as i see Timor-Leste: guerilla-hack 'visual ethnography' far east of eden
I'm writing this from Timor-Leste, a.k.a. East Timor. If you've never heard of it, you're probably not alone. I've only heard of it because i've been to the island of Timor before, but that was 20 years ago ... a decade before the republic of Timor-Leste existed. Back then (during Indonesian occupation), you were only allowed to go to the west side, but not east, as a war was raging.
It seems not many people give a shit about Timor-Leste ... but then again you could also say that too many people give a shit about it. Everyone seems to have had a part in invading & occupying Timor—Portugal, Japan, Indonesia & to some extent Australia. And now there are loads of NGOs & the biggest UN presence of any other country in the world. Though the UN is currently in the process of pulling out ... which seems to be the elephant in the room around here.
As seems to be a reoccurring theme in Africa & the developing world, all this trying to help seems to only make it worse. All it seems to have done is create a falsely inflated economy centered around all the ex-pats that live or visit here (us included), that stay in nice hotels & eat westernized food in restaurants full of other foreign ex-pats. All this colonization & aid has only made the Timorese reliant, unable to fend for themselves. Then again, i can only imagine what East Timor must've been like in 1999, after Indonesia pulled out, leaving a swath of destruction in their wake, a 'a large-scale, scorched-earth campaign of retribution,' as the CIA factbook puts it, effectively decimating what infrastructure they had.
Something like half the people here live off 50 cents a day. And things aren't cheap here—everything needs to be imported. People eat a lot of top ramen. Which is why my better half is here ... she's working with some groups to advise on what they can do about malnutrition (something like 40% of kids here are stunted—one of the highest rates in the world), to have more sustainable & nutritious diets, all in keeping with their traditional food & agricultural practices. And as usual, i am along for the ride.
Mostly we have been hanging in the capital of Dili (pretty much a shithole), but one day we drove out west of Dili, up in the mountains above Liquiçá, where we visited some farmer groups (which is where most of the first half of these photos were taken). We also drove a few hours east of the city to a town called Baucau. The second half of these photos are from that district.
I'm not sure why all these countries pick on Timor ... there's not much here to exploit except sandalwood (before it was all pilfered by the Portuguese) & coffee. They've only recently discovered oil, which the Australians have staked a claim in. Otherwise, not a lot grows here without considerable effort & there's not much industry. Annual exports amount to a paltry $18 million, while they import $689 million worth of goods. Do the math—that's a hard economical model to sustain without some sort of intervention or aid.
So how did things get so messed up? Surely it didn't help that the Indonesians trashed the place when they left in a burning trail of spite. What's shocking to me, though, is the lack of education (or even cognitive development, related to undernutrition). When i was in the neighboring Indonesian island of Flores in the early 90s, i was awed by how smart & engaged the kids were. I mean, it was annoying that everyone wanted to practice their english with you, but beyond that, they were just hungry for knowledge. They were genuinely eager to better their situation. Students would ask me to come speak at their schools & asked all sorts of questions, about physics, philosophy, politics, the plight of Native Americans in my own backyard (while i didn't know squat about their backyard). They all wanted to go to college. You don't see as much of that here. Fifty percent of adults are illiterate. During times of Portuguese occupation, that statistic was 90%. That to me says it all. How do you colonize a place & not bother to build schools or provide education? What other outcome would you expect?
Anyway, this is where i am writing from, as a snarky outsider to all this. Timor-Leste is not exactly a premier tourist destination, unless you're looking for true adventure. Not that i've even tried to do anything touristy here. Supposedly the diving is great, but there's all sorts of things to contend with in the sea here. You'll see a nice beach with no one in the water & ask people (that live right on the beach) if they ever go swimming & they vaguely say, 'nah,' without giving a reason. But the elephant in the room is the saltwater crocodiles. Or the jellyfish. Or sea snakes or stonefish or sharks. This area of the world is full of such strange & dangerous creatures.
