Traveling to and living in Shanghai was an incredible experience. Adapting to a new culture and language, trying different foods and kinds of drinks, and exploring such an incredibly huge and diverse city was amazing to experience.
One of the qualities of life in China that I was most interested in experiencing for myself was the environment of the city. Flying to Shanghai, I was intrigued to see the plane land at Pudong so I could watch the air transition from clean to the quality a citizen on the ground experiences.
Due to my flight and the time change, I actually arrived in Shanghai
When I woke up the next day, I wasn’t surprised by the sky’s lack of clouds or blue, but rather the sun itself– its normal color transformed to a hot, neon red through the lens of heavy pollution.
For the first week or so, I was captivated by this difference. I quickly downloaded an air quality app and neurotically checked it several times a day for air quality index and pm2.5 readings.
Air quality index, or AQI, is a general measure of the amount of pollution in the air. When the AQI is high, you are more likely to experience negative health effects.
At first, I strived not to go outside during poor AQI and pm2.5 periods. However, even as an Environmental Science and Policy major actively studying environmental pollution in Shanghai, I eventually became more and more used to the air, and the idea of exposing myself to it. After all, while some days were better than others, the heavy cloud encompassing Shanghai was there to stay.
Life went on for me and everyone else. Throughout the city, we all had classes, work, and our daily lives. It was a weird feeling, enjoying my time abroad in an environment I knew was slowly killing me.
Experiencing life in a city facing such a pollution crisis had an incredible impact on my perspective, even out of academics. After traveling back to the states at the end of the semester, it was odd in a way to see my fascination with pollution looking back at me in other faces– the most frequent question I was asked about living in China was how it felt living in a literally toxic environment.
It is an interesting time to travel to and study China, simply due to the current political and social climate. Simply by listening to President Donald Trump, we can hear his competitive attitude towards China.
I can sometimes hear this competitive spirit when I speak to people about China’s environmental issues. People want to hear how awful life is. How gross the air is, about food insecurity due to soil pollution, about algal blooms, or desertification. And we want to feel good about America in comparison. “Yes, maybe China is doing better economically, but think of the environment!” And, usually, the conversation stops there.
We don’t want to talk about China being the number one installer of solar panels in the world; or the government’s massive investment in to the development of solar, wind, and other renewable energy. And sometimes we don’t even want to think about how the environmental problems China is facing today are affecting and killing real people.
But most of all, we don’t think about how some regions of the US are facing similar struggles today. To travel to Shanghai, I left my family in Utah, in the midst of some of the highest AQI and pm2.5 levels we had seen in the state’s history. In fact, Salt Lake City is ranked with having the 6th worst air in the country, with an F ranking in both particulate matter and ozone pollution.
Before I left, I certainly saw families wearing face masks and had trouble seeing more than two cars ahead of me on the Interstate. I won’t lie and say our cases are as extreme, but they are far from ideal, especially with the host of reforms President Trump is already putting into place that limit environmentally friendly policies.
As an American citizen, I lack much power to influence the industries and governmental forces causing China’s environmental crisis, but we can certainly positively affect domestic examples… and there is no time more important to act than now.
Sable Liggera, ’17, is an Environmental Science and Policy and East Asian Studies Double Major. They were a Global STRIDE and spent their JYA in Shanghai, China. Last summer, they interned at NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program. They are currently a member of the Global Impressions Editorial Board.
This J-Term I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia — a trip that, in large part, left me with more questions than answers. I thought before departing for this trip that I would return not only with a variety of new experiences, but also with new understandings about Saint Petersburg and Russia. While to some extent, this is very true, I have also returned with many more questions and the feeling that I can no longer rely on many of my previous ideas about the world. The questions this trip has raised for me concern not only my ideas about the world, but also ideas about myself and about what “home” means. I found that many of my ideas about invisible boundaries between different countries were just that — ideas of a contrived difference.
Ultimately, spending this month in Russia made me realize that many of the ideas we have about other nations or countries or people are quite arbitrary. Many of the people I met in Russia quickly began to feel like family and Saint Petersburg itself became very much like another home. In this way, I could no longer maintain the feeling of distinction and difference that I had originally arrived with. I began to wonder — what truly distinguishes one country from another? What purpose does creating such distinctions serve? How can we see past this world of difference, both to find a shared humanity and to create meaningful connections with people? These are some of the many questions I now pose to myself and hope to reflect on further.
If there is one main takeaway I have had from this trip, however, it has not been these questions. Rather, it has been the fact that being in Saint Petersburg was, for me, not just a learning experience, but also a very personal and emotional experience. Reflecting upon my time in the city, I found that, oddly enough, nothing touched me so deeply as all these otherwise insignificant moments — spending time with our buddies laughing over silly jokes; bonding over a common love of music; doing bad song impressions during karaoke and dancing late nights at clubs; exploring back streets and metros and parks; having lunch in the HSE dining hall and sitting down with a plate of hot food; walking outside in the fresh, cold air and feeling the wind in our faces; enjoying quiet moments over dinner in hotel restaurants; talking about our lives and politics over tea and cards in underground hookah bars; learning new words in Russian and communicating successfully during impromptu trips to Georgian cafes; hearing about Uzbekistan and the other home countries of people who moved to St Petersburg; taking late walks at night and getting ice cream from grocery stores; watching as the pale sun would rise every morning on the walk to school; writing poems in hotel lobbies; feeling free and welcome and at home in a place so far from everything we know; finding that some things, like love, exist everywhere; finding that some things are common, are human.
