A Mattress

A mattress means nothing and everything to me. Nothing because I can’t remember a time I ever once worried about the possibility of not having my mattress, and everything because a mattress is the ultimate symbol of relaxation, comfort, and rest. There are countless marketing schemes linking luxury and mattresses, and mattresses are presented as a trademark of developed living. I don’t personally know anyone without a mattress. To the Chinese fishermen families on Chongming Island, sleeping without a mattress is a daily insignificant fact. I feel lucky and completely naive for not considering just how valuable my mattress is.

The fishermen on Chongming Island live with their families in a small inlet about ten minutes from the Dongtan nature preserve and within sight of several wind turbines that were built in the last two months. The wind turbines are immense, powerful, modern.

Each family owns at least one boat, and they will sometimes live on the boat for extended times during fishing season.

One fisherman let us enter his home, talk about his life, and even take pictures of his house. To say the least, taking pictures of his house made me feel voyeuristic and crude. I wanted to document his life, but I also didn’t want to make him feel like a strange tourist attraction. In fact, I didn’t even feel worthy of such a special entry into his life. I was only meeting him for the first time and I couldn’t even speak his language, but he was already trusting me with intimate knowledge. The even bigger internal dilemma is that his house did strike me because it was so different from mine. I have a mattress, a symbol of luxury, and his family doesn’t. How can I fairly visually document his life when I understand so little about his personal history? Looking back on my photos, I still feel inappropriate. I am reminded of the controversy surrounding Margaret Meade’s Balinese Character. Maybe I’m documenting the fisherman’s life, but more likely I’m just unintentionally exoticizing his existence. I want to learn more, so I can be as fair and understanding as possible.

However, I did take some pictures that I’m proud of. After asking the fisherman’s permission, he let me take a picture of him holding his baby girl. I showed him the picture, and he smiled. I took another of his other child playing. We hope to print these pictures and others to give to the family when we return.

There are obviously a thousand differences between the fisherman and me, but I felt connected as I took a picture of him with his child. Sure, we have different mattress situations and we can’t even speak directly to each other, but we both understand the feeling between a father and daughter. I hope I can learn more about his life and family, so that I can understand the other countless similarities between us.