Begin at the beginning…
Landed in Bangkok 23rd February which is significant for me. It wasn’t planned it just happened the way it did. The Universe, if you open your eyes, use instinct and filter out the noise of modern life very much guides or rather hints at the right path. Whether you feel that is for you to decide. My intention was to be here for a month to gain some life perspective and see if Bangkok was a place for me to live and work. An emotional and work life balance that wasn’t to be in England.
Bangkok is many things like every city in the world but it’s different from the majority and has its own unique edge. Within days of arriving the film A Year Of Living Dangerously came very much to mind. A few days before I had arrived a state of emergency was declared even though my airport and taxi to Bangkok experience was anything other than soldiers on the streets and any hint of a curfew. But this is Thailand and this place is anything other than normal as we would perceive with our Western eyes and values. For those wanting a background to the politics of Thailand here’s a very good summary… I’m not going to dwell on it too much at this point other than to say that the country has been sliding towards great uncertainty and potential civil war for many years.
Walking the streets everyday I’ve begun to feel the energy of the people. The routine, the noises the pollution and the speed of everyday life. There are the ‘rich’ or rather locally termed ‘hi-so’ and there are the poor who live close or on the Chao Phraya River and its many canals and suburbs or under the highway flyovers. Let’s not even discuss the King or Royal Family… This country is proud beyond nothing else about their royalty. Bangkok is the Venice of SE Asia and Thailand’s rich hotspot. I’ve been to many cities where sensory overload rules… Tokyo comes to mind as does New York and I hear Mumbai also battles the senses as well. Bangkok is a photographers dream. Not just for the city itself but for the rest of Thailand. Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam are all within easy reach but these are places Im heading to in the months to come. Cambodia is first on the list in March after covering the Sak Yant Tattoo Festival.
My senses and emotions right now are in temporary self inflicted upheaval. My best work is and always has been during emotional turmoil so Im feeding it and giving it fuel to burn me up. So often in my work as a tutor for The Photography Institute I read how students want to escape their lives and travel the world or just earn an income from photography. The reality is so different from the fantasy as most things are. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is a saying that comes to mind.
Photography is a passion and dream for many because of the nature of the work. It’s also a profession of feast and famine. The variety and experiences that are to be found as a working photographer is unique in many ways compared to the majority of professions available. In England I could at any time go back to my old profession of selling property but the materialistic nature of the profession is what made me leave it in the first place. To be a photographer or indulge in any form of creativity you need to find the place within you that feeds your eyes and hands. For some its nothing more than plagiaristic art.
My images come from within me but they are nothing more than a variation of what has been done before so photography to me is just my internal expression of what I see. My need to express is the image but this is for me on my terms and to my agenda and no one else’s. If I wanted to earn more I would shoot digital and in colour because that is the fact of the publishing industries needs. I shoot medium format, black and white film and there’s no more discussion on that subject ;-). The images here are shot on the iPhone 5s and they are my daily sketchbook.
So what is the point of being here? This place has kicked me up the arse. It’s given me a story that my instinct tells me I should do. This is for me and my own self gratification to explore Krung Thep from its Angels to its Demons. It’s a place I can push myself and dare myself to produce the best set of images I’ve ever shot. A series with depth and substance and a visual document of a city and country that’s very much on the edge of great change… or may be no change at all (assuming you have read the political summary link you will know what I’m talking about).
It wasn’t until my last day in Bangkok that I realised the depth of hate that the majority of people in Bangkok has for the government. I’d been to all of the roadblock protest sites and yes there was hate there. But nothing compared to real visual hate that is mixed with fear. That’s when you see the mask fall and you can really take in what humanity is capable of and willing to endure. This was very low level conflict and no where near civil war. It’s a few moments of intensity that has ended moments after it began but for some, it was the end of their lives.
