Student Blogs from my MA Course “Writing, Photography, Blogging”

This is becoming more obvious to me now.

A creative detour of sorts (from poetry to street photography as well as my interest in film cameras) which began a few years ago seems to be now taking over my work.

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I’ve been teaching an MA level course at my department with the generic title “Special Topics in Genre Studies”. I’ve shaped it around what I thought would be key genres that are of contemporary interest (Writing, Photography, Blogging). This is the second time I’m running the course.

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An external reviewer from another university who’ve looked at the students’ assignments as well as course materials from the first run of the course commented that this is a course which puts together “creative and critical, theoretical and practical insights” and that it connects “popular culture activities to major strands of 20th century theoretical discourse on creative media”.

I am very much encouraged by this comment and I think the bit about combining the critical with the creative is spot-on in terms of describing what I’m setting out to do.

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Basically, it’s a course for those who are interested in Hong Kong culture.

It’s a project-based course whereby students are encouraged to explore different micro-cultures of Hong Kong and present them (in any way they want) via blogs.

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We would read and discuss the following works together in class:

Clifford Geertz. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”.

Leon Anderson. “Analytic Autoethnography”. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35 (4): 373-395.

Marshall McLuhan. Selection sections from Understanding Media.

Georg Simmel. “Metropolis and Mental Life”

Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

Roland Barthes. Selected sections from Camera Lucida.

Martin Heidegger. Selected sections from “The Question Concerning Technology”.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Selected sections from “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

Sontag, Susan. Selected sections from On Photography.

John Berger. “Understanding a Photograph”.

Clive Scott. Selected sections from Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson.

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There would be group presentations, and students would write individual auto-ethnographic essays on their learning experience and the experience of micro-cultures they’ve chosen to explore.

I keep telling my students in class that I don’t fully know what I’m doing, and that we’re making it up as we go along. To my mind, this is a course that begins with a few fixed parameters, without fully determining the scope of what is to be learnt.

We start from a few well-known ideas and essays in critical theory and extend the insights to the various HK micro-cultures we’re interested in. A group (some of them are teachers) is working on school culture. Another is working on what 5.30pm means to Hong Kong. They’ve more or less decided on taking (street) photographs at exactly 5.30pm. Another group is working on wet markets.

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I remember that in the previous run of the course, there were projects on the neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po, street temples, as well as interviews with the practitioners of “da siu yan” (people you hire to beat paper figurines of your enemies in public with slippers). There was an essay on the travel discourse of Hong Kong people via the analysis of a video by the Hong Kong indie band My Little Airport.

The projects, incorporating elements of street photography, are turning out to be urban ethnographies of sorts.

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Here’re the student blogs:

hkbynight.wordpress.com

fishflops.blogspot.hk

fragmentsofeducation.wordpress.com

lifeiselsewhere2015wordpresscom.wordpress.com

memorystoresite.wordpress.com

revitalisesoldhongkong.wordpress.com

libraryofunicorns.wordpress.com

530inhk.wordpress.com

ohgeno.wordpress.com

I tell my class that perhaps blogging could be a tool for intellectual engagement.

In some ways, I’m already doing it myself.

A series of entries on the Umbrella Movement in this blog have culminated in a conference presentation, which in turn have been reworked into the editorial essay “The Poetics of the Umbrella Movement” in the literary journal Cha.

Thanks for reading!

Camera: Leica M6

Lens: Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f/1.4 SC

Film: Kodak BW400CN

Exhibition Prep

So, I’m in the midst of preparing for a solo photography exhibition, to be held on campus.

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And experimenting with various papers I’ve collected.

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Photographs on mobile phone/tablet/computer screens are not the same as print photographs.

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The materiality of photography is a fascinating thing indeed.

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Some printing mistakes, and a few books that inspire me.

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I’m teaching an MA course on social media, photography and writing, so many ideas are floating around in my head even as I’m prepping for the exhibition.

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It’s all coming together … photography, literature, critique.

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Nietzsche, Foucault, etc., have asked that question – how can we live our lives deliberately, such that our lives become works of art?

Susan Sontag vs John Berger

I am presenting a paper on photography and literature at an academic seminar next Monday at Hong Kong Baptist University, and this is part of what I am going to say:

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This is what Susan Sontag says about photography:

like many mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power … Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends and neighbors … Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. (On Photography)

I am thinking of people I know who like to photograph their food before they eat, or of parents who take photographs of their children while they’re playing the piano at home or of their families in front of the Eiffel Tower. There’s nothing wrong with doing these things (I do them myself all the time), but after a while, if we claim to be serious about photography as an art form and yet this is all we do with photography, then it no longer allows us to see anything new. It allows us to see only what we already see, putting us in a state of self-consuming and self-affirming narcissism, saying, “Look at me, look at me”.

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But a lot of what Sontag says are provocations to thought as well:

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. (On Photography)

What if we pursue photography with humility, as a way of looking at things differently? John Berger has made the point that “Every photograph presents us with two messages: a message concerning the event photographed and another concerning the shock of discontinuity” (Another Way of Telling).  He goes on to say that “Between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking, there is an abyss” ((Another Way of Telling).

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The abyss is when the street photograph gives us something we find hard to accept. We look, and look again, and we struggle with the meaning of the scene.

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Perhaps, then, this is the moment we enter into the realm of critique…

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