Yet, in some ways, Saint Petersburg remains a contradiction, an enigma. I can hardly say I know this city, and even less so Russia. Perhaps the only thing I can say then is this– I am so glad to have had this small glimpse into a world that exists outside of what I previously knew.
I am glad to have found that, for a time, this city was also ours.
Enas Jahangir is a junior here at Smith college, working toward a major in Religion and a minor in Middle East Studies. The second of three sisters, Enas was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, and hasn’t been able to stay in one place since then. With a focus on fostering new experiences, she hopes to use art and poetry as a way to connect with others and build community. As a result of her many interests, she likes to describe herself as both lit and literate. She has never taken Physics.
Our world today is saturated with images, especially photographs, to the point where it is easy to find a place familiar without ever traveling there. There is an image of Sydney that most tourists will picture before even arriving: the bustling boatyard of the Harbor, the distinctive white peaks of the Sydney Opera House, and the great arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. When I was preparing to travel to Australia, I came to realize how little I knew about Sydney beyond its landmarks. Studying art history at the University of Melbourne introduced me to a unique and complicated tradition of art in Australia that I had rarely thought about, having learned art history primarily within the Western art canon. When the time came for me to visit Sydney for the first time, I was primed to think critically about the city’s history, artistic traditions, distinctive architecture, and popular landmarks through a more informed lens.
My sister flew to Australia to spend ten days with me over Easter Break, and we embarked on a road trip from Melbourne to the Gold Coast. Our first stop was spending 24 hours in Sydney. Having studied the city through an artistic lens I was eager to explore both the city itself and the artwork the city houses in its distinguished museums. My first impression was like stepping into a living postcard. The historic harbor-side part of town, The Rocks, is within walking distance to all the aforementioned icons of the city.
Visiting the Sydney Harbour Bridge made me think about many discussions I had been having in my classes at the University of Melbourne. In my Australian Art class I had been learning about artists in Sydney depicting the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the 1920s and 1930s. The paintings of both Dorrit Black and Grace Cossington Smith capture the bridge’s construction in an idealistic light. The construction and the bridge itself was largely portrayed as a gleaming beacon of modern technology and innovation, even in its unfinished state – or perhaps especially in its unfinished state. It represented the future, the modern age, and the possibilities of technology. I don’t pretend to know an extensive amount about the bridge itself, but I remember thinking about these paintings as I approached the bridge in person. I thought about what it meant as a national symbol at the time, and how it continues to define Sydney’s landscape.
A popular tourist activity is climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You pay a fee to be harnessed into a track along a stairway, then spend hours walking on top of the curved arch of the bridge to reach the peak. Having seen photos from this vantage point on the internet, I know the view is breathtaking and I suspect the experience of being on the bridge is unimaginable. My sister and I chose not to climb the bridge and instead walked along the bridge’s busy highway at road level until we decided to turn around.
This allowed us to read the dedication plaques, admire the architecture from below, and see the city from over the harbor. It was still a breathtaking scene, but marred by the unavoidable fence blocking the view. Parts of the fence provide about a 6-inch gap between the stone of the bridge and the metal of the barrier, so this was our primary viewing window.
At the University of Melbourne I was taking a class on Street Art which brought up numerous questions of how people occupy, perceive, and interact with spaces. When walking across the Sydney Harbor Bridge with its massive stone masonry, imposing archways, and intricate metalwork, I was distracted by the small tags and names written in marker directly on the rusting metal, and a few locks attached to the grate with initials. This is the evidence of the human impulse to mark one’s presence in the space, leave proof of their interaction with the metal, and with the bridge. While an austere metal gate may seem unimpressive and commonplace, it was built along a major landmark whose image has become synonymous with the landscape and character of Sydney and even the country as a whole. To leave one’s mark on such a national symbol is no small act.
When I took the photograph looking through a padlocked square hinged window within the barrier on the Harbor Bridge, I was thinking about the graffiti tags and inscriptions as the residue of human interaction. I was thinking about the bridge as a national symbol and an emblem of modernity. I was also thinking about the multiplicity of perspectives and how postcard photographs can do little to capture the true experience of a place. Rather than constantly trying to avoid photographing the barrier, I used it to frame the bridge itself and the city beyond. The barrier could be read as being a visual obstacle in the photo, denying the viewer the satisfaction of a beautiful, unflawed depiction of the bridge – or from the bridge. However, the barrier too shows human connection to place, and how barriers on bridges can themselves be made into bridges between people. While I have no way of knowing the individuals whose names I read on the bridge, I knew that they had stood in the same place I was standing, seen the same view, and are a part of their own story. Despite their corporeal absence, it felt as if all our paths had crossed.
