other classmates. Some teachers definitely did not like me due to the change that I was pushing. During my 4th year, I was at the point where I did not care about my grades. I disobeyed the requirements in some of my assignments which ruined my chances to graduate with distinction (no regrets). Years later, I was at a big photography show where I spoke to a teacher who is now part of shaping the new curriculum of the photo program. He told me that some of my rebelliousness changed the way the photography program is taught today. I was the first person to write a 20 page essay in a studio based photography class—a class that was supposed to hone my photographic skills (if I remember correctly, it was a horribly written essay).

I was very fiery in my early twenties. Not only did I break school rules, I also broke rules in photography and ignored all these “pro” photographer rules on composition, lighting, and their “how-to” because they simply weren’t in my current area of interest at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I respect them. I only followed these rules when they made sense to me. Though sometimes, I didn’t care because I was impatient. At the time, I was a huge critic of other photographers and their ways of doing things. Unfortunately this also included myself where I was a huge critic of the way I approached photography. I was basically deconstructing the idea of fashion photography and rebuilding it in a different way. All of these radical ways of rethinking how we should interpret photographs made me (in)famous in school at the time. It was strange, because I never liked being at the center of attention.

I was particularly close to one teacher from my ethics class who mentored my intellectual curiosities. I saw photography not only as a medium for expression, but as a form of writing (after all photography means “light writing”). She told me where I should look, what books and essays I should read to answer the questions I had. Eventually, she became a long term mentor and friend of mine who I still talk to till this day.

Eventually, I became somewhat of a guru not only in fashion photography, but in photographic theory. I became aware of the social, economical, philosophical impacts of the photograph and how capitalism and other social structures influences the photographer. In fact, I was taken far beyond the discourse of photography. I realized that photography was more than just an image—but more like a language, a piece of writing, or a simulation of reality that is found everywhere regardless of whether we have a camera or not (i.e. the television; our phones, etc.).

People always say that being a good photographer is about having a unique perspective. But we must not take the word “perspective” so literally (as in camera perspective, moving around, etc.). How we see the world influences how we photograph and see everything around us. How we see the world depends on how we think. By changing the way we think, we change the way we take pictures and see the world. This is why I relentlessly pursued photography not only as a photographer, but as a young intellectual who was pursuing truth. The biggest mistake people make is to think that expensive cameras takes good pictures because they don’t. And this is why people who don’t “get” art photography or any visual arts are simply those who has not yet understood these intricate problems that are not related to the image, but to how we see the world—of how we interpret the world / art. In many ways, art trains us to think critically when the viewer tries to figure out what it is trying to say. The image only becomes impactful when it captures an event; a rupture of space and time that challenges viewers radically and contingently. This is fascinating because I just recently read Jacques Ranciere’s book, Dissensus: Politics of Aesthetics which I connected very well with. For Ranciere, art should function as a form of “dissensus” as opposed to “consensus”.

Thanks to my ethics class in 3rd year, my habits of asking questions never stopped. I was like a detective trying to solve and undress the mysteries of photography even when I was unknowingly trying to solve worldly problems. What constitutes a “good” photograph in a world where we fetishize megapixels and clarity? What is a “bad” photograph? What is photography in relationship with history and political thought? What is good? What is bad? I managed to apply the thoughts that I had learnt from ethics and mutate it into other intellectual explorations that had applications far beyond photography.

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Untitled, 120mm.

“The world is naked, the king is naked, and things are clear. All of production and truth itself are directed towards disclosure, the unbearable “truth” of sex being but the most recent consequence. Luckily at bottom, there is nothing to it. And seduction still holds in the face of truth, a most sibylline response, which is that “perhaps we wish to uncover the truth because it is so difficult to imagine it naked.”” —Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (1979).

Soon, I became interested in Jean Baudrillard. My photographic works revolved around many intellectual theories surrounding fashion, sex, and film. Back then, I focused mostly in black and white film photography. I was really interested in situating people into narratives and provoke the question on the relationship between concealment, nudity, sexuality, private and public. Why do humans feel ashamed to be naked when we are animals? Are not all animals naked? What is the function of clothing, aside from warmth, like that of the animal’s fur? For humans, clothing becomes part of our naked bodies, which is how the basics of how Baudrillard’s “seduction” work: through the play of appearance and its relationship with language. But what about nudity? Is nakedness actually naked, or is there something more sublime which conceals it, like the fur that conceals the animal, and clothing that conceals the naked human body?