And then there's the disease burden, most of which i'm usually not too concerned about it ... but Dengue fever (which is very high here) freaks me out. I've had it before & it's not fun. And supposedly the second time is worse, if not fatal. No one here does shit about the mosquitoes (yet another elephant in the room). The first minute i walked into our hotel room (with no bed net) i killed a dozen mosquitoes. When i asked if they could spray our room they just looked at me with that vacant look that you seem to get with every question, where they just nod hesitantly & mumble 'yes' (again, chalk it up to undernutrition). But fifteen minutes later, nothing's changed. I'm not even sure most Timorese realize mosquitoes carry malaria & dengue & some other fucked-up sounding disease (chikungunya) that i'd never even heard of until just the other day. Call me paranoid, but i'd just assume bomb the planet with Deet.
It's hard to truly experience things when you get wrapped up in your own personal safety/comfort (or that of your accompanying loved one). When you're like this foreign anti-body traveling through a bloodstream of wicked shit. And the heat ... if you look at the numbers, it doesn't seem so bad, mid-90s, same as Rome, or NYC in the summer. But for some reason it seems hot as hell here, especially in direct sunlight. 'No joy in the brilliance of sunshine,' as Conrad said.
And all the taxis & cars here have broken windshields. I guess there was some incident earlier this year where people just decided to throw stones at all passing cars. And they are big into martial arts here & i guess (you can never tell here what is truth or folklore) these youth groups watch Bruce Lee movies & then take to the streets practicing their skills on any innocent bystander that is in the way. To the extent that they had to pass some law about it.
They speak a language called tetum here, though there are dozens of other Timorese languages in the various districts. In Dili they speak a sort of pidgin version of tetum that incorporates a lot of Portugese & Indonesian words. Tagging along with j on her field visits, it's interesting to listen to just the language (not even knowing what they are saying). They seem very long-winded about everything ... someone will speak for fifteen minutes & then the translated version is like 15 seconds, like the whiskey commercial film-shoot in Lost in Translation.
Food. Mostly we've been eating to live, to survive another day. They have a restaurant here called 'Food-L-Do,' which pretty much sums it up. Most of the restaurants in Dili cater to ex-pats & serve pizza & pasta & hamburgers, but we've had a couple great Indonesian/Timorese lunches. And some decent sea food.
Oh, and they use US dollars here which is strange to see in such a context. Not just US dollars, but it's like they are using discarded dollar bills from the Reagan years, in small denominations—they are usually all filthy & worn out to almost be illegible. One time we tried to pay with a brand new bill & they wouldn't accept it! It seems all a vast money-laundering business where the US ships all their used money to Timor for them to use a second time around. J got her travel advance in such a stack of dirty money, all in denominations of 1s, 5s & 10s.
The biggest elephant in the room—the UN pullout. If you ask most people here, including people whose line of work includes ominous phrases like, 'early detection of warning signs of violence,' they say all is hunky dory. But if you ask me (who doesn't know squat) it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Not only will thousands of people be directly unemployed, but as mentioned, the economy here has come to rely on these UN types (hotels, restaurants, etc.). So you have thousands of hungry people (it's 'hunger season' with no rains yet), unemployed or with less business, compounded with the fact that the 'peace-keeping' forces are pulling out ... i give it a month or two before the UN is back to restore order (if not the Indonesians to wreak havoc). Not that i think the UN should be here, or can think of a better solution. Hopefully if there is any unrest, it will just amount to growing pains & the Timorese will learn to be self-sufficient & take control of their destiny. That stuff will just sort itself out.
... in usual fashion, i tend to paint everything in a negative light. 'I can't complain,' as the saying goes, but then i do anyway. But is it interesting to read about the 'nice' things, or look at pictures of sunsets? As always, i'm writing this for selfish reasons, for me to look back.
J was thinking that it might be interesting to do a 'visual ethnography' study while we were going around Timor-Leste—to use photos as qualitative data. So i've been doing some reading (this Visual Ethnography paper by Dona Schwartz & this one on Qualitative Data Collection). It's an interesting proposition—to use photographs to elicit responses from people who might not otherwise divulge information about themselves or their situations. We've all done this before (anyone with a digital camera traveling in the developing world)—where we take a photo & then show it to the person. At first there's the requisite laughter (or looks of surprise/embarrassment if they've never seen themselves before, which in recent years with all the camera-phones is rare). But once the initial giggling subsides, people often start noticing things about themselves or their surroundings that they otherwise might not have noticed. Especially over time, like think about when you sit around looking at old photo albums with friends & family.
