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Past the ‘public hours’: a Photographic exploration of Public space and its shifting nature

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Abstract

An abstract is a synopsis of the whole dissertation and allows the reader to gain a flavour of the objective and outcome of the dissertation. You should keep this brief: something between 75 and 125 words is usually ideal.

Chapter 1: Introduction

As the ‘academic chapter’ of my life gets closer to an end, I am asked to present a so-called ‘final’ body of work.

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After last year’s exploration of the complex issues of ‘identity’ and ‘belonging’ in a given society, I have now set out to examine the space we live in, and the way it affects us.

This project started as an investigation of the function walls have in today’s social world. I have come a long way since then and a quick look into my logbook might help you to get a better understanding of where I am coming from. Over the next few pages, I will do my best to explain the full extent of my project and its development.

i. When an image is worth a thousand words, don’t talk too much.

Anyone would expect it to be easy for a photographer to talk about his work. It turns out to be much harder than expected. It is simple enough to discuss what brought me to begin, what the factors that have influenced me are, but to discuss what has resulted is a whole different matter. Ivan Turgenev wrote in Fathers and Sons (1862): “A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound.”

I have come to realise that talking about my work reduces the impact the photographs have on the viewer. Robert Adams, in ‘Why People Photograph’ (1994), states: “The main reason that artists don’t willingly talk about their work or explain their produce is that the minute they do so, they’ve admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not”. This statement is especially true in this case as this body of work is a mere capture of what is available to the ‘public eye’; it is a reflection of emotions that are commonly experienced. The images should therefore be experienced fully without the help of a written narrative. Nonetheless, for purely academic reasons, I shall attempt to give some basic explanations about my images.

ii. What it is not

This essay is not a dissertation. It may be structured like one, but it definitely is not meant to be one. I chose this layout because it provides a clear and concise framework to address the complex ideas that emanate from this project. Any other structure would fail to address all of the issues that need to be explored in a clear manner.

iii. At the beginning there was nothing

As I am about to leave academia for good, I have come to realise that I am a very different person than the one I was during my first year of university. Nonetheless, it is during these two years of my MA that the most significant changes occurred. More than just a mere growing sense of responsibility, I have grown to understand who I am, who I want to be and most of all, I have developed a critical mind of my own.

During the first stage of my MA I focussed fully on myself, exploring the complexity of cultural identity, the feeling of exclusion and self-awareness. Throughout the process of production of this first project, my original ideas developed majorly, taking me to places I had barely imagined I could ever go to. I explored the concept of ‘imagined exclusion’, tying it in with the idea of identity. I analysed how my very complicated cultural background has influenced my identity, thus affecting the person I am, the way I behave and the way I fit in today’s society. I realised that I was a very fragmented person as far as all these notions were concerned, and rarely felt like I was belonging to my environment.

The next project I carried out was for the diploma stage of my MA. It was in fact a continuation of the previous one, which tried to separate my inner ‘self’ from my work. It proved to be impossible. This second body of work focused on the issue of isolation in today’s society. It depicted the way individuals experience isolation, conveying the two main (and very controversial) emotions that are arising from such state: both a reassuring and pleasant feeling as opposed to a negative and restrictive one.

These two projects enabled me over time to get a greater understanding of who I really am and how society reacts around me. This final project is an indirect result of these two projects: it is an exploration of the space we inhabit on a daily basis in which these feelings of exclusion and self-consciousness develop.

Indeed, most of us spend a major part of our lives in what is defined by today’s society as ‘public spaces’. Over time, we have developed a unique relationship with our surroundings in which we feel safe and at ease. But, come the time when the ‘public’ ceases to inhabit that space, the very nature of that same environment changes. This project is an exploration of the particular relationship between individuals and public space. It explores the various feelings of individuals when confronted to the shifting nature of that space after the ‘public hours’[1].

iv. Structure outline

The following pages are a mix and match of my thoughts and research, presented to you in the most structured way I was able to organise them in. I shall first provide you with the theoretical framework needed to understand the concepts that lie behind this body of work. Indeed, chapter 2 outlines some of the previous studies that have discussed the main aspects of the project. The essay carries on by explaining the way various photographers, philosophers and writers have influenced my work.