Through reading Baudrillard, I came to a conclusion that nudity functions like clothing which seduces us. This is because language is everywhere. Being naked is never about nakedness because there is always language—a barrier between the subject and the world. Reality is concealed by language. There is always a concealment, an extra layer which consists of a structure of signs that plays with the viewer and seduces them. In the same way, nakedness is also concealed and revealed by this language. For Baudrillard, seduction is the secret underlying structure of all art and politics.

Certainly, there were people who thought I was being some creep, even when I was far more focused in my intellectual encounters with Baudrillard than my photographs and its contents. I’ve heard it all and I don’t really care that much (from objectifying women all the way to displaying powerful women, etc.). Obviously, sex was a big theme in my work. In fact, this interest had powerfully transformed into my studies of psychoanalysis. As we know, psychoanalysis is all about sex. Freud is about sex. Lacan is about sex in language.

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Arielle in Ballet Shoes, 60×60″, 120mm, 2014. Printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag.

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After I graduated (and as I got older), I realized that my chances of becoming a fashion photographer was next to zero, not only because I wasn’t really taking any fashion photographs, but because I started to dislike how wasteful fashion industry is and how unethical their practices are in treating animals. I must also admit that I got a little bored of the work that I had been doing.

But I also realized what I had been doing along with my photographic work was research. Photography taught me how to think about everything that I see in the world. To see as one thinks and understand its underlying structures, causalities, and possibilities. After close reading many books by Baudrillard, I began my long independent studies on Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology which took me nearly two years to read (lets just say that I read the book very closely. I averaged 5 pages every 6-8 hours of reading). At the time, my interests of the book revolved around language and its relationship with the way we engage with reality. In many ways, I have inherited many ideas from Derrida on communication, time, and the fundamental problems of metaphysics.

The deeper I went into this intellectual journey, the more I became interested, and the more I learnt how the world works—especially when I encountered Karl Marx’s profound analysis of Capitalism (I read 1/4 of Capital). Eventually, I became indifferent to the way our world is moving towards (our ignorance, wastefulness, consumerism, exploitation of workers, endless desires, injustices, etc.). Yet at the same time, due to the level of difficulty of the books that I was reading, I also started to have a hard time trying to explain what I had learnt to other people and connecting with them.

Those who already had been reading my blog posts would know the level of complexity I sometimes get into. This eventually made it really hard for me to connect and communicate with others because I noticed how most people either didn’t care or didn’t understand a thing I said. Most of them are not to blame though, because I was a bit confused myself and I was really bad at explaining things—something that I have gotten better at over time. Regardless, I became really bitter about people—to the point where I did not like people and the society that I was living in. I was stuck in a system that can’t really be fixed unless it completely falls apart. My mid 20s were my darkest and helpless days.

One morning when I went out for breakfast with my father, he asked me about the plans that I had for the future. I broke down and cried right in the middle of the restaurant. I told him that I really wanted to fix all the problems I saw in society, but I can’t because all I see are injustices that no one can escape from; and that I am also contributing to this problem—unwillingly. No matter how hard people tried to protect and preserve something that they believed in, whether they are animals, nature, or people in general, the problem will persist and probably get worse. This is not only the question of systems and structures, it is also the problem of human nature and our desires. Thus, the only way to fix this is from its origins—something that I saw was not possible. Philosophy had taught me that the truth really does hurt. I wondered if it was better to not know how messed up our world is and just remain naive and happy like everyone else around me.

This is one of the reasons why this blog exists. Much of my underlying intention is to show people the limits of knowledge and how we take language and communication for granted. Many people don’t understand that the posts and ideas that I share are directly related to my life and values. While French philosophy is not very accessible due to how incredibly difficult they are to read, learning it had not only taught me about the recognition of my own finitude, it also taught me how I can become a better human being (it also significantly improved my analytic, critical thinking and reading comprehension skills). It had always been a pleasure for me to share my knowledge in an accessible way because it is my duty to do so. You don’t need to thank me because one shouldn’t need to pay for truth or knowledge.

