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The human touch

Hohenzollern castle

Castles, cathedrals and massive tomb relics. I’ve spent some time looking at these lately.  The treasures in them are beautiful and I can spend hours looking at the delicacy of the carvings, the beauty in the paintings and the lovely design of the brickwork.  The construction itself is amazing – my mind boggles at how many people worked, or literally slaved, to create these very beautiful edifices.

Strasbourg Cathedral

I have enjoyed the beauty and artisry of these buildings very much, but there has been something lacking in them for me.  When I wander through them, looking at the grand rooms, raising my eyes to the heightrs of the gloriously arched ceilings, I have felt awe, I have felt amazement.  But I haven’t felt a connection to the people; I haven’t felt any relationship to what occurred in those fantastic buildings.

It seemed to me that the cathedrals weren’t about any connection to God or a god, but rather were constructed to create awe, demonstrate power and create a touch of fear in those coming to the buildings.  The castles were, again, not about relationships or connection, but about power and control.  These buidlings seemed to me to suggest separation and division.

The fascinating tombs of Chinese emperors and their familes are similar in their lack of connection and relationship to the people in the country around them.  Size mattered, numbers of things sent to the afterlife to keep the rulers in comfort and power mattered, beauty of objects mattered.  Connections and relationships had no place.

Workers, builders, labourers, brickies, artists, sculptors – all of those who created these beautiful relics of the past were not important.  The tombs celebrated teh individual – but only the individual with power.  The castles celebrated the ruling families, but not those who built or worked in them.  The cathedrals were presumably designed to create a space for people to connect in a spiritual context.  But in none of these magnificant places did I see or feel a human touch that would bring people into connection with the rulers, or the gods.

However, in the Xi’an Museum I finally found a connection between that which was created to celebrate others, and the creators, the workers.

I was here

This handprint from the Tang Dynasty tells me that at least one worker saw himself as important enough to leave his mark.  One man was sure enough of his place – no matter whether he was a slave, prisoner, craftsman or indentured servant – to make a connection with what he was building and himself.  Nearly 1400 years later, I can see this person’s individual spirit, his human touch in the bricks that made up the tomb.

Did it detract from the beauty of the structure – probably not, it was probably hidden deep inside walls, layerd over with other bricks and maybe limewash and murals.  But his spirit is there, no lost in awe of the emperor, not disconnected from what he is doing.

How often do we remove the ‘human touch’ from our photographs in order to create a less connected beauty?  We smooth skin for models, clone out small pieces of rubbish floating in the water or lying on our otherwise pristine beach scene, disappear blemishes on our strong coloured walls or blur the crowd scenes to focus more directly on the market.  We look for perfect beauty in our images, without realising that we may be losing that tiny touch that is a shared connection, that speaks to others, that makes our images more human.

While still appreciating the soaring cathedral, I’ll be looking for more of the human, looking to make a connection.




Accepting the challenge


Slugs in love

I’ve been in Germany for a month, exploring and having adventures.  This holiday was fantastic as family and friends took me to the out-of-the-way places only locals know, introduced me to inspiring people and really made it a unique and unforgettable holiday.  I came back with over 100G of images and am working my way SOOOOO slowly through them, deleting and keywording.  Not finished yet, but at least on the downhill run now.  The memories are revived by the images, and the feelings, laughter, awe and delight come back as I look at them.

One of the things that I have taken away from this journey has been not from the beauty and difference I have seen but from the people I met.  People living fascinating lives and living their lives not limited by the normal expectations of the world around them.  Working, researching, contributing well past ‘retirement’ age; working in environmental conservation and protection even though it is slow; people creating beauty for others; living their lives enjoying the world around them and happy to share it with others.  These people taught me that I also do not need to follow the conventions, that dreams and ideas have no ‘shelf life’.  Individual unique-ness rules – I loved it!

Challenge accepted!

These inspiring people have, without knowing it, challenged me to keep dreaming, keep pushing my own ‘socially-inculcated-not-necessarily-real’ limits.  I know that I can continue to live a full and dynamic life – I have seen it.  I saw that age, living place, lack of wealth or expectations of others are not barriers to creating change in the world.  Making a difference locally  and internationally is possible if the mind-set is right.  That achievement does not depend on wealth or power, it depends on interest, drive and persistence.

Individual and society

A wonderful journey, with new vistas, new knowledge and new inspirations.

The gentle prison

                                               I existed in a world that never is – the prison of the mind.   Gene Tierney

It seems to me that no matter how much we long for freedom we continue to create our own prisons.  They are such enticing and seductive prisons as well. Prisons such as the bonds of love and friendship, gaols of goals, cells of comforts.