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It examines how my research fits within the contemporary study of space by other practitioners. Chapter 3 quickly analyses the experience of the viewer when looking at my photographs. Finally, the paper concludes with a quick statement regarding my personal experience of carrying out this project.

Chapter 2: Literature review

It is not uncommon for photographers to invent their own narrative. This is why it is important to clarify the way different terms are used from the beginning, in order to avoid confusion.

This chapter provides us with some key definitions and explores the various theoretical, philosophical and sociological concepts that emanate from my project. It aims to provide the viewer with a clearer understanding of the various ideas that are investigated in it. This, in turn should provide a good basis for the viewer to comprehend better both the project and the way it was produced. The literature review places particular attention on notions such as ‘public space’, its nature and the experience of an individual in it, as well as the ideas of ‘visibility’, ‘consciousness’ and other phenomenological concepts.

i. ‘Public space’ past ‘public hours’

It is not an easy task to provide a definition of public space because of the many factors that affect these places. It is mostly described as ‘a social space that is open and accessible to all, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level’. An other definition of public space is the one Pacione provides us with. He refers to public spaces as ‘spaces of representation’[2], often referred to as ‘perceived space’ (Pacione, 2001, p.159). For the purpose of this essay, I will refer to public space as the physical space, rather than the emotional one.

Another important term that needs to be clarified is the one of ‘public hours’. It is usually used to define the hours a business or an organisation is opened to the public. In this case though, I use this term as ‘the hours the public usually inhabit their surroundings’. Public space is normally open to being inhabited. Nonetheless, individuals tend to use it in specific slots of time, mainly around the ‘working hours’. The late nights of the evening can also be considered as ‘public hours’ as they are often used as slots of time reserved for relaxation and entertainment.

This project therefore focuses on the public space that surrounds us in our daily lives at times when the public is no longer present.

ii. Shifting nature of public space

Public space and the way it is used has become a topic of growing interest among scholars. For many, such space represents something essential to the proper workings of cities: it is a space where individuals can gather, chat and engage socially with one another. Jacobs (1992) insisted that cities must provide plenty of public space where people can gather, children can play, and where a sense of community can emerge. Similarly, Lefebvre (1996), a famous French sociologist, uses the terms ‘the rights of an individual to the city’ to describe this fundamental need of individuals to interact.

On the other hand, observers of public space argue thatpublic spaces are no longer as free or open as they once were, but rather they now are spaces where surveillance by local authorities is continuous and invasive. Surveillance cameras and local authorities now police such spaces, and in doing so, they withdraw rights to socialize and mingle with one another freely (Davis, 1990; Mitchell, 2003; Zukin, 1995; Kohn, 2004). Similarly, Sorkin (1992) argues that public space is no longer a space of socialisation and exchange. Rather, it has become totally sterile and artificial, obsessed with security and safety. It replicates a world individuals believe they live in, yet represents a totally artificial ‘reality’.

By night though, the nature of public spaces is completely different. The public does not inhabit these places and the dynamics are altered. During the day, urban streets and grounds are heavily regulated and public disorder is not tolerated. This is much less evident during the night time, where ‘the familiar protocols and bonds of restraint which structure routine social life loosen’ (Hobbs et al., 2003: p. 43).

By night, the availability of light also plays a major role in the nature of public spaces: it is generally perceived that the more illuminated a certain place is the safer it will be. In essence, the dichotomy between day and night[3] is usually associated with the unknown, provoking fears, mystery, curiosity and contradiction (Gwiazdzinski, 2005).

As the nature of public spaces changes regarding what time of the day it is, so does the way individuals experience it.

iii. Experience of space

A phenomenological approach is used in this case to explore the individuals’ experience of space[4]. Perez de Vega (?) argues that certain spaces can be experienced beyond the subjective and beyond the meaningful; experiences which blend subject and object, which blend perception and sensation; experience which have affect as their main drive.