“The Bridge In-curve.” National Gallery of Victoria Collection Online. National Gallery of Victoria, n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
“Sydney Harbour Bridge.” Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Digital Transformation Agency, 30 Mar. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
Claire is a senior Studio Art major from Appleton, Maine. Concentrating in both photography and painting, her artwork gravitates towards using photography along with other media. She studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia for one semester in Spring of 2016. While abroad, Claire enriched her artistic practice with perspectives in Australian art, printing and collage techniques, and Melbourne’s street art scene. Claire enjoys knitting, dancing, antiquing, and nordic skiing.
One year ago, I led a small group of nonprofit professionals to Tunisia to learn about the local NGO sector. The epicenter of the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunis at the beginning of 2016 was still feeling occasional rumbles of political instability. Widely publicized attacks on tourists at the Bardo Museum and at a beach resort in Sousse made waves through the international community, and it was with some trepidation that my group of American experts in women’s rights and disability rights traveled to Tunisia’s capital.
Tunis, we learned when we arrived, is really comprised of several historical cities that lie adjacent to one another. The medieval walled city, called the medina, was the heart of Tunis for hundreds of years. Its narrow, winding streets lead in circuitous routes in which travelers can easily lose themselves for hours. During the day, the medina is vibrant and full of life. At night, the medina is eerily silent. In this photo, taken in the late afternoon, the side streets of the medina are already starting to empty of passers-by.
Just prior to our visit at the beginning of 2016, the city of Tunis was under a curfew from sundown to sunrise due to political unrest. Though the curfew was officially lifted the day before our arrival, the habit of not being out late clearly still held among the local population. On our first night in the city, my group walked quickly through the narrow streets with guides who held lanterns and doubled as bodyguards to accompany us through the medina after dark. Though the walk was stressful, it ended with our arrival at a beautiful traditional Tunisian home where we had a lavish welcome dinner hosted by a local partner NGO. Hospitality is a major part of Tunisian culture, and our local hosts provided an incredible feast in a beautiful setting completely at odds with the tense environment outside.
Many of the traditional houses of the medina, like the one above, are beautifully decorated indoors in a way that one would never expect based on the drab outer walls seen from the street. The elites of medieval Tunis spared no expense in incorporating intricate tile and stucco work in the central courtyards of their homes. As fortunes changed over the course of colonial rule and modernization, many of the old houses became too difficult for their owners to keep simply as homes. Many were converted into restaurants like the one where we had our welcome dinner, or into guesthouses for international travelers. The historic house pictured above is now a museum of Tunisian art and architecture and the seat of the Association for the Safeguard of the Medina—an organization trying to preserve Tunisia’s unique architectural heritage for future generations.
Outside of the medina, in the adjacent French Colonial part of the city, the streets still held some life after dark. Families and couples strolled along the wide, tree-lined boulevard modeled on the Champs-Elysées or enjoyed snacks and non-alcoholic drinks in the many cafes. Alcohol is seen as a foreign luxury/vice, and is typically expensive and can be difficult to find. Our group of Americans found one of the few bars serving alcohol on the roof of a nearby hotel with a view of the opera house. Like other historic buildings, the façade of opera house was lit to showcase the beauty of its Art Deco architecture. But appearances can be deceiving; the beautiful opera house was closed indefinitely for renovations. Just down the street from this seemingly idyllic picture, foreign embassies were guarded with tanks and barbed wire.
Just to the north of Tunis, a world away in atmosphere from both the medina and the French Colonial quarter lies an older history, a history of which many Tunisians are extremely proud. The massive ruins of ancient Carthage, a city that was once a major political, military, and economic force in the Mediterranean, shows that Tunis was once one of the most important places in the world. Ruins of a massive ancient bathhouse and amphitheater speak to a thriving ancient civilization which many locals see as the direct antecedent to their own. As foreigners in Tunis, we were told by everyone we met that we must absolutely see Carthage, that we would not understand Tunis today if we did not understand its ancient past. With all of the uncertainties facing Tunisia in the present, the ruins of Carthage are an anchor to a time when Tunis was one of the greatest cities in the ancient world.
During our visit, the future of Tunisia seemed uncertain. The nonprofit leaders that we met with spoke of the difficulties of creating a truly representative government, providing services for marginalized communities, addressing youth unemployment, dealing with influxes of refugees from neighboring Libya…the list of challenges was long. Despite these challenges, however, our group was warmly welcomed wherever we went throughout the city. The trepidation that we felt at the beginning of our trip was unfounded, and as a group of Americans, we never once felt truly unsafe. The empty streets of the medina after dark and the barbed wire around the embassies were only tiny blemishes in an otherwise beautiful place. In every part of the city, at every meeting with local nonprofit leaders, our group found incredible warmth and hospitality, and a very profound sense of hope.
Laura Carroll ’06 works in international development in Washington, DC. She writes and travels as often as she can possibly manage.
The only rule my parents enforced during my trips abroad—besides their consistent refrain that I send more pictures—was that I not travel alone in Morocco. As close family friends who grew up around Tangiers warned, it was not safe for a #solowomantraveler. Since my travels, this rule has been modified, but until then I had to make travel plans with a friend.