I’m watching a friend struggle with the end of a relationship, clearly one in which she wasn’t valued and respected as an individual.  Her desire to make this relationship work, to finally gain love and warmth reflects my own struggles. A desperate need for belonging and love fetters our emotions and deprives us of autonomy.  Even within a good relationship, we lose some levels of freedom.  We choose to limit ourselves to the codes of conduct of those relationships.

I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been enriched by many friends.  But these people, people I love and care about, also confine me.  Their love and companionship warm and delight my soul at the same time as they prevent me from furthering my internal self-exploratory adventures. Our joint activities, our long afternoons and evenings of talking and laughing, limit my ability to meditate, create, write and dream.

My desires to expand and develop also create boundaries. If I am to reach goals I have set for myself, then I have to ignore competing pathways, reject competing interests.  How much do these self-imposed bars prevent me from growing?  These decisions are usually sensible, logical, well-reasoned – but they mean choosing and rejecting.  What if the path fails to take me to the planned destination?  What have I lost by creating these limits?

Work, even work we love, creates more cells for incarceration. I enjoy eating, travelling, drinking fine wine, reading and taking photographs.  All of these pursuits require money.  Work enables me to enjoy them, but confines my days, pushes my thinking in certain directions.  I have broken some work chains, but the necessity for at least some money equals the necessity for some level of imprisonment.

The locks we surround ourselves with can be beautiful. Family,friends and dreams are  vital, important and so wonderful.  But they are still limits that require us to waive some of our freedom.

Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.   John F Kennedy
Conformity is what society requires of us – to conform allows us to fit in, to be accepted, to uphold the norms and mores.  We are aprt of it all, and not alone. Work requires conformity, to enhance and make production efficient. Love requires us to conform to make everything peaceful. Our goals require us to conform to the steps to reach them.  We want to conform to be accepted seen as valuable and worthwhile.

These bars and cells are our own choices.  The biggest difficulty we face in wanting to choose freedom is the idea of hurting others. The idea of being seen as selfish, egotistical, uncaring.

The question then becomes, how many bars are essential? Which bars on this warm and wonderful prison can I remove? How much freedom do I want?

I’ve just finished a really busy semester, with work, coaching, judging, social activities, writing, editing, studying, visitors, friends, family and many other commitments.  I love the feeling of being important in people’s lives, just as I want them to know how important they are in my life. I enjoy being involved in making even a small differnce around me.

But this level of commitment also creates a serious lack of alone time, a curtailing of freedom, and a realisation I lose myself in the process.

Creating the freedom I look for means saying no.  It means limiting the connections and commitments.  Saying no to friends and colleagues is not easy.  It makes me feel ungrateful for teh richness of my life.

And the gain in freedom means the loss in relationships. Real freedom, total freedom, no ties, no commitments also means no love, no belonging.  This is a fearful prospect. One few humans are destined to survive.

How much freedom is important?  This is a question that can only be answered individually, and must be answered almost every day. Each choice we make limits our freedom in one way or another.  Each relationship, each commitment creates another link in our chains.  I love those links.

Looking for difference

You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. Paulo Coelho

Blue leaves?  What why, who, how?  I have no answers to these questions, but being different, they definitely pulled my eye.

Individually and as a society we grow when we embrace the differences.  No progress is made unless we think differently, act differently.  No inventions, no new ideas, no philosophies are created without difference.  And yet we are so afraid of it.

Our social structure requires conformity, our families ask us to fit in, our workplaces promote conformist slogans that tell us to focus our attention in one direction.  There is no reward for difference, but it is the foundation of our civilisation.

How do we manage this tension? How do we live different lives without being seen as rebels, pariahs, weird, eccentric, odd, selfish, egotistical, unrealistic, dreamers, and all of the other epithets that are flung at those who do not walk the same path? To walk this path requires strength and determination. It requires an ability to believe that even if we do not conform to the expected, to the norms society and our family and friends place around us, we are still of value.

Believing we are valuable seems to me to be the hardest challenge for those who step away from the common path.  We can convince ourselves of our internal value “I am a good person” etc.  But when we are faced with the strange looks, the pain of family and friends who do not understand our choices, the laughter of workmates when we propose new ideas, the subtle distancing of others – how do we convince ourselves that we are still of value and offering value?

Walking the expected path feels safe, conforming to norms makes it easy for us to live within our group. There is danger and doubt in difference.

The only validation I can give myself is that if I conform, if I step away from my own choices and live the life others believe is good and proper, then I lose myself.  I am no longer me, and therefore no longer valuable to myself or society.  I become fodder for whatever ideology is around me, a cog in an economic machine, and an acquiesent supporter of conformity and fear.

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.   Friedrich Nietzsche

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m experimenting with my camera to encourage me to look at things differently.  Each week I am setting myself a ‘task’ – use only the 28mm lens, take movement photos, only take images of 2- and 3-wheel transport etc.  These experiements teach me more about my camera and lens, teach me about techniques and thinking about what I want each image to be, rather than taking photos of everything that takes my eye.

