Krung Thep, City Of Angels and Demons .. Month One

Begin at the beginning…

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Chinatown, Bangkok (c) Stewart Weir 2014

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.

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Benjasiri Park, Bangkok. (c) Stewart Weir 2014

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.

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Water Taxi, Bangkok (c) Stewart Weir 2014

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.

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Siam Paragon Shopping Mall, Bangkok (c) Stewart Weir 2014

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).

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Old Chinatown Umbrella (c) Stewart Weir 2014

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.

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Fatality; Ratchadamnoen Avenue, Bangkok (c) Stewart Weir 2014

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.

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A little indulgence (c) Stewart Weir 2014

Images and Words (c) Stewart Weir 2014. No Unauthorised Reproduction In Any Form Without Consent. Please email eurofeatures@gmail.com

 

And The Winner Is …

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Coffee Morning, Brighton © Stewart Weir 2012
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Tree Nursery, Smarden © Stewart Weir 2013

Last year’s new is this year’s old as is the way of all things these days. Ironically today it doesnt matter whether your producing images on a mobile phone or a £3k plus pro spec digi SLR.. Unless your intending to shoot weddings, sports or sell to glossy magazines in my humble opinion it doesn’t really matter what you shoot with. Even newspapers will accept mobile images today! The question is what’s the most important camera you can own?

My most used camera today is a Samsung S4 followed by a Rolleiflex 3.5f TLR medium format film camera. The first image was shot on a now ‘obsolete’ Nikon P7100 and the 2nd was shot on a Samsung Galaxy S3 mobile. Recent offerings from mobile phone companies especially the Nokia Lumia 1020, iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4 is just going to blur the image making line even more.. and in turn reduce sales for compact cameras unless camera makers can come up with more bells and whistlers. Mobile phone image making is catching up fast.. Its just a matter of time before the camera of choice is the mobile for the majority.

Atlantic

Atlantic, Devon © Stewart Weir 2004
Atlantic, Devon © Stewart Weir 2004

Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here? That depends a good deal on where you want to go, said the Cat. I don’t much care where said Alice. Then it doesn’t matter which way you go said the Cat. So long as I get somewhere Alice added as an explanation. Oh, you’re sure to do that, said the Cat, if you only walk long enough.

Lewis Carroll, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

A Message From Jock Sturgess

“I have a request and a suggestion. The urge/desire/hunger to make an image is a precious thing. As often as not it rises from deep within us, from our subconscious, from bedrock US. The voice says, keep this, ‘REMEMBER this. We reach for a camera. This fascinating transaction is very new to homo sapiens. It was not so very long ago that our only recording faculty was memory itself. Now this new thing lets us carry the past forward, let’s us examine and learn and advance from where we’ve been, from WHAT we’ve been. This has radically changed us. We are something new under the sun.

BUT, Using camera phones and gimmicky software to satisfy this thirst — to absorbe and essentially discard it — is just such a shame. I see promising, intelligent photographers reducing their work to aesthetic rubble by using photogram almost every day.

It wounds me every time. Their various imitation “looks” will be of no interest to the high end of the art world and will at best seem only quaint to posterity. Do I seem stuffy in wishing a finer result for one and all? I don’t mean to. It’s just that I so admire the definitive effort. Excellence and knowing as I do with perfect certainty that everyone is a genius in their own life, I have an unrelenting hunger to see it, clearly and well — unadorned by banal artifice. There is no one at all that I exempt from this quixotic yearning of mine. Most of what each and every one of you know in your lives are fascinating mysteries to the rest of the world.

Please. Use the best camera you can. Do the best you can. All the time. Your time IS limited. The vast majority of what you see will never be there again in just the same way” – Jock Sturges

Frank Gehry

World renowned architect Frank Gehry flew into the UK from Los Angeles only a few hours prior to when this shot was taken. He arrived into the office in Brighton late, quite grumpy and really not in the mood for anything other than a coffee and to get his business done and back to his hotel.

Frank Gehry ©Stewart Weir 2008

With no time to set anything up or go for a walk on the beach as I had hoped I chose to get a set of portraits in the office using natural light. It must be Canadian humour or something I thought as Mr Gehry told me I have 10 seconds to get a portrait. I smiled and said “seriously”. He smiled and said “yes are you ready to shoot?”. And so he counted down from 10 pausing for a milli second with a smile in between seconds. On 3 I got the portrait which sums up Frank Gehry’s cheeky smile and sense of humour.

His sketches are infamous for their wild scrawl and has come to personify the idea of an architect as an artist “I fantasise in sketch” he explains, “the sketch isn’t the end, it’s a continual process of drawing, modelling, redrawing and remodelling. In fact I draw all the way to the end” says Gehry. “When I’m not thinking of anything I like to sketch chairs, I don’t know why I guess it’s a cathartic thing I do. I’ve designed a few that people think are ok but they’re hard”. Artist architects in the mould of Frank Gehry are mavericks by nature and his mantra of  “if you know where it’s going it’s not worth doing” sums up the attitude of an artist more than any other stiff collared traditional architect.

Often with anything written about Frank O Gehry the term ‘Bilbao effect’ crops up. Anyone who has visited the Gehry inspired Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao knows what happened to Bilbao after it opened. Completed in 1997 the Bilbao Guggenheim thrust an already world renowned architect who 10 years earlier had already won the Pritzker Prize into the realms architect superstar and probably stopped thousands of locals leaving a declining city. It sucked millions of Euros out of tourist pockets and into the local economy. Gehry plays down the Bilbao effect. The effect wasn’t just about the Guggenheim he explains “It’s a political and economic commitment to changing the feeling of a city. Other Bilbao infrastructures such as Calatrava’s bridge and the metro all helped to encourage tourists into the city”. Gehry understands the ‘effect’ differently from most authorities that hunger for an international identity. He sees it more in terms of local pride. “Now the kids don’t leave and go to Madrid,” he says.

Gehry generates a lot of press, much of it gushingly flattering and the rest unflatteringly spiteful which he chooses to ignore. Gehry doesn’t have to worry and he certainly isn’t losing any sleep. He has an address book full of rich and powerful friends. Many try their luck and approach him with projects that he neither has the time or inclination to get involved with. One project in particular has found him doing a lot of soul searching. The Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Gehry says “I know that its an impossible goal they are trying to achieve, they are trying to make a building where people disagree with each other and hate each other form a common ground”. Whilst Gehry reveres some of those involved like Shimon Peres, he cannot reconcile himself to the more hard line elements of the Israeli government particularly as he empathises with the Palestinians. He met Arafat he reveals and found him “impressive”. Gehry grew up in a Canadian Jewish family but lists his religious beliefs as “None, Atheist, Zero”. “I know what it’s like to be beat up for killing Christ” he says.

Copyright Stewart Weir 2008

Amsterdam Fashion Week

©Stewart Weir 2009

This image was taken at Amsterdam Fashion Week as part of a feature for de Volkskrant. The image was shot backstage and the lighting was spotlights positioned high and directed down. The model is unposed. I was struck by how the spot lighting lit half her face perfectly. I composed wanting to put the shadow to the left. This is a full frame image with no cropping.

English Football Culture

England fans fight Marseille locals. ©Stewart Weir 1998

I did a story about England football fans for Esquire magazine back in June 1998. I was 5 years into my career and my first big shoot. My brief was to do a photo story about the fans as they followed England. This shot was taken the evening before the first match against Tunisia. I had literally jumped off the train from Paris about 20 minutes earlier. I heard police sirens at the train station, jumped in a taxi and asked the driver what was going on. He told me that there were lots of fans in the port area causing trouble so thats where I headed.