During my semester in Cameroon I realized how easy it would be to change my flight home. After all, my flight from Yaoundé had a layover in Casablanca from which I could easily push the connecting flight back one week. Easier said than done. So my friend Grace, pictured above in sunshine yellow, and I coordinated our flight changes so that one of us would not be stuck in Morocco without the other. When her flight changes fell through, my parents were …miffed. Naturally, I called up (meaning I went to an internet café and sent a Facebook message to) my best traveling friend from Sweden, Sandra, who rearranged her schedule to travel with me for a week in the Maghreb. As Grace was finishing her research in rural Batoufam, Cameroon, she pulled some strings and got on my flights so she could be there too.
Comfortable speaking non-native languages, Sandra went up to any vendor, waiter, or passerby and used her impeccable English to engage with them. When it was preferable, Grace and I would use our French, which had become slightly accented thanks to our semester in Cameroon. In Chefchaouen, the Blue City, we were geographically close enough to Southern Spain and farther from the French influence. Walking into a café for breakfast, Sandra would ask “Is there food here?” after a blank look, Grace jumped in with « Est-ce qu’on peut manger le petit-déjeuner ici ? » which also garnered shaken heads. Then I would try to pull out my high school Spanish which had been most recently used in Barcelona over Halloween with friends from the Geneva program. “¿Hay comida aquí?” Sí, había comida en el café.
This scenario repeated itself whether we were in another restaurant, buying soap, or listening in to conversations on the street. Despite being one of the more well-known tourist cities in Morocco, it was also one of the smaller ones, so we all had the chance to stretch our linguistic muscles.
Sarah Reibman ’17 is a French Studies major earning the International Relations certificate. She studied abroad in Nairobi, Geneva, and Yaoundé. In her free time, she enjoys fencing, reading about wine, and planning future trips.
For the majority of Christian families who grow up in Ethiopia, including mine, going to church every Sundays is a tradition. Almost every Sunday, I would wake up early in the morning and head to the nearest church with my family. The fatigue of waking up in the morning would diminish as I entered the church and heard the pleasant sound of a sermon being projected from the church’s big megaphone.These Sundays have a special place in my heart, because they remind me of Ethiopia’s strong tradition and culture. They also signify the importance and centrality of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in our daily lives. These practices not only serve as spiritual fulfillment for the congregation but also serve as a means for the community to come together and talk about common issues that matter to us most. Everything inside is special, from the incredible and refreshing smell of the incense to the beautiful paintings and artful representations of religious figures on the walls. When I returned to Ethiopia last summer, I went back again to visit my hometown church because it is special and close to my heart.
I was also very excited to visit Entoto Mariam church on this trip. My mother and I woke up early one morning and took a taxi to go to the church. The church is located on top of a mountain in the Northern part of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. As we traveled up the mountain, I noticed women carrying heavy bundles of firewood on their backs returning to their homes. The area is densely packed with trees and most of the local women here use the branches from these trees to cook food. As we approached the church, there were many children running around and playing football excitedly nearby.
Entoto Mariam church is built on top of one of the highest mountains in Addis Ababa. An ancient church built in 1877 by Emperor Menelik II, it is also home to the first tomb of Empress Taitu, wife of Emperor Menelik II. The tomb is called “Shera Bet” and was built in 1918. There is a museum right next to the church where some of the personal belongings of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu are displayed for visitors to see. Some of the historical items include traditional clothes, crowns of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu, their royal bed, different jewels owned by the royal family, and a mirror presented as a gift from Queen Victoria to Empress Taitu of Ethiopia. Apart from the museum, this place is also home to the first eucalyptus tree in Ethiopia which was brought from Australia.
Since the church is located at such a high elevation, it overlooks the entire city of Addis Ababa. Tourists from around the world, as well as local residents, come to visit this historical place not only because of its architectural design but also because it is a sacred place where prayers are answered. Entoto Mariam church is famous for its ‘holy water’ spring, where people with illnesses go to bathe in with the help of priests to get healed.
It is clear why this unique site has become one of the popular tourist destinations in Ethiopia. I am truly grateful to have had the privilege to visit this amazing place, and I wish many more people could come to appreciate its beauty.
Ruth Tekleab Mekbib is a sophomore at Smith College intending to major in Sociology with a minor in Economics and a Five-College Certificate in International Relations. She is an international student from Ethiopia and is always excited to share her culture to the general Smith community and beyond.
I was walking with two huge suitcases around Shinjuku station. Google Maps told me that my hotel was only a four minute walk away, yet I had been wandering around for half an hour and was still incredibly lost. “I probably came out from the wrong exit,” I thought to myself, “but why on Earth did they have to design this place to be a maze?”
I decided to ask for help.
After asking five different people for directions, I eventually arrived at the hotel over an hour later. I was tired, but also intrigued by Tokyo’s transportation. How do people deal with these huge train stations and the endless crowd? Why do they move so fast yet all seem to know exactly where they are going?