Have I missed having my ‘walkabout’ 18-270mm with me at times?  Too right.  Do I want to take a different view sometimes?  Yes I do.  But for now the learning is outweighing the missed opportunities.

I’m not only experimenting with my camera and my vision here, I am also experimenting with life.  So many opportunities are outside my windows.  So many paths available for walking.  Right now, I have chosen a path, and set a particular aim.  Once that aim is completed, then the path can veer in any direction and I will experiment with a new world, new ideas, new beginnings.  My current path was a huge veer from the ‘safe’ path of gov’t official, safe job, busy social life, close to family and friends. I learned many many things on that path,  had wonderful experiences but also found areas within myself that were not fulfilled.  The need to experiment grew stronger and stronger until it was an imperative.  So I took the plunge – safely at first, leaving the way open to return to my previous life.  But the more I travelled down the experimental path, the less the previous life fit me.  I finally left it behind althogether, and closed one of the ‘safety’ doors.  Other ‘safety’ doors remain open – family and friends will always be my lifelines, my beacons if and when the new paths become too dark.

What did this experiment teach me? Adaptability, confidence, self-reliance, independence and more about myself.  What will the next path teach me?  I have no idea – but whatever it is, it will be valuable and I will be glad that I experimented with life once more.

Architecture and spirit

Which one is mine?

Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.

Ernest Dimnet

Every day I am surrounded by buildings growing towards the sky.  These buildings will house human beings, their spirits, hopes, dreams and thoughts.  Are the buildings going to enrich their lives or reduce them?  To me they seem more and more like hives – tightly bound, completely organised.  They are closed tight against the world and within them, the doors are locked tight against neighbours.

Within these walls, with views of other walls and other buildings, do we have a chance for the expansion of our horizons? Within these buildings we need to constrain ourselves. We fear disturbing the neighbours, so we moderate our anger and our joy.  No dancing in high heels to loud music, no screaming our frustrations at the walls.  Our children learn to be quiet. No running to let off energy in the corridors or up and down the stairwells.  They could interrupt someone’s sleep, TV watching or dinner. We lessen our creativity. Common walls cannot be painted with our visions or joyful colours.

These buildings block the world from our view, and the apartment doors block us from our neighbours, and are locked to create some hope of privacy.  Our gardens are not filled with plants that we have chosen, but by those the body corporate employs someone else to choose.  Our BBQ area is supervised by the windows of one hundred apartments.  No long lazy afternoons sitting beside the BBQ, a few cool ales in hand, chatting with our friends, watching the children run and play on the grass. Someone else may need the area, or may object to children running on the grass or to the music we have in the background.


These building then begin to control our lives and our expressions of life.  Where in them can we find the space to expand our souls? To give our children the freedom to play, run, sing and explore their world?

These buildings are also ‘one generation’ buildings, not intended to be refurbished, because their structures are too both rigid and too poorly constructed for renovation and renewal.  They are intended to be torn down with 20-25 years, making way for more modern, probably ever higher structures.  The cannot grow organically the way a house can, in response to teh needs of the family; with a room added here, a verandah there, and an attic under the roof. Gardens and trees planted within the grounds are short-term, not intended to provide shade, fruit, food and beauty for long.

Modern architecture in communities where people are seen as factory fodder, where children’s role in life is to study and achieve and where profit becomes the highest aim, loses everything rich and exciting that it could be.

Even with single family dwellings, it seems they are constructed with the same constraining principles in mind.  Few windows, very small openings to the outer world; surrounded by other buildings; no gardens, no trees, no comfortable shade; and no colour.  These buildings do not invite us to relax and refresh ourselves after work. They don’t give opportunties to stamp an individual or creative touch on them.  They don’t inspire interest, either in themselves as pieces of ‘living’ art, or in the outer world.

Why do buildings have to be like this?  Architecture can help people move into comfort after a long day at work. It can set the space for imagination and exploration.  It can allow creativity to flow. We may initially desire to escape, but if all we can see is more of the same, there is nowhere to escape to.  Instead these buildings gradually imbue us with their prisonesque feelings, finally limiting our physical and, eventually, emotional expressions.

Beauty 3

Inside the bell - the beauty of age.

Still looking at beauty and where we find it.  I love the colours of rust, the textures and stories that I can conjure from them.  This is an image from inside the bell at Qinglong Temple in Xi’an.

Each temple and city in China traditionally had a bell and drum tower.  The bell was rung in the morning, the drum at dusk.  A lovely way to mark the beginning and end of the day.  Most of these are now just ornamental, their purpose being taken over by watches and clocks.

