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Before the arrival of photography, the social taboo against representing royalty ensured that the Siamese court had no tradition of royal portraiture.[1] And when French priest Father Larnaudie presented King Rama III (r. 1824-1851) with a camera towards the end of his reign, the king showed little interest, possibly influenced by the prevailing superstition that photography would suck away his soul.[2] However, Mongkut, or King Rama IV (r. 1851-1868), dispelled the myth by embracing photographic technology and using it to present a dignified image of the Siamese kingdom to his European counterparts.[3]

His son Chulalongkorn, or King Rama V (r. 1868-1910), displayed an even greater enthusiasm for the medium and was able to use it to obscure the tenuous hold that he had on his kingdom prior to the 1880s. In one of Chulalongkorn’s portraits taken early during his reign, art historian Caverlee Cary argues that the choice of his white uniform, height of the camera, inclusion of two European columns at both edges of the image and the king’s position in the middle helped to construct a perception of confidence and power.[4] However, his throne was actually threatened at that time. While it is hard to imagine any ruler who would deliberately construct an image to project frailty, Cary is nonetheless right in pointing out that the “arts have been used in the service of reinventing Siamese history”.[5]

This should not come as a surprise. In the first place, Thai history writing, claims historian Barend Jan Terwiel, has always been “burdened by this long practiced process of rewriting the past – with the aim of avoiding disagreeable events – in favor of an account that renders a more positive impression. The history of the state has been remade to serve the purpose of fostering admiration in the reader.”[6] With no place for anomalies, argues historian Thongchai Winichakul, “modern Thai historiography is a saga of the unity of Thai people under benevolent rulers, mostly the monarchy, in confronting the threats, and consequent sufferings, posed by foreign countries, in the course of which the nation survived and prospered.”[7]

What these few paragraphs have shown is the relationship that Siamese photography has had, right from the start, with the political elite. Even now, photographs of the monarchs have become emblems of the monarchs themselves – to revere the king is “to revere him by revering his image”. Defacement of the image is taken to be lèse-majesté (wounding the king).[8]

However, in the years following WWII, photography became available to ordinary people, starting with the likes of Chitt Chongmankhong (1922-2009) who was born in Bangkok to a poor Cantonese family.

Today, in the hands of contemporary Thai photo-artists like Manit Sriwanichpoom, Michael Shaowanasai and Chaisiri Jiwarangsan, the medium has been used to examine the manifestations and ramifications of politics in general. Devising unique strategies for their different areas of interest, they have examined the erasure of histories, deconstructed the visual representation of power, or given parity to the unheard voices in Thailand.

Pink Man Begins #1 (from a series of 8), 1997, ©Manit SriwanichpoomPink Man Begins #1 (from a series of 8), 1997, ©Manit Sriwanichpoom

#1 from the series Life of a Woman: Never Ending Journey, 2005, ©Michael Shoawanasai#1 from the series Life of a Woman: Never Ending Journey, 2005, ©Michael Shoawanasai

While some of Sriwanichpoom’s projects function in the tradition of documentary photography, this tradition is less developed in Thailand than in Indonesia or the Philippines. While there are competent Thai photojournalists who work for papers and agencies, the country has almost no equivalent, especially in terms of influence, to the likes of Sonny Yabao and Alex Baluyut in the Philippines, or Oscar Motuloh and Erik Prasetya in Indonesia, who have persisted since the late 1980s in producing independent and perceptive documentary projects. Unlike Sriwanichpoom, they are known primarily as street or documentary photographers. Their influence is still keenly felt in their countries, especially among younger photojournalists who choose to pursue independent work. That kind of lineage is absent in Thailand.

Bangkok has long been the home for farang (‘white westerners’, or more generally, ‘foreigners’) photojournalists who cover the region. Many of them are internationally renowned. However, there is very little exchange between them and the Thai photographers, says Ark Fongsmut, curator of the progressive Bangkok University Gallery. He continues: “Compared to Indonesia or the Philippines, photojournalism is not popular in Thailand because the conflicts here are softer. Furthermore, our audience prefers to see things that are accessible and beautiful.”[9]

Is it true then that Thai history has been less violent than the histories of her regional neighbors? Writing about the massacre on October 6, 1976 of the students who had gathered at Thammasat University to protest the return of an ousted dictator, Winichakul noted that it has been difficult for the Thais to reconcile themselves to the tragedy, partly because they are generally proud of their record of having “not-so-violent political conflicts”.[10] His point implies that the popular perception of Thai history is surely constructed.

