Let me introduce myself…

I’ve written before about my work with students from overseas, and the way in which Asian students have a tendency to adopt “western” names.  Although it makes my life easier, I have mixed feelings about this.  Many Anglophones rely upon the fact that English is a universally accepted language to make not effort to learn another language, or even to reach for the phrase book when travelling abroad.  Deplorable as this may be, not being willing to try to pronounce another’s name seems to be just rude.

It isn’t just Asians who encounter this problem – at first sight many Polish surnames seem to contain more consonants than the tongue can handle, yet by taking the time to ask every Pole I meet how to pronounce their name, any fears have been dispelled.  I have some way to go with Sri Lankan names yet though!

The name of course is part of our identity, and in expecting others to change their names we meddle with who they are.  I am adopted, so the name I have used for the last 54 years was not the one given to me at birth.  I still remember how alien my “birth name” seemed when I first viewed my birth certificate.  I’m a Paul, not an Ian.  Also I use my middle name, because the first name given to me by my adoptive parents was also my father’s and grandfather’s first name, so Paul became the name of choice to avoid confusion.  The other name is meaningless to me.  Perhaps this explains my sensitivity to the name changes that others take on.

An article that I read in the Korean Times however suggested that the practice is perhaps not undertaken reluctantly.  Adopting a Western name gives many a feeling of being progressive and global, and so become like nick names, representing another facet of an individual’s personality.  We also forget that there a Christian communities around the world, and so many are actually christened with these names.  A hangover from the cultural imperialism of European missionaries, and one which is not exclusive to Asia as we shall see.

Many of the students this week heralded from Lyon, and it is unusual for us to have more than one or two French students on the course.  It seemed appropriate (though incorrect in terms of gender) that one of the Vietnamese students should have adopted the name Bon.  Bonne n’est pas?  Three letters though; couldn’t be simpler.  However that is also true of her Vietnamese name Thi (pronounced Tea, and meaning poem).


It is also probably another sign of my cultural ignorance that I found myself saying “I love African accents” this weekend too.  I wouldn’t say; “I love European accents”, I’d say German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish (or as my female colleagues seemed to prefer this weekend: French).  However to my ear, which has been attuned to a few words of Kiswahili, but certainly no Yoruba or Setswana and yet regardless of the hundreds of miles that separate the nations I couldn’t tell distinguish a Tanzanian speaker of English from a Nigerian or Botswanan.

Anyway the bearer of the accent was Nigerian, with a fine Yoruba name.  I liked the catch lights in her eyes as much as the tones from her mouth so she agreed to be photographed too.  She has another name apart from the Yoruba.  This is Clara.APW_8587-Edit


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All About Eve

APW_9515My eldest daughter Megan is soon to being her final year at university; nine months of gestation leading to an outcome whose ripples will affect the rest of her life.  Whatever the outcome, I’m very proud of this  young lady, and have every confidence that she will rise to life’s challenges.  Being a woman, she will have to contend with many of the prejudices that come her way, but being Meg she will find a way to break through them.

In the last couple of days it feels like I’ve been bombarded with details that should just how far our world has to go in its treatment of women.  It began when I caught a snippet of Crossing Continents  on Radio 4 which was reporting on Chinese men from “bachelor villages” and their struggle to find partners.  In a variation on speed dating, the eligible women sat at red tables and the numerous men carried red roses.  Only if the woman accepted their rose, were they allowed to join their prospective partner to begin a conversation.  The story resonated with me as I compared my experiences from the world of online dating, but that’s a whole other story!  More to the point, this scene hinted at something far more sinister.  The social engineering that sought to control the country’s population through one child families, combined with a preference for male children created a culture where female foetuses were aborted and those who survived to birth often died through neglect or infanticide.  Consequently the nation faces a situation whereby there could be as many as 24 million more Chinese men that women by 2020.

The attitude to women as second class citizens was underlined because this week saw the conclusion of the Delhi rape trial that has galvanised opinion across India.  The four men responsible were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging for their brutal assault on a 23-year-old student who died from her injuries two weeks later.  The court room has been besieged by protestors demanding the execution of these men, but there is a larger issue than the horrific treatment of this young woman.  A survey published by the UN this week, revealed that across many parts of Asia almost a quarter of men interviewed admitted to rape, and of these approximately half admitted to more than one instance.  Many saw it as their “entitlement”!  It will take more than the deaths of four men in India to change this.

Worst of all, I was talking to my friend Jane on Friday when she began to cry in response to something she had just seen; a report of an 8-year-old (yes, eight year old) Yemeni bride, dying as a result of internal injuries caused by sexual trauma on her wedding night with her 40-year-old husband.

There is a terrible conflict in Syria raging at present that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, leading to the leaders of two of the world’s super powers finally taking action to address it, yet this is seemingly a fraction of the numbers of women who suffer as a result of “cultural attitudes” that are left unaddressed.

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Megan is fortunate to live in a society which whilst imperfect allows women of all ages and races to contribute; at work, at home, and in the armed forces.  I despair at the prejudices that she and her sister will face, but I’m delighted at the freedoms that they will have in facing them.

And we think it’s wet here…

Whilst I was thinking about someone to photograph today I spotted a Malaysian family crossing Bridge Street.  The young man in the party crossed first just as the lights changed leaving him temporarily stranded until the rest of his family could join him.

As there were lots more people around here than usual I asked him if something was happening at the Stadium of Light, as that seemed to be where most were headed.

I should have guessed of course; it was the university graduation ceremony.  Students and their parents were converging on the banqueting suite at the football club.