I justified my confusion by the lack of public transportation in my home city. I spent my childhood years in Zhengzhou, a small developing city in the center of China. At that time, subways didn’t exist, and bus lines were limited and inconvenient. Transportation to me meant driving. My parents drove me everywhere in the city, and travelling time never exceeded one hour.
Thus, my first week in Tokyo I experienced culture shock. Firstly, trains are ubiquitous and extremely convenient. Walking on the streets, you can find at least one station every 15 minutes, and the trains can take you anywhere: not only to every corner in Tokyo, but also to nearby cities, such as Yokohama and Chiba. Secondly, my foreigner friend and I seemed to be the only ones excited to ride public transportation. Most Japanese passengers remained silent and avoided eye contact throughout the ride, looking down at a phone or a book. Meanwhile, we foreigners conversed loudly, busy expressing our excitement over this metropolis.
As I spent more time using Tokyo’s public transportation system, I started to understand it more and more. The reason behind people’s lifeless expressions is that the same group of people, mostly salarymen and schoolchildren, take the same exact route to work or school every day. According to my Japanese friend who lives in Yokohama, it takes him at least an hour and a half to go to school in Shinjuku-ku, making it a three hour round trip every day. He said that he finishes most of his academic reading on the train to kill time.
-“Then do you ever notice your surroundings? Different people who ride with you, the different activities they do to kill time, the scenery along your way…?”
-“えっ？あまり全然見ない…”(I don’t really look at all…)
These pictures were taken while I was lost around Shinjuku station. There was a girl in school uniform, looking down at her phone while waiting for the light to turn green. It represents the daily life of the population who use Tokyo’s public transportation, who spend a great amount of time traveling in and out of the metropolis.
Echo Zhang is currently a sophomore pursuing a major in Economics and a possible minor in Studio Art. Originally from Zhengzhou, China, she has been studying abroad in the U.S since age 14, and hopes to go to Japan next year to study urban economics and photography. In her free time, she enjoys videochatting her family, walking under the sun, and exploring the world through her lens. Her ultimate goal in life is to travel around the world with her family.
A major part that made studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark such an enriching experience was my host family. Their home is in Dyssegård, a suburb of Copenhagen and a twenty-minute train ride from the city center. The opportunity to explore beyond the city center, and have a purposeful journey as well as excellent people-watching time was an important part of each day and helped me delve into the everyday lives of a diverse array of people in Copenhagen.
While the two listed as my “family” were Jette and Hans-Erik, the others whom I interacted with because of them — including their kids and grandkids, their neighbor Peter, Hans-Erik’s mother, and other family friends — all added to my love for their home and helped me feel welcome in their environment.
Each evening, we (Jette, Hans-Erik and I) would cook together dancing between their blue SVEG fridge and front entryway to make simple, yet interesting dishes. As someone who mainly baked cakes, cookies, and other sweets growing up, my major cooking challenge prior to going abroad was usually trying not to burn grilled cheese. Under their roof, the importance of experimentation and trying something new both in the manner of tasting as well as overall dish creation was expressed.
The various ways they created dishes out of simple ingredients was new to me, and their manner of cooking fascinating. However, it wasn’t the food that made me never want to miss an evening at home, it was the atmosphere. Beyond just cooking, this time was a chance to discuss current events, try to pronounce Danish words, and often get advice about life in a variety of contexts.
One evening, Hans-Erik came home ecstatic with the deal he got on steaks, showing off the twelve packages he bought to freeze and use. I found this particular event hilarious because it also helped me see my own love of a good deal in Hans-Erik’s excitement over the steak. This event of excitement was not rare, in fact, it was pretty regular for Hans-Erik to come home with groceries bought from a supermarket deal, overjoyed at their total cost. Over the semester, I slowly began to understand the European culture of going to the grocery store multiple times a week, in contrast to the usual, once a week, giant grocery trip typically practiced in the United States.
Beyond the physical aspect of living in their home for four months, being taught Danish pronunciations and to distinguish different red wines, my entire experience was shaped by the love and friendliness of their everyday lives. This experience reaffirmed the importance of not only traveling to see the physical aspects of different cities but having real connections with those from such places, if possible. Those evening moments of bonding, from the quiet ones to the ones filled with thunderous laughter, are what I miss the most about my time in Denmark.
Bailey is a Minnesota native and a coffee addict. You can find her wearing spottie dotties (polka dots, as some call them) or talking numerous jumping pictures in her pink Doc Martens. She loves to explore either through traveling in the physical world or through moving picture films. As a senior at Smith, she is house president of Gardiner House and a gold key tour guide.
In the summer of 2016, through my Book Studies Concentration at Smith College, I had the amazing opportunity to intern in the rare book room of the American Academy in Rome. One weekend morning, on vague instructions from the gentleman that ran the guesthouse I lived in for the month, I walked over to the Porta Portese Flea Market. It was morning, but the light was already brilliant and hot. I had been told to find three staircases, which were shortcuts to get down to the port. The first was a slightly dilapidated wide case at the edge of Monteverde, while the second seemed to take me through a small jungle. I began to seriously wonder if I would spend another day lost among the labyrinth of Roman streets. But when I got to the third set of stairs, I could see the main road beyond speckled with the tents of the market. The staircase was expansive and enormous in the typical Roman way where everything— from buildings to statues—seems bizarrely huge. As enormous as it was, there was no one else scaling the steps.
