China — a photographic update

In February 2014, work took me to China, my stay there bookended by a weekend each in Beijing and Shanghai — time enough for some long  walks with my new go-anywhere camera, the minuscule Panasonic Lumix GM1 with the legendary 20mm F1.7 lens.

Beijing: This was my first time back since I last lived here three years ago, so I wanted to visit all my old haunts, to update my mental map of the place. The pollution reading stood at 500+, so the hazy beige hue to every view became a photographic subject in its own right. On frozen Qianhai lake, meanwhile, everyone was having huge amounts of fun avoiding collisions on the ice:

Skating on Qianhai lake in Beijing, Feb 2014 from Stefan Geens on Vimeo.

Tiananmen Square:

Shanghai: Having just read some works by Lu Xun, China’s literary giant of the 20th century, I decided to explore Hongkou, the northern section of town where he lived and where today you can visit the Lu Xun Museum and his home.

This time around I kept noticing Shanghai’s architectural heritage from the 1920s and 30s, so had a go capturing some of it. More and more of these buildings are (finally) being renovated, as opposed to just being demolished.

View of Pudong past an earlier generation of highrises:


Here’s a street vendor deep in Hongkou with whom I was having a pleasant chat until being rudely interrupted by the Chengguang, urban thugs in police uniform:

Here’s the set of all 18 edited photos from the trip.

In search of Saidullah, the glassmaker of Herat

If you visit Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm by March 2, you’ll come across 100+1, a wonderful retrospective exhibition by Elliot Erwitt.

When I visited, I was intrigued by a fleeting reference in the exhibition’s introductory text to a documentary attributed to Erwitt — The Glassmakers of Herat.


Anything that mentions Herat tends to catch my interest. Herodotus wrote about the city, Alexander the Great fortified it, the Ghurid Dynasty built it up, Genghis Khan sacked it, Tamerlane rebuilt it… Herat is also featured in some of my favorite modern travelogues: In Freya Stark’s book The Minaret of DJam, she narrates a trek across Afghanistan in 1968 that ends in Herat. In Rory Stewart’s The places in Between, he describes his walk in 2002 from Herat to Kabul.

When I later googled the title of the documentary, I immediately found it on YouTube, where it has recently been added:

The film describes how in 1968 a US pyrotechnical research expedition stumbled upon a glassmaking family in Herat still using methods first described on cuneiform tablets. In 1977, a team headed by Robert Brill, a research scientist at the Corning Museum of Glass, returned to Herat to film this living cultural patrimony, taking Erwitt along as director of photography.

The film shows two cousins, “Saifullah and Saidullah”, collecting and preparing the raw materials — stones from a nearby riverbed, ash from a desert bush, scrap copper — to produce their distinctive blue glassware. Then, in an epilogue filmed in 1979, we hear Brill warn how new strife in Afghanistan threatens the livelihood of these glassmakers. He concludes:

It’s entirely possible that the glassmaking recorded on this film could have been the last time in history that glass was ever to have been made in this way.

I wanted to find out what had happened to Saifullah and Saidullah. Did they and their livelihood survive the traumas of Afghanistan’s most recent decades? Little did I know my search would end a few weeks later with me holding their glass in my hands.

Continue reading In search of Saidullah, the glassmaker of Herat

My last ever Facebook post went something like this:

It’s become increasingly clear that Facebook has been breaking my Internet, and so my New Year’s resolution this year is to delete my account.

Sure, Facebook is convenient, but at far too high a systemic cost. Let’s list the ways:

  • Facebook friend bias: I know all about the people who post prolifically. Some of my best friends, however, don’t post often, or ever. Facebook provides a semblance of being in touch with friends, but that’s not actually the case. Instead, in 2014, I’ll be making a real effort to stay up to date with the friends that matter, one on one.
  • Too many Likes: Likes are cheap and easy, and so is the occasional facile one-liner, but that is now a problem — they are an awful proxy for actual conversation, which gets crowded out. I want my communication to get harder again because that is the price of meaningful conversation.
  • Proprietary and closed: Facebook’s business model depends on mediating relationships within a proprietary format. Open data has no place in this vision. Facebook disincentivizes timeline actions where the content and subsequent conversation is held off-platform, because it cannot monetize them there. Sure, Twitter and Linkedin have a similar problem, but these platforms are just now far less ubiquitous than Facebook. It’s Facebook’s size that undermines the sustainability of an open web, so I feel I should help mitigate the problem by withdrawing my vote.
  • Low signal to noise: Twitter is far better at telling me what I should read online. Linkedin is more relevant for work. Flickr has far higher quality photos. Feedly is getting smarter about which articles in my RSS feed collection I should pay attention to. Facebook is best as a tool for procrastination through meme propagation — and that is probably something I need less of.
  • Panopticon: Hey NSA, let me help you make your haystack a little smaller by removing my bit of it.
  • You are not a gadget: To paraphrase Jaron Lanier, I am not my Facebook account. Facebook is an imperfect window into my soul. A far better soul-baring tool would be my blog. Recently, I’ve had a real urge to start writing longer-format stuff again. Facebook becomes a distraction.

I’ve always suspected it could end this way with Facebook, so I’ve made sure since the start to hedge my investment in this platform: I’ve never uploaded media exclusively to Facebook, but linked instead to Flickr and my own sites, even when Facebook started throttling the eyeballs for such posts. I also made sure to never use Facebook as my single sign-on. As a result, the severing should be relatively bloodless.

I’ll leave this post up until the end of January 1 before doing the deed. From now on, do reach me at I also have some great posts planned for See you on the other side. Happy New Year!

Update: I feel I should add a screenshot of the Facebook comments this post generated: Continue reading My last ever Facebook post went something like this: