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Privilege: Behold, the English teacher!


Usually when I write about art, it is as an external observer. But thanks to photographer/artist Gary Mcleod's Privilege project, I had a chance to see things from the other side. This is because Mcleod has set himself the laudable goal of documenting Japan’s foreign English teachers, a category to which both he and I still happen to belong.

"You're number 90 and I'm number 19," he tells me when I show up for my photo shoot in a backroom at the Berlitz language school in Ueno. “When I get to 100, I'll stop.”

Mcleod does more than simply snap pictures of people who get paid for knowing the difference between "L" and "R." Behind the simple act of photographing—which I find out isn’t so simple—is a whole history, methodology and approach that draws interesting parallels and contrasts between 19th-century imperialism and 21st-century globalism. It also raises intriguing questions about perception, representation and objectivity.

The project's inspiration came from the voyage of HMS Challenger, a scientific survey ship sent round the world from 1872 to 1876. One of the objectives of the expedition was to photograph the various "native races" encountered along the way, including, when the ship arrived here in 1875, the Japanese. Mcleod sees this part of the ship's research as an expression of imperialist taxonomy.

"I suspect that it was actually to confirm the empire's significance around the world and to show British people that this is what the empire is," he says.

By substituting English teachers for the Challenger's "native races," Mcleod achieves two things. First, he is able to photograph a wide array of people from around the world without circumnavigating the globe; and, second, he is able to suggest ways in which imperialism and globalism are related. The same expansionary mercantile, colonial and imperial impulse that sent the Challenger on its way also created the Anglophone-dominated global system that has made it so necessary for a remote island inhabited by a formerly isolated "native race" to learn English.

Emphasizing the links between the Challenger expedition and his own work, Mcleod uses a modern digital SLR camera body that he's fitted with a 130-year-old lens. But instead of one click, he photographs his subjects using a tripod-controlled mapping technique, taking approximately 300 individual photos, which are then stitched together to make a composite image. The process, which takes around 45 minutes, makes the photographic experience more like sitting for a painting. The benefit, as I found out, is that the subject tends to relax and be more natural. During the process, Mcleod interviews his subjects, asking them questions that reveal his interest in the theory of nomadism formulated by the philosopher Vilem Flusser.

"Coming to Japan, and my whole experience of being here and talking to teachers, has shown me how nomadic we really are when we’re in Japan," he says. But nomadism can also be a transitional stage for some.

"People who have been here a lot longer are a lot more settled," he says. "They've got to the point where they just decide, 'This is me, this where I’m going to be.' From talking to them, I get the impression that they’ve actually left and then returned, knowing that Japan is the place for them."

The results of Mcleod's fascinating project can be seen this month at The Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, followed by a show next month at the Zuishoji-Art-Projects gallery in Shirokanedai. At this exhibition, images of the teachers—including mine, no doubt—will be projected onto a white board accompanied by recordings made from the transcriptions of the interviews read out by Japanese language students. This last touch will show the degree to which the efforts of English teachers like Mcleod and myself have been successful.

Through August 28, The Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan
Sep 17-23, Zuishoji-Art-Projects
www.garymcleod.co.uk


C.B.Liddell
Metropolis
14th August, 2009
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