I had come to Rome worried that my shy and introverted ways would make me a lonely sight far away from my children and home. And in Rome I was truly alone for the first time in perhaps over twenty years. While I made many fine acquaintances at work, I spent my free time utterly alone. Before I arrived, I had worried that I would feel awkward and terrifically lonely. In some ways I did. After all, I am me. But something unexpected happened. Once there, perhaps as a result of my own maturity or coming into my own as it were, during my time at Smith, I allowed myself to enjoy, rather than lament, being by myself. I gained a perspective upon myself that allowed me to finally accept my reserved nature.
I made my way down the enormous staircase. Because I had no one to meet, no agenda, and no one else to please, I had the novel experience of following my own fancy: following my eye, simply stopping, looking, photographing, or being absorbed by whatever impulse led me. At the bottom of the staircase I turned around to take in my grand accomplishment—I had found my way down the hundreds of steps! That was when I saw the mural painted on the risers of the steps. It was marvelously unexpected, though art is everywhere in Rome. It is through art that the voices of the past and present communicate most profoundly with us. I knew that at any other time in my life I would have felt compelled to hurry forward. I would have felt obliged to get there. But in Rome, the streets were always talking to me. I was richly rewarded when, in my solitude, I finally learned to trust myself enough to stop and listen.
Jessica Ryan J17′ is an Ada Comstock Scholar. She will be graduating Smith College in January and going on to pursue her master’s in library sciences at Simmons College.
As a friend and I began our Icelandic vacation, we drove towards Reykjavik early in the morning in July, and found a parking spot near a bakery. Our first morning was a sleepy morning, and we sat in a cozy window seat and watched the passers-by. This was our first day in a new country, and our introduction to Icelandic chai tea, something we still crave today.
Iceland was also the inaugural stamp in my new passport. I hadn’t left the US since I was a young girl, when my family and I spent years living on a Caribbean island. After that, I bookmarked travel websites, and planned imaginary trips, explored online guidebooks, all from a hospital bed in Boston, where I awaited new lungs. Three years after a double-lung transplant, and two years into my journey as a Smith student, I found myself aboard the flight, unable to sleep, peering out of the window at Greenland, its ice sheets illuminated by the midnight sun. I was a bit nervous, and tired, and acutely aware that I had finally made it somewhere far different than any place I’d traveled to before.
During our ten-day trip, we drove along the southern coast as far as Stokksnes, a beach set next to the mountain Vestrahorn with dozens of mounds of black sand with tufts of sea grass growing atop them, before we left the southern coast and began our trek to the north, where we visited Akureyri, Husavik, and a small fishing town on the far northern coast, Siglufjordur, accessible via a tunneled road leading through a mountain. In each town, we chatted with locals and tourists, stopped for sheep who would occasionally dart into the road, and saw views and vistas unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
However, before we traveled north, we compiled a comically long list of the places we had to see along the southern coast, on our way to Stokksnes. Surely it was all doable, we thought, as the midnight sun meant our long drive back to Reykjavik would be mostly illuminated. “Who needs to sleep on vacation?” we repeatedly asked each other, more emphatically after we left the eastern coast late at night, and realized how very far we had left to drive. That night, we drove through the midnight sunset, and were still driving when the sun rose four hours later.
Included on our list was Vatnajokull, a large ice sheet, along with Jokulsarlon, a glacier lagoon, and a messily scrawled note that said “icebergs!” We found them on the beach across the road from the lagoon, where large chunks of ice had broken off and landed on the shore. We had also written Seljavallalaug, a hot springs pool that had been reopened after a volcanic eruption temporarily closed the original pool. We were intrigued.
The turnoff, located directly off the main Ring Road, yet unlabeled and nondescript, led us to a deeply grooved, gravel road where we parked and continued on foot. Unsure if we were even in the correct location, we began to walk alongside a small river back into a valley, surrounded by lush, green hills, rocky and pointed on top, with small trickling waterfalls winding down them towards us. We hiked up a short hill, realized we should be hiking down, and backtracked, continued over a rickety wooden footbridge, partially broken in the middle, but nonetheless sufficient, over black sand, and into the river at points, our shoes submerged in the cold mountain runoff. Then, around a small bend, nestled in the valley, we came across a handful of people floating and chatting and enjoying the warm water on the cool, cloudy day. There were locals and tourists swimming together, smiling at us as we approached and reached our hands in to test the water.
Renu Linberg is an Ada Comstock Scholar majoring in English. A Massachusetts native, she’s lived around the country and on an island. She enjoys tea, exploring, cozy bookshops, and writing short stories. She hopes to teach one day, somewhere warm, preferably another island.
By 2015, according to the Institute of International Education, there were more than 300,000 Chinese students in universities and colleges all over US, while a decade ago in 2005 there were only around 60,000. Even at Smith College, a small all-women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, there are more than 120 Chinese students studying and living in the community, constituting the largest international student group on campus. As a member of this group, I decided during my last semester in college to take my camera and to reflect upon how my friends and I transformed during four years and how we struggled with our identities.
