• RSS

On December 26, 2018, a body washed up on the bank of the Mekong River in northeast Thailand. Three days later, a second body was found. Photographs circulating in the press showed the shape of a body draped in coarse brown cloth, fishing net and rope tied around what presumably were the head, chest, belly, legs, and feet of a dead person. Reports noted that the corpses had been handcuffed, their bellies opened and stuffed with concrete, put in rice sacks, and dumped in the river. On January 21 and 22, 2019, the police confirmed to the press that DNA testing had identified the bodies as those of missing political activists known as “Poo Chana” and “Kasalong.” The two men had been missing from their hideaway in Laos since December 11, 2018. Together with a third man, Surachai Sae Dan, the men had fled from Thailand to Laos sometime after the military coup in May 2014. Rumors circulated that a third body, presumably that of Surachai (I employ the Thai custom of referring to people by their first name), had also surfaced but that perhaps the police had made it disappear.[1]

The case of the bodies floating on the Mekong River raises questions about the political power of photography beyond indexicality. I follow here the ontological call made by Ariella Azoulay that a photograph is political only insofar as that “people make it exist among themselves, in plurality, in public.”[2]2 To Azoulay, photography cannot be reduced to a singular event — when the photographer takes a photograph of an object; rather, it is made up of multiple encounters, involving viewers, disseminators, and various contexts for circulation. This study explores the relationship among photography, visibility, and knowledge about violence and impunity in Thailand, through an analytical distinction between photography of violence and photography referring to violence.

In focus is a photographic series by the Thailand-based photographer Luke Duggleby called For Those Who Died Trying, or, as it translates from the Thai, “For the human rights fighters who died.”[3] The series is a collaboration with the international NGO Protection International, which has collected supporting evidence of at least fifty cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in Thailand over the past thirty years.[4] It consists of thirty-five photographs referring to thirty-seven of those cases. I have chosen six photographs to illustrate the variety of locations, cases, and contexts of the crimes represented. Looking at the series as a whole, I further analyze the effects of choices made by the photographer, dividing the analysis into three themes: the captioning of the victims as “Human Rights Defenders,” the multiple meanings of place, and the function of the photographs of the victims in the form of funeral or ID photographs.

I begin by discussing the series in relation to photography of events of unaccounted violence in Thailand and against assumptions commonly held by human-rights activists about the political power and effect of photography. I argue that the series should be seen as an intervention in the writing of history in Thailand, creating a connection between the victims and the Thai state, and between the individual cases of violence and impunity over time and space.

Photography and a Thai History of Violence

For Those Who Died Trying addresses instances of extrajudicial violence and impunity in Thailand over the past two decades, but the issue goes back in time and is not limited to the actions of any single past regime. In an exposé of human rights, state violence, and impunity in Thailand’s modern history, Tyrell Haberkorn concludes that there is no lack of evidence of practices such as forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and extrajudicial assassinations.[5] The production of impunity for illegitimate violence, Haberkorn writes, “are the actions by which the state is formed and secures compliance from its citizens.”[6] In addition, the very publicness of the violence and the securing of impunity are key to understanding their function in the state. Samson Lim observes that repressive violence exercised by the state is consumed through a sensationalist printed press, filled with “violent crime and gory photographs.”[7] Also referring to press photography of structural violence, the publicness as key to the maintaining of state order is what Preedee Hongsaton illustrates with the Thai proverb “Killing the chicken to show [scare] the monkeys.”[8] Following events of mass public violence, the state might censor the printed press, but photographs of the violence have still circulated — both consumed as a signifier of power and used as a means to protest those powers.[9]

These observations raise further questions about representation of violence and assumptions underlying a plethora of photojournalism produced to draw attention to the world’s atrocities. Susie Linfield argues that the dialectics of the genre, and why it matters for human-rights activism, is that photographs of atrocious acts not only draw our attention to what is wrong and unjust but also serve as “documents of protest” that “show us what happens when we unmake the world.”[10] What Linfield’s analysis overlooks, and what Azoulay argues, is that photography that equates “the violation with the violated” risks depoliticization of the violence, and in looking at such photographs we must read the “traces of a discriminatory regime.”[11] The challenge to photographic practices that aim to make violence visible is to also make visible the political context that resulted in the individual suffering.