I was to fly at midnight on the Wednesday 19th February but went on a walkabout to the Ratchadamnoen protest site late morning. Twitter was alive with reports of a fatality and injuries earlier in the day as the government troops and police intended to remove the protest site and roadblock. Taking the river taxi from Sukhumvit, the taxi wasnt going to stop anywhere near the site as usual. The first scene I saw were Buddhist monks and one talking over a loudspeaker. I have no idea what was being said but no one here looked happy. Like a scene from a film with protesters waving flags some wearing a kind of uniform and flak jackets and gas masks at the top of Ratchadamnoen Avenue and soldiers and police lined up at the other end by the Royal Plaza. I’m working here with a Rolleiflex 3.5f twin lens reflex. 12 shots from one roll so this is a challenge to shoot something as fast moving as a protest but what was to come was a surprise… but then again I did expect it within 20 minutes of walking through the lines.
First I covered behind the lines and in front of the protest barrier of tyres and sandbags. Flag waving protesters but by now the Thai authorities were very obviously telling the protesters to move back. The protesters jeered like a pre battle scene from Braveheart this was only going one way and it wasn’t going to be good. I moved forwards towards the government lines. Several Thai photo journalists were being searched but I avoided all eye contact with the searchers and shot several rolls. The troops were exhausted and I didn’t see any kind of strength in their eyes. They were scared and tired and didn’t want to be there (I later found out that they had been there from the early morning for a dawn raid and had not even been given food).
Some perspective here… I felt they were on the protesters side and hated the government too… but orders are orders are they not? In real time I’m now figuring out when it’s going to go off, how it will play out, who has the upper hand and noting good areas to run for cover whilst photographing. After my 3rd roll and moving away from the troops line the tension raises as protesters are moving forwards. This is the time to get good cover because I figure the troops wont allow them to move to far forwards. In recent weeks there had been grenade attacks and protesters using hand guns and automatics so theres no reason why its not going to happen again. I head close to a side alley which has an outside food bar with plastic rain cover (Thai style) shooting as I go.
Small arms crackle and then the troops open fire but its not spraying the protesters… rather I felt it’s targeting those seen with weapons. Rounds exchanged and I’m standing in my cover with several other locals and we look at each other I guess all with wide eyed terror. Adrenaline rush but I’m staying focused here. I look out from cover and shoot off several frames of everyone outside on the floor and those trying to make the thin avenue trees wider than they really are. I’m shaking as I change film and all I’m thinking is to get the load right, get the exposure right, get the composition right and get everything right. There’s a lull… a pause with no rounds being fired. I venture out and to be honest I can’t remember for how long but no more than 30 seconds. I’m trying to figure out if that’s it and I’m working out my next step in the open but crouched down. I see a protester 10 yards in front of me with a hand gun and as I raise the Rollei then cracks again from the troops and I run back to cover and pull two paramedics in as they got stuck… wedged between the opening and all I can think is that this is some kind of comedy moment if its wasn’t for what was going on outside.
The shooting lasts for a few minutes. Screams outside from where I saw the handgun guy. A crowd surrounding someone and Im out in the open regardless now. I head for the crowd to a small opening and a man is on the floor with blood spewing from his mouth. I don’t think he’s the handgun guy though but I know he’s going to die. The protesters lift him and carry him 20 yards up the pavement and are met by a stretcher. His shoes are removed and have no idea why and he’s taken up to an ambulance. He did die. I’ve seen death before but to see someone on there way out is a different matter. It’s a harsh reminder of how precious life is. No one but his family and friends will remember him plus those who were with him in his final moments. I will never forget that’s for sure. (more insight here from the Bangkok Post).
Those few hours in Ratchadamnoen Avenue claimed five deaths and 65 injuries.
Now I have better clarity about what this place is about. I will wait until next week to see what I have from this day. Six rolls of film and 72 exposures assuming I got everything right.
P.S. I have ringworm on my wrist, the food is out of this world and I just love riding on the back of the moto to get from A to B. Taxis have air conditioning as do the BTS skytrains. The Paragon shopping mall is out of this world like nothing I’ve ever seen in the UK and I’ve found a great place to get Chilli Beer. I’m swimming everyday but the Rollei is in for a service so I’ve plenty of time on my plate. Too much time to think in fact. For a full set of contact sheets from the series up to the Ratchadamnoen Avenue incident please go here.
Images and Words (c) Stewart Weir 2014. No Unauthorised Reproduction In Any Form Without Consent. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org