Can we find beauty in the disused, outdated and time-worn?  I think so. The beauty is in the colours of the past, the textures of the disuse and the stories they could tell if we listen carefully enough.

Out to pasture

Most photographers love photographing the faces and hands of the elderly – and I guess for pretty much the same reasons.  Those faces and hands can tell so many stories and those stories can enrich our lives so much.  History is written for us to see in the eyes, wrinkles, knotted fingers.   Babies and littlies are sweet, but their faces, as yet, tell us little.

I can find beauty, even in death, if it is surrounded by life.  A well-lived life, with work  done, goals achieved and loves fulfilled, is not sad in death, but beautiful.  The death of an old tree in a  forest surrounded by young trees, speaks of the wheel of time, the ever-renewing face of life.

QingLong Temple bell

Beauty can be found in the old and forgotten.  It can be found in rust and cracked paint. It can be found in death.

Beauty 2

They’re pylons, generally seen as excrescences on our landscape, marching across hills, through farmlands, carving their way into wilderness.  Not seen as beautiful – necessary, ugly, perhaps dangerous with their radiation.  Visual pollution.

These pylons in Guangdong have been beautified – given multi-coloured coats of paint.  Why?  Does it change their essential starkness?  Someone, somewhere, thought that even this sign of modernity could be made more beautiful.  And in doing so, gave a little light relief to travellers on a long road trip, maybe changed the perspective of some.  Someone cared enough to spend money on painting pylons.

This caring, this expenditure, says something important.  Even the ugly, the plain, the utilitarian, can be given a coat of beauty.  And in doing so, greater beauty is created.  The spirit that created this idea is seen.  The essence of the object is changed. Possibilities have been seen.

What else can make these objects beautiful?

Their role in our lives.  Our perceptions. Carrying power to remote areas, giving light and heat to houses, generating power for industries that help feed workers and their families.  The promise of  future work or comfort for rural dwellers.

Even if these robotic soldiers of progress can despoil our landscapes, their lines of connection have to be eradicated from so many images, they pose danger if misused; they still have a beauty in strength, promise and use.  Someone somewhere saw this, wanted to change our perspective, wanted to create beauty from utility.

Looking at ugly, plain, utilitarian, practical with other eyes can show us a different beauty.

Shadows of life

The last few weeks have been difficult creatively. I came back from Australia ‘photo’d out’, with close to 4000 images to work through, and no energy to make  a  big effort.   I also came back very confused about my direction.  So much desire to go back to Australia to be close to my family and friends, but at the same time, still really enjoying my life and my work here.  And of course my family and friends are suggesting that I return. Internal conflict, the tension of competing desires left me with no focus, no vision.  So I felt pretty blocked emotionally and work-wise.  Photoshop also threw a tantrum and decided to lose a couple of fairly vital bits after I had a friend go through my computer to free up space.  Not being able to work is as bad as not wanting to work!

But a friend visiting from overseas pulled me out of my ‘no more photos’ funk, taking me to local places I hadn’t been to for a while, and giving me a chance to see things with new eyes again.  And then spring came, albeit with a pretty chilly wind as well.  The sheer gorgeous-ness of flowers in spring forces its way into the consciousness, and demands to be seen, appreciated and for me, recorded.

Working came before the inspiration, and resulted in a renewal of a desire to experiment with my camera.  Even without of the full sun of inspiration, I could still see and feel the importance of getting out there with my camera and working from the ‘dark side’. Once we begin work in the ‘dark side’, it allows us to see the shadows and express them.

Added to these influences, I read Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art’. This book names and shames the resistances within us that prevent us from working, from creating.  It is pretty direct, which is sometimes what is needed.  The basic message of ‘get off the backside, quit the excuses, NOW’ is definitely necessary some days.

Waiting for the sun of inspiration will not open the doors of creativity.



I’ve been wandering around museums and mausoleums lately and have been struck by the drive for beauty that seems to be innate.  Even back in Neolithic times, when, we imagine, life was more difficult, more primitive, more survival oriented than today, women still carved bone into hair decorations.

Our need for beauty that we create extends to everyday implements. If we need to identify our belongings, to me a simple mark would have been enough and efficient.  But instead from the beginning of thought we have created beauty with our markings.


Houses have been decorated as well – it seems that to create beauty for ourselves is an incredibly strong motivation.  This goes beyond identity, beyond practicality and into the realms of the spirit.  But most decorations aren’t based on a religion or pleasing the gods, but deeper into our own spirituality.  We create beauty to make our lives more meaingful, to add something beyond what is necessary to survive.

From adorning ourselves to adorning the world around us, from art to music, photography to sculpture, painting to collage, needlework to architecture, from gardens to natural scenery – we have a drive for finding and holding beauty.

Beauty is within us and is reflected by our external creation, by our search for it.