Azoulay further cautions that material traces of an event do not “insure [their] visibility.”[12] By bringing photographs of people who have disappeared into the public realm, activists all over the world insist on the presence of those whose deaths have not been officially recognized and thus make an intervention in the public memory — making traces visible. The most familiar image, perhaps, is of a woman carrying or pinning to her black dress a photograph of a son, father, brother, or husband whose life has ended but not been accounted for by any regime.[13] Drawing on past atrocities of military rule, combining commemoration with protest for democracy, Thai activists also display photographs of the dead after public events of state violence.[14] This practice was taken from the streets to the Internet with the creation of an online archive for the October 6, 1976, massacre at Thammasat University in Bangkok — as a response to the silencing of the event in official records — where photographs from the event of violence are coupled with photographs of the victims when they were alive.[15]

Thailand’s modern history is ridden with coups d’états and authoritarian military regimes succeeding each other, but as Haberkorn notes, extrajudicial violence and impunity are forms of repression used by both dictatorial and democratically elected governments.[16] Thailand has not experienced any transition that has included disclosure in the paradigm of historical justice and records of violence are not found in any comprehensive archive waiting to be exposed and turned against a past regime. The challenge to the researcher and activists is, rather, to piece together the traces that expose the systematic and repetitive nature of the violence and the impunity.[17]

Framing Defenders of Human Rights

The photographic series by Duggleby was produced and exhibited in Thailand when the country was governed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a military clique that had seized power through a coup in May 2014 and whose excessive use of power to silence and punish any opposition, curbing all human rights, can only be compared to the dictatorial regimes of the 1950s–1970s[18] The series, which had already been shown in Europe, was on display at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre, in central Bangkok, from January 31 to February 5, 2017[19] The opening in Bangkok was attended by Canada’s ambassador to Thailand, activists, and family members of the missing or dead featured in the photographs. The context for the exhibition serves to underscore the point made earlier about the visibility of violence and impunity in Thailand, while the kinds of people in attendance indicated that the struggle against extrajudicial violence and impunity is supported by networks of grassroots movements and parts of the international community.

Speaking at the opening was Angkhana Neelapaijit, commissioner for Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the wife of Somchai Neelapaijit, the most noted case among the photographs. Somchai was a human-rights lawyer involved in lawsuits against police allegedly involved in torture in Thailand’s southern provinces who disappeared in Bangkok on the evening of March 12, 2002. Duggleby places a framed photograph of Somchai, dressed formally in shirt and necktie under a judicial robe, on a city sidewalk (figure 1). It is dark outside, and cars, their headlights blazing, drive toward the viewer and out of the frame. This is what the scene might have looked like when Somchai pulled over after his car had been hit by another. He got out and was forced into the car that had just hit his. It was established that Somchai was abducted by five policemen but because his body has not been found and disappearance is not a crime under the penal code, their trial was for robbery and coercion and they were ultimately acquitted, in 2015.[20]

Fig. 1. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Somchai Neelapaijit, the renowned Thai-Muslim lawyer and human rights activist, was abducted on 12 March 2004, in Ramkamhaeng district of Bangkok. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.Fig. 1. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Somchai Neelapaijit, the renowned Thai-Muslim lawyer and human rights activist, was abducted on 12 March 2004, in Ramkamhaeng district of Bangkok. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.

Apart from the exhibition, the photographs have been printed in small booklets in both English and Thai and distributed at the exhibition, and can be found on Duggleby’s professional website.[21] The photographs were taken all over the country in places as distant from each other as Chiang Rai in the far north and Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south.[22] Four of the victims are women and thirty-three are men. The images all follow the same basic script: A framed photograph of a person is placed in or near the scene where the individual was killed or last seen. A caption gives the name and title of the person, the place and date of the alleged crime, and the causes for which the individual was fighting. While each photograph highlights one story of struggle, violence, and injustice, the series as a whole makes it clear that these should not be treated as isolated cases. Its intention is to raise awareness about violence and impunity against rights activists in Thailand and at the same time the photographs are created as “a tribute” to the victims, so “that their fight and their death is not forgotten and left un-recognized.”[23] These are photographs referring to violence: The event of violence itself is not captured, nor is the suffering before death or the lifeless body as evidence of violence committed.