My initial intention was to address the various stereotypes we encountered in U.S and back home. I’ve repeatedly heard people commenting, with negative connotations, how Chinese students always stuck together. These observations are partially true, as shown in the opening scene of my film, but I’m more interested in the mentalities and reasoning behind the phenomenon. I still remembered how my mother encouraged me to make “American friends” and I indeed went through a period of time when I tried to alienate my Chinese friends. However, I eventually understood that making friends should be a more natural process and I didn’t need to feel pressured. Ruki, featured in my film, mentioned similar feeling how she felt like she should be able to choose friends based on mutual interests or experiences. As for why it was usually easier for Chinese students to develop a friendship within the group, another character in my film, Jojo offered a more scientific explanation. She commented that she had two different identities when speaking two languages and the Chinese identity made her feel more relaxed.
On the one hand, in China, students who study abroad are often considered as “rich, spoiled kids who can’t get into a good Chinese University.” News about Chinese students’ misbehaviors in the United States, in particular, has added to the impressions. Even in cases where Chinese students were murdered, people criticize these students and their family on social media for being corrupted and rich to send their kids away. I strived to demonstrate a different life of our group. We are definitely privileged but we don’t live in an exaggeratedly luxurious world. At Smith, we worked really hard to achieve our academic goals and to fulfill our passions. Even till now, I remain deeply touched by how my ambitious Chinese friends persist to do what they truly love – no matter working in finance or pursing a PHD in engineering; these hard-working young women inspired me to always challenge myself beyond my capabilities.
In the process of filming and interviewing, I started to realize a theme that appeared again and again in our conversations was our relationships with China and US. I never fully identified with American culture, but it was also hard for me to claim that I identified myself as a Chinese. Studying East Asian Studies, I gradually developed a more critical perspective towards my country. My own ideological struggle was further reflected through my friends and their stories. Like Ruki and Izzy, I don’t feel a sense of belonging to China or to US: when I went back home, I missed the convenience and freedom of my life in US; when I came back to school, however, I got homesick and remembered how things were different in China. Jojo, on the other hand, shed a more positive light on such struggles: equipped with American ideas, she believed that she would make changes back in China. The decision to stay or to go back home was a complicated one. It was especially painful for me when I made the decision to stay. I always knew I wanted to make documentary about China, so the most logical decision was to go back home where I would have more resources and connections. Choosing to stay, I’ll have to make a living and possibly give up my dream. However, I still decided to stay since I wanted to have an independent space to reflect on my passion and my future. The struggle never stops and I’m still questioning my decision on a daily basis. Making the film was a self-discovery and self-questioning process and I eventually learned to reconcile with myself.
Amie Song ’16 is a documentary filmmaker living and working in New York City. A recent graduate from Smith College, she has experience in pre-production research, videography, and post-production editing. Originally from China, she is committed to exploring China’s contemporary social development as well as traditional cultural heritage through visual language. What interests her most about documentary production is the experience bringing out untold stories and unknown narratives. She has interned for various media organizations, including Ken Burns’ Florentine Films, VICE Media, KCETLink and Blog Weekly (博客天下). Her first short documentary In-Between is an intimate look into the experience of three Chinese students studying in the U.S. She is currently working at Effie Worldwide as an international program assistant.
In anticipation of holding our annual Global Encounters photography contest and exhibit this year, we invited faculty from the Art Department and the Smith College Museum to address some of the ethical issues that come up when taking photographs. Fraser Stables, Associate Professor of Art; Alex Seggerman, Post-Doc in Islamic Art and Architecture; Anna Lee, Postdoctoral Fellow & Lecturer in the History of Photography; and Charlene Shang Miller, Associate Educator for Academic Programs, Smith College Museum of Art came together at the Lewis Global Studies in October to discuss some of the fraught questions that today’s photographer–professional and amateur–must contend with, and to give some guidance to student photographers.
Anna: Coming from a historical perspective I was thinking about the 19th century, and as I mentioned in my vernacular photography class, there was a campaign about whether amateurs could take pictures at the 1893 World’s Fair fair in Chicago. The souvenir photographs that you could get from the fair were taken by professional photographers. But amateurs waived this incredibly ferocious campaign to be able to bring their own cameras into the fair. And this effort by amateur photographers raises a question for us now: Why did they want to take their own photos? What did they want to depict? What was valuable about them having their own views represented?
As you take photos now I would encourage you all to think about different ways of taking pictures. You might want to think about your aperture setting or shutter speed, and when you roam through a busy street, you might want to think about yourself in a public space. There’s not only one way to take pictures. The more thoughtful, slow deliberate sensitivity is being lost a little bit, though it is something you can do with your phone also. You can kind of hybridize the mentality that your photographic ancestors have fought to allow you to do.