When discussing the importance of experiencing space, it is important to look at the notions of perception and sensation. Erwin Straus, in The Primary World of Senses (1963), is particularly helpful when outlining the basic differences between the two. According to him, perception is a secondary rational organisation of a primary, non?rational dimension of sensation or sense experience (le sentir) (Bogue, 2003, p.116?117). The primary sense is unreflective and instinctive. Sensation deals with corporeality[5] and perception is the intellectualisation of that corporeality. He continues by contrasting two different types of space: the space of geography and the space of landscape.

A similar dichotomy can be observed when analysing the way an individual experiences fully the public space past ‘public hours’[6].

iv. Visibility

Visibility is an important aspect that contributes to the ordinary experience of space. In general, urban planning tends to objectify places by being removed from them (DeCerteau, 1984). In this case, we focus on the way vision promotes the interaction of individuals with their surroundings.

It is argued that the built environment acts as an organizer of the different viewpoints of the member of the public. Indeed, Deleuze states (1986) that “If architectural structures, (…), are visible, places of visibility, it is because they are not only figures of stone, orderings of things and combinations of qualities, but first and foremost, forms of light which organize the clear and the obscure, the opaque and the transparent, the seen and the unseen, etc”.

But it is not only sufficient for the public space to be visible. Goffman (1963) asserts that “interactions within public space require the possibility of seeing and being seen by other people”. Exposure is one of the main aspects of people’s experience with public space. It involves being visible and observable by others, and behaving accordingly.

Some modern sociologists suggest that there is an increase in what they call the “fear of exposure”. According to them, city dwellers have lost the ability to expose themselves and interact with the space around them (Sennet, 1990).

A major factor affecting visibility after public hours (both of self and of the built environment) is, as discussed previously, light. The urban light is no longer restricted to the interior of monuments or confined to built heritage areas (city centre for example). It now includes new spaces, large landscapes. This questions the role light plays, suggesting that light can give sense to a place, giving new uses and new values (Alves & Almeida, ?).

v. The look

The look of the ‘Other’ plays a central role in this project, even when only imagined. The mere possible presence of another person causes one to look at him/herself as an object, and see his/her world as it appears to the other. This is not done from a specific location outside oneself, it is non-positional. This is a recognition of the subjectivity in others (Spade, 2006).

Jean Paul Sartre describes how the look of the other person can make one feel objectified, judged, embarrassed, or ashamed of whom one is. For example, if one were doing something inappropriate, such actions are not improper until another person observes them, but become improper and awkward when they are performed before the eyes of the ‘other’; somehow my self-conscious evaluation of my “self” becomes activated through the look of the other. I see and judge my ‘self’ as I appear to the other person: “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other” (Sartre, 1956, p.189).

This object, which is my “self” as I now see my “self” with the eyes of the Other, has all of a sudden become recognisable to me. I see my “self” not from the inside, as I did before, but from the outside as the other person see me. I have somehow become aware of where “I find myself” by the glance of the Other. The glance has an effect that seems to be experienced even more powerfully by the person being seen, than by the person seeing.

vi. Consciousness

Consciousness is a difficult concept to define. It means different things to different people[7], and because of that, it is important to be clear on the meaning we are using. In this case we use the philosophical definition of the term.

Philosophical consciousness refers to a state of reality characterised by interiority, subjectivity, sentience, feeling, experience, self-agency, meaning, and purpose. Anything that has any of these has consciousness. Anything that does not would be non-conscious–blank, void, vacuous, wholly objective. This meaning refers to consciousness as context; it is about the mode of being that makes possible any and all contents and forms of consciousness. Philosophically, then, consciousness is a state or quality of being.

vii. Cartesian theatre

In ‘Consciousness Explained’, Daniel Dennett famously criticises what he calls the “Cartesian Theatre” view of the mind. The central “Cartesian” claim he targets is that there is a specific location in the brain “arrival at which is the necessary and sufficient condition for conscious experience” (Dennett, 1991: p. 106).

In other words, the Cartesian Theatre is the idea that somewhere within the mind, every piece of sensory information is processed and then somehow judged by an observing apparatus (the audience of the theatre). This judgement then defines the conscious action of the person involved.

viii. Why photography?