The victims are defined as “rurally based and collectively organized environmental and human-rights activists.”[24] The definition serves to communicate that in Thailand, a certain form of political activism is susceptible to a particular form of violence: People are killed or forcefully disappeared for standing up against a more powerful agent. The causes that the victims of the violence fought are of such a nature that state agencies are typically involved at some level, such as the construction of dams, illegal logging, palm-oil plantations, coal factories, and coal-powered plants.

Fig. 2. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Pitak Tonwut, 30, was shot dead close to his village on 17 May 2001. He was a consultant for the Conserve Chompoo network in Nam Maprang District of Phitsanulok Province who protested the impact of a nearby quarry. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.Fig. 2. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Pitak Tonwut, 30, was shot dead close to his village on 17 May 2001. He was a consultant for the Conserve Chompoo network in Nam Maprang District of Phitsanulok Province who protested the impact of a nearby quarry. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.

The categorization of the victims as human rights defenders creates a link between the individuals involved by highlighting the rights claims implied in the broad range of struggles. The categorization also has two other effects. First, it contests any other definition that could be used by the state or in a societal discourse as a legitimizing factor for the violence and the processes of creating impunity: as security threats, for example, as threats to a societal order, as illegal squatters of land, as destroyers of property. Second, the use of the term human rights defenders gives a collective name to the victims. It could be argued that the state not naming a specific type of violence and victims, like forced disappearance, is part of the production of impunity — the erasure from records that could provide evidence of systematic and repetitive violent practices.[25] Thus, the act of framing a political category of the victims is a denominator over time and space and points to systematic and repeated violence.

This can be compared with other photographs used for commemoration and in protest, in which instead it is the event of violence that defines the victims — that is, those who died in the uprising on October 14, 1973, the massacre on October 6, 1976, Black May 1992, or the red-shirt crackdown on April 10, 2010.[26]

Place and Visual Knowledge

Place is one of the main components in the photographs, and I see three aspects of place operating simultaneously. The first is place as a crime scene. Despite the fact that the photographs cannot be seen as evidence in terms of any forensic meaning, place serves to provide the photographs with an element of evidence: A violent crime requires both victim and a crime scene. The second is the geographical location, within the formal jurisdiction of the Thai state — that is, where the Thai state is ultimately responsible for law enforcement, for preventing and investigating criminal activity, and for the respect and protection of human rights. The third is place inscribed with memory or where memory is created through photography.

The photographic technology, expanding the human field of vision and replacing private memory with public recording of places, has shaped our visual knowledge of the world, making it possible to see places distant not only in space but also in time. In the modern Siamese nation-state, as elsewhere, new techniques brought new conceptions of space, and mapping was intimately related to landscape photography.[27] Not only does photography relate to the nation-state through scientific depiction of territory for administrative purposes, but also the visual representation of landscape “is shaped by, and carries within it, multiple articulations of cultural memory and identity.”[28]

A photograph from the past can be used in the present to relate to a place in change (that once was), and a photograph of a place in the present can relate to a past event, despite the absence of the event in the image. Photographs can also take the form of the material trace of a memory, becoming what Pierre Nora calls a lieu de mémoire.[29] Usually these sites of memory are public places, museums, and monuments, and contrast with the memories that do not have such a site. Memory could be understood as a private looking, whereas photography, as an external object, is always potentially public, just as sites of memory are. The photograph can then be a place for memory, and, as John Berger has pointed out, in place of memory.[30]

Explorations of the relationship between place and traumatic memory is a common theme in photography. Ulrich Baer writes about photographs by Dirk Reinartz and Mikael Levin, both of whom have photographed forest clearings that were former Holocaust sites: namely, the extermination camp at Sobibór, in Poland, from Reinartz’s series Totenstille (Deathly Still); and the concentration camp Ohrdruf, in Germany, from Levin’s War Story.[31] The landscape photographs contain no evidence of the sites’ historical purposes, yet Baer argues that these photographs “create a new place of memory for those who are geographically, historically, or culturally removed from the existence of the camps.”[32]

Photographs where absence is in focus to explore memory of violence can also be recognized in Deborah Luster’s series Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish, in which Luster revisits homicide locations in New Orleans.[33] Her photographs are empty of people and annotated with exact location, date, names of the victims, and descriptions of the murders. The text, just as the captions for the photographs by Reinartz and Levin, adds a significant layer of knowledge to the photographs, inscribing them with history.