Li, the young man, was here to see his brother graduate having completed his pharmacy degree, one of the subjects at which the university has excelled for many years.   Once his family had rejoined him, he asked for directions to the stadium which I was happy to give, so on they went dodging through the puddles.

I wished I’d offered them a lift, my car was close by and they were a nice family, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.  Still, they must be used to it.

Whilst we moan about the weather in this country if you look at us in the rainfall league table we’re very average, mid-table performers who average something in the region of 750mm of precipitation each year.  Malaysia manages approximately three times as much.  No problem then – I hope they enjoyed the ceremony.

Turning point?

30th June.  A milestone.  Halfway through the year.

Time to consider whether to persevere with this project to take a portrait a day for another 6 months.

It can be fun, it can be frustrating, but most of all its time-consuming.  Is it worth the effort?

While I ponder these questions here are all of those who I’ve photographed so far:












June’s image includes the portrait I took today, though it would be unfair of me to leave you guessing as to which of the 30 images it is, and a little unfair on the Chinese student, Dan, who agreed to be photographed.  That she is a Chinese student should be enough for you to find her now, but  to save you the effort…

V Horny?

There are a number of challenges about photographing groups, and the larger the group so the problems multiply. Trying to herd them into some sort of composition is the first challenge, closely followed by the short attention span that means someone will look at their friend, a passing cat, or the sky behind them at the moment you squeeze the shutter release. Even if you manage to get them all looking at you, someone is bound to have a strange expression. Last weekend I shot a relatively small group of 15 people and it took a composite of 5 different images to create one where I had their full attention!

Girl making the V sign
Girl making the V sign (Photo credit: Niccolò Caranti)

Then there’s gesture. Young Chinese, Japanese and Thai students seem unable to be photographed without making a V sign, and in the West there’s always someone who wants to do “bunny ears”. Ostensibly similar, these gestures have very different meanings; the Oriental version can be traced back to the 1970’s, and whilst there are different views as to its origin, it is used to signify happiness in much the same way as we would say “cheese”!

The western version, which when referred to as “bunny ears” sounds so innocuous, has a less savoury origin, and is the sign for a cuckold, a man with an adulterous wife. The raised fingers were supposed to represent antlers, and refers to a defeated stag who is forced to relinquish his mating rights when defeated by another male. Whilst the word cuckold itself is a reference to the behaviour of the cuckoo in invading other nests, in many other languages the word for the betrayed male has some meaning akin to “the wearer of horns”. This is even found in Vietnam and the Caribbean, though I suspect this is as a result of European empire building.

"The celebration [fête] of the Order of C...
“The celebration [fête] of the Order of Cuckoldry before the throne of her majesty, Infidelity” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It seems strange that society, rather than judge the errant female should decide that the wronged spouse should pay the price of further humiliation, “the nuclear bomb of emotions” according to psychologist and dignity expert Evelin Lindner. It seems that for all our moral codes and marriage vows, we’re rooting for the those who commit infidelity and grant no mercy to those already hurt.

In many countries the cuckold symbol is the most insulting gesture you can make, yet most of us are so ignorant of the powerful message, hence the prevalence of its use in group photographs. All in all a good reason for my preference for photographing individuals, where no one can distract from or undermine the message of one person’s expression.

Thanks to Bob for being today’s subject.

Rivista trimestrale*

Three months into my Project 365 and it seems a good time to take stock, so last night I looked back on all of my experiences to date.

What surprised me was that considering that the majority of the pictures have been taken in the North East, how many nations have been represented in my portraits so far.  There are at least 14 countries apart from the UK that have supplied one of my subjects (it’s possible that some of those I’ve assumed to be Anglo Saxons have a more exotic origin, but unless there’s an accent to give them away I haven’t tended to ask.

I don’t consider us the most cosmopolitan of regions yet I have representatives from Europe, Asia, Australasia, and North America.  Must go out and find some South Americans!  What is perhaps surprising is that amongst the Europeans I have met there has not been an Italian thus far.

Italians have made themselves at home in the UK for nearly two thousand years, thanks to the Roman invasion ordered by Claudius in AD43, the migration of Italian bankers in the middle ages, and then when the Napoleonic wars ravaged the agriculture of Northern Italy another wave came to these shores in search of a better living.  This last group almost exclusively established food businesses, and so “Britalians” became known for their ice cream parlours, coffee bars and restaurants.

Of course when I refer to them as Italians I do so to identify their geographic origin, since Italy as a nation was not formed until the middle of the 19th Century when the various regions that had built up around the mediaeval city states were unified in 1861.

My experiences of Italians when I grew up were of Italians in the food trade, the Notariannis and Minchellas provided the sea front ice cream cones of my youth, and slightly further afield I encountered Rianis and Di Mambros in Houghton le Spring where my father’s business was located, and Valente in Seaham where he was born.

Whether my love of Italian food goes back to these fondly remembered days, or the travels my family and I have made in that beautiful country I cannot say, but it says a lot when my birthday yesterday was marked with everything I need to make the perfect cappuccino or espresso and a rather nice bottle of grappa!

The lack of Italian representation is therefore all the more surprising.  I was in Gabriele’s, provider of great pizza since my teens and local institution celebrating last night (but didn’t take Nevio’s picture as I was off duty!), to my mind the best restaurant in the Sunderland and South Tyneside area is Romano’s in Cleadon, and our regular walks along the coast take us past the door of Little Italy, so no excuse!  My blog has even been read in Italy, which makes this omission all the more inexcusable.

Time to put that right, so off I went to Gabby’s again.  I could have added Portugal to my list of countries with some of the other staff, but it was the real Italian that I was after and sure enough he was there by the bar and happy to pose.  Second bite of the ciliegio!

*Quarterly review