“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally I prefer inspiration to information“. (Man Ray)

Photography is a unique medium. A camera, by its mechanical nature, is a simple light recording tool which, when used correctly, can produce very powerful images[8]. An artist may merely use photography to record work in other media, in which case the photograph is the final product of the art, but the concept conveyed is more important than technical issues. At the opposite extreme, photography can be merely a technical exercise, a way of reproducing and drawing attention to beauty (or ugliness) in the world. In this case, I used photography in order to question the nature of ‘public space’ and to document the world that surrounds us.

This particular medium has allowed me to present public space in a different way than the one we usually perceive it. The images communicate an alternate message (in this case about our relationship with space). In Boorstin’s words (1992, p. 91), ‘photography gives a narrative symbolism, and as a sign or, more precisely, an allegory’. We perceive photography as message[9].

Walker Evans once said: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” And this is exactly what the viewers do when looking at my images. The more they stare, the more they feel. There are so many different ways you can affect the way an individual feels by what the picture shows or doesn’t show.

When photographing the public space, I capture an instant of its ‘being’. That instant is made available to the viewer under the form of a photograph, for further exploration. “As the moments flow in the world, they flow in me as well. By freezing those moments in still pictures, I am presenting my view of the world in that constant flow. And photography becomes a way for me to explore the outside world as well as my inner self.” (Bin, ?) Through that exploration the viewer captures a glimpse of my own thoughts. As Ishiuchi puts in words so well: “A photograph is a reproduction of the surface of what you see, but the image of the photograph continues beyond the frame, and reflects the artist’s self, with many layers of concern and intention, widely, deeply, and beautifully.” (Ishiuchi, ?)

Finally, in a few simple words, it is safe to say that photography has allowed me to bring to the viewer an awareness of self, others, and their environment.

Chapter 3: Methodology

This chapter aims to provide the viewer with a greater understanding of the evolution of my project. It presents the various methods of research I used whilst exploring public space through a selection of influential photographers and authors. In addition, it helps situating this body of work within contemporary practice.

i. Influential photographers

There is a wide selection of photographers that have influenced me and have lead to the production of this project. In this paragraph, I outline only a few of them, who, I believe are most relevant to the final body of work produced.

The project titled ‘We Are No Longer Ourselves’ (see Appendix 1), produced in 2001 by Rut Blees Luxemburg, Effie Paleologou and Sophy Rickett was probably the body of work which influenced me the most. ‘We Are No Longer Ourselves’ examines the enigmatic subject of the nocturnal city. These three photographers inhabit the streets, exploring how urban life transforms after dark. The city by day is a crowded and lively place. By night, empty corners and dark shadows can suggest sinister possibilities and create a highly charged atmosphere. Through this body of work, these photographers explore how the cityscape reflects and affects the human condition. The photographs produced are a direct investigation of the urban landscape. They are images taken at night on the edge of the centre of the city, long exposures which allow them to use the light emanating from the street only.

The resulting images are strange and beautiful, sometimes immediately recognisable whilst others are almost abstract, flooded with green and golden light. Urban landscapes often seem threatening and dehumanising, but these poetic and seductive draws us in, making us look again, hinting at new ways of seeing and interacting with the cities we inhabit.

Corriette Schoenaerts is a Dutch photographer mostly known for her editorial work. She takes on commissions from various magazines, mostly working on fashion shoots as well as other promotional photographs that are both refreshingly colourful and visually challenging. In her project ‘Nightscapes’ however, her photography takes a turn as she explores familiar spaces during night-time (see Appendix 2). She states: ‘I know all these places very well, because I (used to) pass them daily. By day, they are very familiar, by night they turn into mysterious fairytale worlds’.

Her photographs are a direct representation of the physical elements of urban landscape at night. They convey a feeling of tranquillity, temporality and abandonment. It is as if everything is ready to pick up from where it was left when morning comes. The spaces represented in ‘Nightscapes’ are inviting, despite the overwhelming darkness that surrounds them.

Holger Schilling and his project ‘Wahrend Ihr Schlieft’ (While You Slept) (Appendix 3) proved to be of significant influence for my project. The photos are taken entirely at night in residential areas, discovering the artist’s surrounding environment.