As one of the few Thai independent documentary photographers, Suthep Kritsanavarin (b. 1971; Nonthaburi, central Thailand) feels that the development of Thai photojournalism has been beset with structural issues. Compared to their peers in Malaysia or the Philippines, their relatively poor command of English makes it harder for Thai photojournalists to work with international media. At the same time, local publications continue to pay meagre fees to their staff photographers. Better magazines pay 20,000 baht (equivalent to approximately $660 US) each month for a senior photojournalist. Photographers at local newspapers can expect less. Copyright infringement cripples the industry further.[11] Within the context of Southeast Asia though, these factors are not really unique to Thailand.

Artists who do street photography on an independent basis usually have other means of making a living. In this sense they are not unlike the late Chitt Chongmankhong, who would roam the streets of Bangkok in his time off from work to take pictures of scenery and daily life. Given his upbringing, the Cantonese had a natural affinity with the common people and it showed in his work, which brought him neither fame nor fortune.[12]

Chitt Chongmankhong, Siphraya Road, 1955, Courtesy of Ded ChongmankhongChitt Chongmankhong, Siphraya Road, 1955, Courtesy of Ded Chongmankhong

Current photographers like Kamthorn Paowattanasuk and Dow Wasiksiri seem more conscious of the need to keep a documentary record of Thailand. In a way, by documenting different facets of Thai existence, they are examining contemporary manifestations of Thai identity.

From the series Eastern Wind (2005 – 07), ©Kamthorn PaowattanasukFrom the series Eastern Wind (2005 – 07), ©Kamthorn Paowattanasuk

However, given the problematic national construction of Thai identity, it is inevitable that other photographers would choose to confront the issue head-on. In general, the idea of national identity is tinted with nostalgia and exoticism.[13] But conservatism is just one factor in terms of shaping Thai-ness. Even though it is a syncretic product, Thai-ness has been largely defined by the idea of a national community identified along common ethnic lineage, which is “at odds with the pre-modern notion of Siam as a racially diverse kingdom”. This is achieved in part through the language of politics, explains historian Maurizio Peleggi. The Thai word “chat”, for instance, which originally meant “stock” or “family”, is used to refer to “nation”.[14] And the term “Thai” became the official name for the kingdom’s inhabitants, regardless of ethnicity.[15]

This erasure of ethnic identity within Thailand has been hard to reconcile, especially for the minority peoples. For example, a photographer from the Suay minority, Ekkalux Nubturesook (b. 1975; Surin, northeast Thailand) speaks of government teachers who prohibited him from speaking his mother tongue with other children in school. This perturbed him greatly. In a project called Blow Up (2006), Nubturesook photographed children from the minority groups of Suay, Lao and Bru whom he met in Ubon Ratchathani, Northeast Thailand, during an art camp for stateless children. As they played out their ironic dreams of becoming celebrities in his portraits, their actions seem incongruous in relation to their status as marginalized peoples.[16]

But the idea of homogeneity that has been inscribed into Thai national identity affects not only the people who belong to ethnically distinct groups. As it gives predominance to Central Thai culture, the construction of Thai-ness allows for stereotypes directed against, for instance, the peoples of Isarn (Northeast Thailand) – a region where one-third of Thai citizens actually live. An Isarn native now based in Bangkok, Maitree Siriboon uses his body as a performative vehicle to play with some of these stereotypes.

Fig. 5: #8 from the series Isarn Boy Dream (2007-08), Fig. 5: #8 from the series Isarn Boy Dream (2007-08), © Maitree Siriboon

On the other hand, Bangkok-born Prateep Suthathongthai deconstructs the concept of “truth”, thereby raising a more fundamental question: Is it possible to describe Isarn identity as though it is fixed and unchanging? In his recent foray into photography, Montri Toemsombat adopts an almost “militant” stance in his refusal to be marked by any form of identity.

Moving beyond the construction of Thai identity, Itsaret Sutthisiri photographs people from his village in Surat Thani as a means of asserting his roots as a migrant, first in Bangkok, and now in Phitsanulok, North Thailand. A follower of youth culture, Atitaya Sritongin looks at how young Thais have expressed their individuality in this era of globalized taste and fashion.

Fig. 6: From the series Slave in Love, 2005,Fig. 6: From the series Slave in Love, 2005,© Atitaya Sritongin

Some years back, while talking about the relevance of questions of cultural identity to younger Thai artists, local curator Gridthiya Gaweewong pointed out that globalization has made them more conscious of themselves. She continued: “They no longer have to stereotypically present their ancient heritage to the audience, but can now attempt more individual forms of expression, and often manage to convey them in a more sophisticated manner.”The curator added that “cultural identity might no longer be a priority”,[17] a conclusion that seems premature with reference to the aforementioned photographers.

