Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Where ever I travelled, New Zealand or overseas, there always seemed to be Japanese taking photographs. Especially, before the digital age, I wonder where they stored them all. Even in their homeland they took thousands.

In my first visit to Japan, after attending a conference in Hiroshima, I travelled as a tourist. The Japanese Tourist Board had given me a chit which roughly translated said ‘take this guy to a decent traditional Japanese inn.’ When I got off the train I presented this to a taxi driver and very soon I was being met with bows and escorted to my room. I had been warned about sleeping on the floor – futons are comfortable – not being spoken to in English – hand signals seem universal – and communal bathing – it never happened, I always had private facilities.

I got as far south as Beppu – a thermal resort like Rotorua. There I decided the best way to see around was to join a tour. The rest of the group were elderly Japanese tourists. I realised I had been adopted as the tour curiosity. At every stop I had to join obligatory groups to be snapped again and again. Relatives must have got bored at seeing this hairy barbarian (I was bearded those days) popping up in photograph after photograph.

Back in Tokyo I took another bus tour – this time to Hakone, a lake resort high up in the hills. At the first view of Mt Fujiama the bus stopped for everyone to take a photo. The mountain was a long way away and there was nothing to frame against it so I didn't bother. It looked like Egmont. Behind us a farming group were harvesting rice by hand – it looked timeless. I lined up for a photo only to have a restraining hand on my elbow. It was the diminutive tour guide. She turned me firmly around and pointed at the sacred mountain. That was the view. I was equally determined and turned back. She was agitatedly adamant – I did wonder if she did not want me to portray her people as backward but thinking about it afterwards I’m sure she merely wanted me to get the right photograph. I let her have her way. She stood beside me till I pressed the shutter on the correct view.

I too have a pile of photos I have taken down the years. My slides got mildew so I threw them out. When I’m gone most of those photos will have the same fate. It all goes so fast. Experience, finally, is beyond capture. One of Ian Wedde’s commonplace odes captures that mood very well.


To me the Fates have given scorn for the envious.
Time’s no flood, it bears nothing
Away, and only light catches it, shuttered on memory.
Let the heart rejoice in what ever it has right now.
What is we hold up between us, my brother

And I? It’s our father’s satisfaction, it’s food
For the table, it’s a monument he never dreamed he’d see
In the Ufizzi, it’s his wife in a camelhair coat
By a DC3, with a camel in the Wadi
Araba and among the weathered pyramids of Dashoon.

Now it’s a show, it’s a thousand sunsets on the Nile,
On the bay of Bengal, on the waters of Lake Constance,
And he was never satisfied with them. Far horizons, blue
And made of rocks, are what he also saw.
Sometimes he was happy with the spired horizons of cities

But which cities? And what Gods are worshipped
Beneath those turquoise domes? What was sacrificed
On those basalt altars, tumbled in black ruins
Across what valleys foraged by goats, sheep
Or llamas? What tunes have faded away?

Where are we now? No longer in
The picture, which is now a picture of my father’s loneliness.
He survives in roguish snapshots taken in restaurants.
A plate of quail in Damascus. But never in the tin
Trunk of photographs because he took them all.

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