The last project outlined in this chapter is called ‘Ambient Light’ by Joao Lanca Morais (see Appendix 4). Morais is professional photographer based in Lisbon, who works as a cinematographer for commercials and features. This particular project, produced in December 2010, is an explicit exploration of the architectural structure of the urban landscape. Nonetheless, as opposed to the previous photographers mentioned, this body of work focuses more on private spaces left in decay.

There are many other photographers who have contributed, whether consciously or unconsciously, to the production of my project. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to mention them all in this essay.

ii. Influential texts

Adding to the philosophical literature covered in order to get a better understanding of the phenomenological concepts underlined in my project, I examined several books that proved to be capital for the development of my work. This chapter covers a quick selection of them.

‘Between City and Desert’ by Eyal Weizman and Manuel Herz, featured in ‘City Levels’ by Nick Barley laid the theoretical base for the project. ‘City Levels’ examines the urban environment at different levels to discover the mechanics of a city. It looks at what is happening, both culturally and architecturally, deep underground, at street level, and high overhead.

In ‘Between City and Desert’, Weizman and Hertz discuss the issue of privatisation of a public space through the case study of a north London Suburb. The project’s aim was to merge all public space for a limited amount of time in order to create a symbolic, private space the size of a town. This would be done to allow orthodox Jews to carryon with their daily activities during their religious festivities. Ideas of ‘space’, ‘place’, ‘settlements’, ‘public’, ‘private domain’, ‘desert and temple’, ‘fixed geographical definition’, ‘the meaning and use of public space and the objects within it’ are widely explored.

Overall, this text allowed me to grasp a better understanding of space and territory, ownership and meaning of the terms public and private and provided me with the ability to perform a more accurate reading of space.

Vintage Calvino in ‘Invisible Cities’ provides a vast panel of vocabulary and terminology to describe cities and space. He exceeds in talent when portraying the various cities of Marco Polo’s travels, making the reader travel along with the hero. This book amazed me with extraordinary sceneries and ideas fabricated with words. In addition to the multiple descriptions of cities and spaces, Calvino includes light touches of philosophical explorations that also allowed my mind to wonder on the purposes of cities.

This book has provided me with the ability to visualise a space as if it was being described to me. A mental representation of a space is very different from the reality of that same space being observed. There is a feeling of majesty and mysteriousness about it and this is the same impression I am putting across to my viewer.

In ‘Poetics of Space’, Gaston Bachelard applies phenomenology to architecture. He bases his analysis on lived experience of architecture, considering spaces such as the attic, the cellar, drawers and the like. ‘The Poetics of Space’ does not look at the origins or technicalities of architecture, but how the lived-in and human experience of architecture affects and shapes it’s development. Through the extensive use of phenomenological thinking, Bachelard allowed me to become more conscious about my surroundings and provoked some deep reflections about dwelling in spaces.

iii. Part of something bigger

‘Darkness, Light and the Space Between’ is not just a random, stand-alone photography project. Indeed, photographers have been exploring urban landscapes for years. Some people might be a little depressed by the greyness of concrete, towering skyscrapers and graffiti covered walls. Urban landscape photography looks for the photographic possibilities that these elements withhold in the cities and urban areas where we live and work. There are a number of other genres of urban photography such as cityscape photography[10], architectural photography[11], street photography[12], etc.

Eugene Atget for example was one of the early urban photographers who captured the city in its most simple form. His work included photographing old buildings, street vendors, architectural details and buildings that were about to be demolished. Much of his work was aimed at artists and stage designers who would use his photographs as visual aids for their own work.

Henri Cartier Bresson is probably the best-known photographer of all time and one that has inspired many over the years. His candid photography, covering many of the peoples of the world, provides a valuable source of information about the lives of everyday individuals during the middle of the 20th century.

Similarly, Robert Frank was famous for depicting cultural issues in society through the use of candid street photography. His work The Americans placed him firmly as a photographer willing to show life as it really was. His ability to see the mundane aspects of everyday life as a fascinating insight into the lives of normal people helped to highlight cultural issues of the time.

The list of urban photographers is long, and probably endless. Other famous photographers whose work captured the true form of the city include Paul Strand[13], Alvin Langdon Coburn[14], Karl Hugo Sclmotz[15], Alfred Stieglitz[16] and Andre Kertesz[17].