In fact, for the younger photographers who gravitate towards the autobiographical, their work is often driven by an assertion of what they see as their cultural identity, even though their values and politics are no longer similar to the Thai artists born prior to the 1970s. Thanapol Kaewpring’s work reflects upon his existence as an urbanite, distracted by consumerism and struggling to find meaning in life. The multiform and expansive work of Kornkrit Jianpinidnan acts as a chronicle of his encounters in Bangkok, informed by music, his readings into Jean-Paul Sartre and Buddhism, and the political impasse that he sees on the streets.

The scope of Jianpinidnan’s work argues against my initial idea of writing about Thai photographers according to the issues that they address and the approaches that they adopt, as though it is productive to categorize and group their artistic practices under these convenient labels. In fact, some of them work against the erasure of political and cultural histories. Others devise strategies ranging from performance to urban ethnography in varying attempts to assert their identities. But those who are most intriguing work across thematic boundaries, often adopting a personal starting point and relating it to what they encounter in their surroundings.

In an expanded version of this essay, which will constitute a chapter of my forthcoming book on contemporary photography in ASEAN, I discuss the photographers individually in greater depth and examine how their artistic practices respond to or diverge from the dominant elements of Thai photography.


Zhuang Wubin is an independent researcher specializing in contemporary photography in Southeast Asia (ASEAN). Zhuang is also a photographer documenting the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia. His research for this article has been made possible with support from the Prince Claus Fund.

Notes

    1. Maurizio Peleggi, Thailand: The Worldly Kingdom (Singapore: Talisman and Reaktion Books, 2007), 147.return to text

    2. Manit Sriwanichpoom, “Creativity, Friendship and Photography,” in 4th Month of Photography, exh. cat. (Bangkok: Embassy of France in Thailand and Alliance Française Bangkok, 2008), 4.return to text

    3. Gael Newton, “Royal Court Photography in Picture Paradise: Asia-Pacific Photography 1840s-1940s,” Artonview, June 2008, 28.return to text

    4. Caverlee Cary, “In the Image of the King: Two Photographs from Nineteenth-Century Siam,” in Studies in Southeast Asian Art: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. O’Connor, ed. Nora A. Taylor (New York: Cornell University, 2000), 140-41.return to text

    5. Cary, “In the Image of the King,” 122. return to text

    6. Barend Jan Terwiel, Thailand’s Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 to Recent Times (Bangkok: River Books, 2005), 294.return to text

    7. Thongchai Winichakul, “Remembering/Silencing the Traumatic Past: The Ambivalent Memories of the October 1976 Massacre in Bangkok,” in Cultural Crisis and Social Memory: Modernity and Identity in Thailand and Laos, ed. Shigeharu Tanabe and Charles F. Keyes (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002), 263. return to text

    8. Rosalind C. Morris, “Photography and the Power of Images in the History of Power: Notes from Thailand,” in Photographies East: The Camera and its Histories in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Rosalind C. Morris (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 138.return to text

    9. Ark Fongsmut, interview by author, Bangkok, Thailand, December 2007.return to text

    10. Winichakul, “Remembering/Silencing the Traumatic Past,” 265.return to text

    11. Suthep Kritsanavarin, interview by author, Bangkok, Thailand, February 2009.return to text

    12. Being conferred the National Artist in 1995 brought no practical change to Chongmankhong’s life. By then, his family had become quite well off. A monograph of his work was eventually published by one of his sons as a gift for working so hard over the years. However, there is no public venue in Thailand where people can see his work. See also Zhuang Wubin, “Post-Second World War Photography in Southeast Asia: Chitt Chongmankhong and Nguyễn Văn Thông,” Asian Art, June 2009, 6-7.return to text

    13. Gridthiya Gaweewong, “On Thai Artists and an Issue of Cultural Identity,” in On Cultural Influence: Collected Papers from apexart International Conferences 1999-2006, ed. Steven Rand and Heather Kouris (New York: apexart, 2006), 127.return to text

    14. Peleggi, Thailand, 118.return to text

    15. Peleggi, Thailand, 122-23.return to text

    16. Ekkalux Nubturesook, interview by author, Bangkok, Thailand, February 2009.return to text

    17. Gaweewong, “On Thai Artists,” 131.return to text

    Zhuang Wubin is an independent researcher specializing in contemporary photography in Southeast Asia (ASEAN). Zhuang is also a photographer documenting the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia. His research for this article has been made possible with support from the Prince Claus Fund.