Ever since the day I confessed, I felt a lot better about myself. I understand that there are many things that are out of my control, and whatever happens will happen. The future is always to come. I also learnt that many people around me are aware of these issues. I am not as misunderstood as I thought. And to those who are not aware of these issues, I try to be more understanding and not certify them as stupid right away. I will usually give them 2.5 chances. After that, they are a potato to me (lol jk—or am I?).

During this time, I began to unofficially audit courses at my local university. I went online and looked for classes that I was interested in and emailed the professors to ask if I could quietly listen to their lectures when I had the time. At first, I thought I would get turned down a lot because you normally have to pay to do such thing. Surprisingly, most professors did not mind me attending their classes (though some of them did find my presence to be intimidating which was never my intention because it is my natural state of being). In fact, I became friends with several professors. A few offered to buy me coffee where we got to know each other at a personal level. I attended courses from astronomy all the way to biology lectures, philosophy, film studies and many others.

I was the ghost of the institution. I was someone who haunted every class, as I was never an official student. I audited many high level undergraduate philosophy classes and read a lot of great books. It was during this time where I read most of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works and studied Eastern philosophy. I sat in two semester length English course on literary theory. I was surprised that they taught this course because it was quite difficult (I’m pretty sure that class traumatized a lot of students lol). The course covered a lot of really difficult thinkers like Marx, Hegel, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Butler, Deleuze, Spivak, Said, and many more.

Eventually, I decided to apply for my masters in English. The professor who I audited the literary theory course with offered to write me a reference letter while barely knowing who I was (though my sample essay on Jacques Derrida and Edmund Husserl gave him a lot of confidence in my intellectual abilities). However, due to my background in photography which was not academic at all, my masters application got rejected several times. I was also not a very good writer (to be honest, I’m still not a very good writer Lol). I competed with a lot of English students who had ten times more experience than me. In order to improve my application, I applied as an Open Studies student to show that I can do well in a high level undergraduate course. There was a point where I wanted to give up. But I felt like it wasn’t the right time because I always wanted to prove to myself that I am smart enough for grad school. With the support of my advisor, I decided to apply one last time. I told myself that if I got rejected again, I will do something else with my life. —I got accepted.

I am now near the end of my MA degree. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to read great literature, learn new ideas and acquire new knowledge. I am grateful to have met many incredible people with a very supportive advisor. I had many great courses and professors who are incredibly knowledgeable. Coming to think about it, I had always been an outsider of literature. At heart, I am a thinker of origins and a scholar of French philosophy. But I decided that I will not return to academia (at least not anytime soon). It was during this time where I saw the real problems of political correctness and “safe spaces” which is related to what sociologists refer as “victimhood culture” (here is an article that I suggest you read; Slavoj Zizek also spoke about this here). I still recall when the term “social justice warrior” (SJW) used to stand for something positive. One might think of people like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. Today, this term has became derogatory because many SJWs has become what they hate (i.e. valuing free speech, yet condemning it). Obviously, I am not saying that we should all walk around harassing and offending people. I fully support those who fights for freedom, justice, racism, and equality. But one must be careful that, as Nietzsche might say, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”. It is easy to fight monsters using the same tactics and logic as the monster, which turns you into the thing that you seek to destroy. The difficult part is to fight the monster by rising above it. 

On the other hand, the idea of “safe space” is the antithesis of a university. If I were to define university space, it would be an intellectual space (even if I would refrain from defining any “spaces” because that would summon the question of time since space is in time). The prohibition of specific discussions and rejection of information runs against intellectual inquiry. I recall an article that spoke about why law professors stopped teaching sexual assault laws because it is not worth the trouble of having students complain about getting triggered (here). I understand that safe spaces are useful under specific contexts (i.e. in psychologist or counselling offices) and that we all have our safe spaces without it being labeled as such. But when universities tries to transform and govern their entire space, including those outside of the institution, such as what a student or professor might say on social media (Facebook, etc.), then we have a serious problem. Can you imagine a university that is so safe that nothing new gets produced? Are universities going to start inventing speech laws and tell people what to say and how to think? What is the difference between this and authoritarianism? When students and professors are too busy policing what they say and write because they don’t want to offend others or risk their jobs, they are defeating the purpose of a university and the idea of intellectual inquiry and free speech.