A more modern form of urban photography is the so-called ‘urban exploration’. Often shortened as ‘urbex’, it is the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities (Nestor, 2007). Urban explorers shun the natural world in pursuit of more closely examining and understanding the inner workings of our constructed world, of seeing civic society in its real, raw, unpainted, un-plastered and un-prettied state. It is internal city touring, but without guides, double-decker buses, maps or directions. It’s about going where people aren’t supposed to go.

The constant need of people to understand their surroundings often leads to photographers associating modern social issues to the space around us. My project follows this modern trend whilst associating its aesthetics to the more classical trend of urban photography. I associate philosophical and sociological concepts of human behaviour with the space’s shifting nature in order to produce a rigorous exploration of this specific subject.

In addition, urban photographers could be seen as a kind of modern mapmakers, exploring every inch of a city, corner after corner. In that sense, this project is part of that ongoing mapping process, with a particular focus on the historic city of Carlisle.

Chapter 4: The personal experiences

This chapter examines the various experiences of individuals directly involved with the images. I first investigate the various stages of producing this project and the way this process affected me. I then look at the way the viewer experiences the photographs when looking at them.

Producing this project

Producing this project was not an easy task. Similarly to the last two projects produced for this MA, I have invested a lot of time and effort into researching and bringing it to being. It is almost as if a piece of me has gone into it, as both of us were evolving. The process of making has provided me with a clearer understanding of the importance of the physical structures of our surroundings, and a clearer understanding of people’s psychology of being into urban space.

This project did not involve any third parties, which made it easier to carry out. Once fully immerged in the public space after hours, all that needed to be done was to let my feelings guide me (whilst staying within the theoretical framework of the project). The actual creation of the images did feel at times somehow voyeuristic, almost illegal. My presence in these public spaces often triggered an adrenalin rush, very often making me work under pressure. Whilst I still took my time to take the images (30 seconds exposures take time) I often found myself wondering how fast I could get back to the safety of my car.

There were no major problems whilst carrying out this project. Other than the occasional scare from some late dog walkers and the low availability of light, everything ran as smoothely as it could have.

The project did present me with the opportunity to explore various areas of Carlisle, furthering my knowledge and appreciation of this city. I also noticed a substantial amelioration in my night photography skills. This was truly a pleasant project to carry out and the resulting set of images is quite satisfactory.

Viewer’s experience

When looking at the photograph, the viewer is instantly immerged in it. The darkness overtakes the visual field, forcing the gaze upon the ‘lit areas’ of the image. It is only when he/she is comfortable enough with the light that the spectator starts exploring the surroundings. The gaze never goes too far from the lit areas, navigating timidly through the image in the exact same way an individual would navigate though an unknown, badly lit space.

As the nature of the space that surrounds the viewer changes, so does his/her experience of it. He/she becomes conscious of his/her own visibility and starts experiencing the look in the full Sartrian way. The presence of the ’Other’ starts affecting the viewer and seeks comfort in full view, in the light.

The sense of possible danger hiding in the darkness triggers emotions of discomfort and fear, leaving the viewer restless. It is when this feeling reaches its summum the viewer then moves away from the image, confronting a new, completely undiscovered scenery. The same emotional journey begins again.

Conclusion

The publicness of space is a fairly hard concept to define. It is a complicated notion that is subject to a vast amount of controversy. This project explores the relation of individuals in such spaces after the public hours, focusing on the ideas of self-consciousness and visibility. It has been shown that spaces’ nature shifts with daylight and that the simple act of being in such spaces triggers emotions of unease and unrest.

Photography as a medium has allowed me to document this phenomenon in the most simplistic way. The experience of the viewer discovering the images is very similar to the emotional experience of actually walking through the dark streets of a city.

I have evolved tremendously whilst producing this project and have come to get a better understanding of the space that surrounds us. In addition, I have discovered in more depth Carlisle, often finding myself in areas I would never have explored had it not been for this project.

In terms of personal growth, I am now confident in my photographic judgement. I find myself much more comfortable in presenting my work, and have figured out an insatiable truth: It matters very little what people think of the final product. It is the journey that lead to it that is worth taking into consideration.

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