Charlene: It’s interesting what you are saying about digital photography, because you do not require a camera; you can take very good pictures with your iPhone. I was looking at Instagram before coming here and looking for travel photography hashtags; there were 17 million images tagged as street photography. To me, it’s about asking yourself questions: What is your motivation for taking the photo? Where is that intentionality? What is compelling about just capturing the moment? There’s a quote (and I’m not remembering the source) that taking a photo is not the same as publishing a photo. For this photography contest you all have the ability to caption your photos, so you are able to share your intention with the viewer. Remember that there are many different ways that people may and will interpret your images and they may have other meanings you did not initially consider.
Alex Seggerman: I focus on the Middle East and photography, especially in the 19th century. So I will say a few words about the origins of photography and about the relationship between political and military power and image making. As American students abroad, there is always a political implication of us going into another culture, especially when it’s not Western Europe.
Right after the invention of photography in 1839, people started going to Egypt. As soon as you have the invention of photography, you have photographic studios being set up because there is a real insatiable desire by Westerners for images of Egypt.
Francis Frith took many photos in Egypt in the 1850s and published enormous books with beautiful, large photographs. He had to carry glass negatives on his back to take these photos.
Here is the sphinx with the pyramids of Giza, still a popular tourist spot. He is composing these views in a particular way; you don’t get a sense of who he is nor of his objective. But he was an interesting person. Below he is dressed in a “Turkish summer costume”.
These are posed architectural photos from the early years. These images of architecture soon gave way to highly crafted images of people in particular types, as in the following image of an Egyptian peasant woman. But it’s taken in a studio with a painted backdrop.
Francis Frith was creating the world as a picture and trying to encapsulate this other culture in a very nicely framed picture. And through that, the images were grabbing things from this other culture to make it their own. Photography was used in place of colonialism — actually grabbing other cultures. Photographers were going all over the world to take pictures of people being consumed by Western audiences. When one goes out into the world today to take photographs, it’s important to remember this history of photography and how images were crafted and how the composition of images was used to assert power.
Can one take pictures of local people going about their everyday lives in a slightly less colonial way?
In one sense there is the tourist gaining control over the tourist sites and in another sense it’s the people of the culture. In these travel photos taken from a Google image search of tourists in Egypt, we don’t see the interaction between the visitor and the local.
You might want to think about your role behind the camera and how you compose the image to make sure you are implicated in that image and that your experience is part of the image itself.
Fraser Stables: There are contemporary artists who use Google Street View as a database of photographs from which to retract images that have strange moments of theatre or trauma.
This prompts questions such as: what does it mean to produce an image, what is the role of technology, and in what way is the subject mediated? Photography can be a way to think about our role and responsibility in society. The use of technology complicates this, and I would encourage you to think about how technology can be used to create images that wouldn’t otherwise have existed. Regarding the relationship between photographer and subject, an interesting example is The Neighbors by Arne Svenson. These photographs are taken from the photographer’s apartment in NYC, and show domestic life through the windows of other people’s apartments.
Unsurprisingly, he was sued by several of his subjects for invasion of privacy. These photos raise questions about what rights we have to our own image and what idea of privacy we can expect. In the case of these apartments with large glass windows, the court ruled that there is no reasonable assumption of privacy and the lawsuit wasn’t successful.
When taking photographs, some questions are legal, some are ethical, and sometimes they overlap. Was it right to do that? Is it allowed to do that? Sometimes you have to figure it out on the fly or you figure it out afterwards. In every situation there are thousands of ways to behave and make an image. In some instances you put yourself on the line. In others, you put the subject on the line.
Another example is a project by Shizuka Yokimizo, who sent letters to people in buildings asking them to stand at their window at a certain time if they were willing to be photographed. If they didn’t want to participate they could draw their curtains or not be present.
The photograph is a result of communication and an acknowledgement of the transaction. Yokimizo sent copies of the photographs to those who participated and if they didn’t want it to be exhibited they could contact her gallery.
Joanna Lowry addressed some of these issues in an essay that defined photography as being monological or dialogical. She defined studio photography as monological: I tell you where to stand, what to do. Photography outside the studio is described as being more dialogical, since it involves more negotiation between the subject and photographer. I would suggest that as you are photographing you ask yourself if there are ways to make your photos more dialogical.
In this last project, the photographer Gabriel Orozco invited people in this building to put oranges in the their windowsills. Without showing the human subjects, the photograph stands as a record of participation.
Each of these projects invites questions about how we physically and politically occupy space, and the relationship between photographer and subject, even if they don’t meet or the subject is behind glass. I would suggest that it is important to think empathetically about your own subjects. And if you are taking a photograph, reflect on how are you “using” the subject.
Your own ethical compass has to guide you. Things we value in our culture are not always in sync with our ethical values. We can do the “right” thing, but sometimes, the most interesting artifacts we have in our culture come from someone having been unethical. And how do we resolve that?
Anna: For a working photographer, it’s important to build trust. I think there is a long standing feeling that the best photos are taken surreptitiously.
Charlene: It is interesting to think about the interaction between subject and photographer and respect. And the acknowledgement that there is a transaction between these two people. I’m taken with what you’re saying about what we know of this interaction, and our interpretation of that. What you end up having to do is rely on your own set of values and recognize what they are. If it does not feel right it probably is not right.