Starting New Chapters
We’re delighted to introduce Hannah Pierce-Carlson as our newest regular contributor to insig.ht. Although you don’t see it, there is a continual hubbub of conversation in our back rooms and Hannah’s intelligence, lucidity and passion have been a wonderful addition to our little group. Welcome, Hannah!
We live in a small town in the agricultural plains of western Taiwan. My husband, Michael, and I moved here four months ago for a number of reasons; but most pivotally, I had made a relationship with the Chinese-speaking world that two years of previous living, working and traveling in mainland China did not suffice as enough. You too have a special place that awakened you in someway (I’d wage a bet). In the practice of photography, our ‘place’ is one of our most potent ingredients, right up there with the presence of light. Our place inspires and/or frazzles us to point a camera at it. I was inspired and frazzled by China via the undeviating attention and persistence it required of me. Admittedly and naively, I suspected that my China familiarity had trained me for whatever the island of Taiwan has to offer. But in truth, the assumption that I’m ever culturally equipped to photograph anywhere I land is sorely naive, and I try to check myself periodically. Photographing under this delusion is perhaps like fishing using a broad net with wide holes. You’ll definitely catch something impressive at some point, but there are the unfortunate dolphins, and all the smaller tasty ones that will slip back into the dark oblivion.
We are not exactly frazzled, I am anything but. We maintain a quiet and straight forward life. I take daily jogs through the farms on small roads big enough for scooters. There are farmer women wrapped to the eyes in multi-colored paisley and floral. I watch them. There is something about this countryside that reminds me not to take it for granted. I can see countryside back home, but I will never see old women tending the fields.
Out here photographic inspiration comes not in the heavy-hand of the blazingly obvious – not much is ever obvious. Instead, it arises from a daily experience where one in a thousand of unknowns gradually comes into focus. For instance, there are some major mountains to the east of us that rarely show themselves through the haze. But every few weeks, they gloriously appear. We can see clear across the miles of farmland up to their almost +10,000 foot peaks.
We spend our weekends cycling through the farmland and small dusty, nearly empty towns. Everything that Taiwan eats is here: rice, sugarcane, ducks, greens, fruits. The smells morph from fragrant to earthy to noxious; from orange groves and sugar cane mills, to duck waste, to burning garbage, tars, and the ever-present incense and smoldering paper money that wire blessings up to the ancestors. We like to take pit stops in the neighborhood temples that jut frenetically into the sky.
Their well-tended chambers pump out both musk and recorded prayer music, which echo through whatever semblance there is of a town. The temples for the sea goddess, Matzu, or the other local deities spring up in the small towns like wild flowers. The temple economy is run by, from what I hear, organized crime, playing out a familiar scheme of money laundering mixed with old time devotions. Pious retirees swirl around the country in tour buses, popping into small-town, but no-less renown, mega-temples to pay their respects and offer-up their pennies.
We get misguided by lack of signs or the surplus of confusing signs. We cross our own path often and end up following soot-footed farmers on their motorcycles back out to familiar roads. We’ve enlisted so many people on our mission to nowhere. We ride in the dark, staring out onto moonlit fields and through living room windows. The dark homes glow, but dimly, with red ancestral altar rooms on top floors, to flickering blue TV rooms down below.
Blazing scooters and country traffic threaten us at small intersecting side streets. Michael has been swiped by buses and motorcycles a few times. It is enough to make us avoid certain regions entirely. Taiwan’s lack of public transportation within its lesser cities has made the personal scooter and car prerequisite. The island is smothered in its traffic. In many cities, walking has been made prohibitive by lack of sidewalks. It is often futile to walk around looking for spots to people watch, unless you watch them, like koi in an overstuffed pond at feeding time, clamor up at intersections. You are safest if you are straddling some sort of moving contraption.
There are many sounds. There is the melding of languages in the markets, three tongues on land: Hakka, Taiwanese, and Mandarin, and all of the aboriginal languages in the mountains. There are the random and frequent firecrackers that either ward off ghosts or guide the ghosts home. As a Taiwanese acquaintance puts it, “firecrackers are multipurpose.” There are the elaborate street funerals that can go on for days; that can cause traffic swells whose caravans of drummers charge through invisible throngs of ghosts as the deceased is chaperoned by a flank of solemn ladies playing tambourines.
There are the fresh heaps of shallow graves in the farm cemeteries that pepper the land. Shallow, so that the bones can be exhumed and pulverized to be placed in the previously mentioned red glowing altar rooms. There are the myriad of superstitions that, if I allow them, make the weight of the Taiwanese cosmology sink me under their homespun metaphors. I’ve been in three big earthquakes in four months because they say that under the island there is a snoozing cow rolling over. There are three protective flames that sit on my shoulder-head-shoulder and if I might turn my head, at night, when a stranger calls my name, I will extinguish them. A zombie cold will infuse me and usher in my physical and/or spiritual death. There is the back that I must not pat while playing mahjhong for that person will never win his fortune; or the pregnant woman’s back that I must not even touch for fear that I will knock the baby out. There is the light in the front of my school that I must never turn off, and the stairwell I must always go down and never up, and the old thing that’s just easier to follow and silly to question. I suspect there is consolation in having this acceptance of things.
Move with it and don’t question, that’s a lesson I try to heed. Michael likes to say that around us there is all this invisible (but photographic) potential. Wherever you are, whatever stage of story, project, or chapter in life, some of the hard work is honing your divining rod toward that potential, and to eventually dig under the flowers and come up with something substantially different, something that nourishes you. Four months in, this is what it is, digging around the foot of a formidable mountain that but occasionally emerges in full view. The hardest work really isn’t ever photographic in nature. It is in learning about this place and letting the photos froth up out of that experience. This Taiwan chapter, so far, is going to be about connecting the images to the eventual understanding of what is actually going on around us. As foreigners that might be the best we can hope for. Maybe that’s the best anyone can hope for.