If you may allow me to speak freely in a direct and insensitive way: either buy a helmet or grow thicker skin because the world is not safe. In fact, nothing in life is safe. Risk is a fundamental condition of life. Is nature safe? Is driving safe? Is it safe to open up to the other person? To fall in love or to forgive? I think our world is a little too safe where people are unwilling to take risks. Do you think any scientists would had succeeded without taking risks? Or that great ideas were conceived by staying safe and policing their thoughts, without any wild and controversial speculation? That you can be a lawyer for sexual assault cases who is afraid of its laws? Or become a doctor who is afraid of blood? My answer to the way many universities are trying to turn into safe spaces is a solid no. But do I think that there are appropriate places for safe space to help those who really needs it (i.e. extreme cases such as victims of sexual assault, abuse, etc.)? Absolutely. But if the idea of safe space is to establish an echo chamber and protect someone’s opinion bubble or from getting offended by differing views because it makes them uncomfortable, then these people might not be ready for university—let alone the “real world” where nobody gives a damn what anyone thinks or feel. Unfortunately, as much as I understand that life is really unfair, brutal, and violent, it is what it is at its current state and it probably won’t change anytime soon. It is not as simple as changing the laws (even if it may produce change) when the root cause of the problem may very well exist within human nature. Why do you think history repeats itself?

While the recognition of the problems in our world changed who I am, I hesitate to call myself a victim of the system because I am not a victim. I am responsible for my own existence in this world. I don’t get to choose when I am born or the things that already happened to me. Sitting there pitying myself, asking for sympathy and complaining won’t help. I think it is not only important to help others and make the world a better place (despite that our efforts might be futile—and if anything, make things worse), it is even more important to learn how to think and become a stronger human being. Working on ourselves as an individual is equally important to making our collective society a better place.

This is basically one decade of my life. I learnt how our world works and the human condition. I also learnt humility and how to be an optimist. I think it is true that behind all optimists lies a pessimist because I am one of them. I am a man of paradoxes and contradictions. I am the most idealistic, yet most cynical. My decision to not return to academia might be sad because it had always been a dream of mine. But if universities (especially humanities in academia) are going to turn into a circlejerk, then I will not take part of it. I can always do something else with my life.

I enjoyed writing this because it is very different from what I normally post. I basically spent a decade to figure out my values through introspection, research, tears, and many other things. In fact, I don’t think this figuring out will ever end. I wonder if I will write another post like this when I turn 40. I can only imagine that it will be very different.

The present moment is the future of my past. To tell you the truth, I wrote most of this post last year. I had in fact, anticipated its own becoming as I think back to it from this present moment. Sometimes, I wonder what it means to write about myself in the present—to constitute myself in the present by acknowledging my younger self who haunts and contaminates my being. Certainly, nothing is more violent than this eternal return of the past. I believe that many things in life will reanimate my past and bring some of these memories back into the present. Does this mean that I should avoid them at all costs so I can remain safe? No, just as the future might change who I will become, the past constitutes who I am today. The future is contingent and full of risks. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say, freedom is what you do with whats been done to you. You don’t live by naively ignoring or forgetting your past, you live by embracing all aspects of it—good and bad. I still recall when Nietzsche once famously asked: if life and memories are to constantly repeat itself, would you re-live your life in the exact same way? With all the mistakes, violence, joy, sorrow, and pain? To be able to say yes to eternal return—to affirm what happened to me and who I was in the past—of who I am today and who I might become tomorrow is the most powerful form of human will. This is the affirmation of life and the love of one’s fate (amor fati). Say yes to life. 

When it comes down to it, I am a student of time. This is something that cannot be learnt, but always already come naturally to all of us as an immutable condition of existence. I am always moving through time, aging every moment of my life. I am always constituted by my past which marks the beginning of my life. But I am also produced by the future becoming of myself which leads to my inevitable death. Past, future, life, death—the unity of these conditions moves together in repetition as I exist. Or as Derrida would say, “Living like dying is not something one can learn. All one can really do is see it coming. Together.”

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