The aim of 'visual ethnography' is to do this in a more controlled & constructive way. You take a series of photos in a community, often over time & then display these photos to the community to gauge their reaction & engage them, to provoke conversation ... as an alternative to the traditional interview process, which often comes off more like interrogation, or where they only give you the expected answer, not the truth. And the photographer/interviewer is also engaged, especially if its casual & everyone lets down their guard.
Take the photo above—from a moving car i saw this kid with facepaint standing in front of a house. To me it was an arresting image. If i showed it to the kid or (presumably) his mother standing in the doorway, there might be a perfectly logical reason why his face was painted ... maybe he was doing a rain dance. (We actually saw this a few times & another time, minutes after i took the photo of the above farmer that looked like a cop, a guy strolled down the road wearing a Scream mask. A few people saw it & no one said anything as if they see it everyday.)
Reading up on visio-ethnography made me think some about photography, about whether it is 'art' & if it is, who is the artist? I think of photography as simply documenting, data collection, but we all inevitably impose our will on the image, frame it in our own way to try to capture it as our own. Perhaps i seek out things that look janky or decrepit, others just take portraits or pictures of pretty sunsets. I usually don't take photos of people (since i don't like having my photo taken seems only fair), but i was tasked to take photos for such documentation purposes. Not that they will ever be part of a proper visio-ethnograpical study (that would involve setting up controlled sessions with the community members & recording their conversations & doing this over time, which being that i don't speak tetum, would involved getting translators, etc.).
Going back to what i was saying about being cocooned in your comfort zone—we all experience circumstances differently. The interpretation of a photo is user-dependent & context dependent. The image is not what's important so much as the perception of it.
You could say the same about art in general. Draw your own conclusions. Let the data gather & speak for itself, is the best way to go about it.
Nobody wants to be a statistic. Everyone is exceptional. Nobody wants to be told what there faults & deficiencies are, but if you show them a photograph of themselves they'll often be self-critical without you having to say anything. I am not going anywhere with all this. These are just some things that reading this stuff & being in Timor-Leste is making me think of.
You need to get past that initial rehearsed, posing stage ... where both subject & observer act natural. Fly casual.
Or perhaps the best way (regarding visual ethnography) is to just give people cameras & let them take their own photos.
The other thing i've been thinking about it is how layered language & data can be. In these rather academic articles, they 'record' the subjects observations (upon, say, looking at a photograph, which is already a layered process). Next to these recorded thoughts, the scientist puts their 'commentary,' as if it needs translation. Not just translated from another language (which also could be involved, and adds a whole nother layer of complexity), but distilled down for the academic community to understand & analyze. At the end of it, the 'truth' (if there is any) gets buried beneath layer after layer of sub-stratum interpretation. (Can you tell i've also been reading Badiou? More on him in the next post...)
Somewhere half-way through this post we shifted from the area west of Dili to the area east of Dili, in the Baucau region (where the last 7 or 8 photos were taken). Here's a video of what it's like driving in Timor-Leste (needless to say, the roads are pretty crappy).
When we got to Baucau, to some fleabag hotel (if you could call it that, it seemed more like staying in the kids room of somebody's house, mickey mouse blanket & all) & i shut my eyes to sleep, the same image kept playing over & over in my head from earlier in the day. And that was the image of a funeral procession we saw coming towards us down a long, very straight stretch of road. The driver respectfully pulled over & turned off the engine to let them pass. The pallbearers were barefoot & not sweating despite the heat & the weight & the sun. As they approached, you could see the coffin was the size of a small child. Then i heard the sound of a camera shutter in the backseat—a colleague of j's sticking their fancy camera out the window to take photos of the funeral procession. I was mortified to be in the car. I seriously thought we were done for, that the funeral procession would turn into a lynch mob (for good reason).
The next day it was the above image i couldn't shake—a crippled dog whose hindquarters had all but atrophied. Why no one had bothered to put it out of its misery i don't know & it's not my place to say. They just watched & laughed as the poor dog pulled itself around by its front legs.
All i can say, is of what i see. I can't speak for anyone else.
I am only a foreigner traveling through this landscape.
The above bird (some sort of kingfisher or kookaburra that had iridescent blue wings when dry) i rescued from a pool of water, where it had been floundering around unable to get out. It was exhausted & cold, but after it dried off & stopped shivering it flew off.