The photographer Susan Meiselas’s project Reframing History also emphasizes the historical aspect of place and the workings of collective memory after violence. Meiselas, who photographed the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1978–79, returned to Nicaragua in 2004. Working with local communities, Meiselas placed enlarged versions of the photographs in the public spaces where they were originally taken. She then photographed people, some too young to remember, and some old enough to have lived through the period, as they looked at the twenty-five-year-old photographs of the place where they were now standing.[34]

In Duggleby’s photographs, as in Luster’s, Levin’s, and Reinartz’s, the violent event is not captured, yet the images are not dominated by an aesthetic of absence. As does Meiselas, Duggleby engages with the place by bringing a photograph there to evoke, or create, memory in connection to the site.

As part of a project to create an archive and document memories about the massacre at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976, the filmmaker Patporn Phoothong set out to find a gate to an electrical plant in Nakhon Pathom province, where two workers were hanged in 1976.[35] The death of the workers and the photographs of them hanging from the gate that circulated in the press are commonly understood as a prelude to the massacre. Though police officers were identified as the perpetrators, in the end no one was held accountable. The contemporary photograph of the gate, of red iron, in a now deserted industrial landscape overtaken by vegetation, refers to photographs from the past but also emphasizes the indexicality of those photographs: The image of the gate today has little if no meaning without the photographs from the past. It points out to us that just as there is (still) a gate (a place), there was, and still is, a crime without justice.

Fig. 3. Phoothong, Patporn, The Red Gate [pratu daeng], © Patporn Phoothong.Fig. 3. Phoothong, Patporn, The Red Gate [pratu daeng], © Patporn Phoothong.

Thinking about place as a crime scene, as a geographical space in a nation-state, and as a place for memory, Duggleby’s photographs give seemingly “nowhere” places a space in history. These are crime scenes that through the processes of impunity are not supposed to be acknowledged as such. These are places in the jurisdiction of a state that has failed to protect the victims, and failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. These become the places for memory of the individuals and their struggles.

The context for the violence is embedded in the photographic process and reflected in the chosen locations, as described by Duggleby: “Our aim was to place the picture at the exact place of the crime. However, in some of the cases that wasn’t possible because either the place was private property or was too sensitive or dangerous. So in that case we would find a place that was either very close, the other side of the private fence or a location within the same area that resembled the original location.”[36]

These are everyday places in Thailand where you can stand without seeing any indication of the violence that allegedly has taken place there: a road passing by a temple, a pineapple field, outside a home, inside a home, a mangrove forest, a dirt track leading back to the village, a garage, a shophouse. The photographs give the impression that these crimes can happen anywhere at any time, in a public place frequented by people and in remote and deserted places, even at home, in daylight or in the dark, near or far away from state authorities.

A secretary of a farmers federation was shot dead outside government buildings in the northern town of Wang Sapung (see figure 4). Duggleby places his photograph in a lane of a road, a tuk-tuk and motorcycles are driving by, and in the far background, sharp eyes can spot the logo of one of Thailand’s larger rural banks. The lampposts in the middle of the road are decorated with gold paint, signaling that this is an important street. Blurred to the left in the frame is a Thai pavilion, a sala, with gold-ornamented roofs as is customary when it is used for worship. The pavilion stands behind walls decorated with golden garudas (the national emblem), several Thai flags, and a standing royal portrait towering over a large blackboard with writing in white. This is what official places in provincial towns usually look like and a quick Internet search reveals that the sala stands in the compound of the district office, the administrative unit directly under the Ministry of Interior.

Just outside her home, a forty-nine-year-old woman fighting the construction of a container port in her community was shot dead (see figure 5). Her photograph is placed on a road as it leads past a green fence that can be presumed to belong to a private home. Electric poles follow the road that continues in between trees and high vegetation, giving the impression that this is on the outskirts of a town or village, yet beneath the poles is again the Thai flag, now coupled with royal blue flags.

In the majority of photographs in the series, Duggleby has brought a photograph of the victim into a more or less accessible public place, but some of the crimes happened in locations that for one reason or another were closed to the project. One man was abducted from a police station, and thus his portrait (in this case a drawing) is placed in his home. In other cases, the crime happened at home. A man who held a position in the local administration and had been fighting against corruption, illegal logging, and the construction of a dam was shot at home (see figure 6). Working with the effects of lines and light, Duggleby draws the viewer into the home and toward the victim whose photograph is in an open window.

Fig. 4. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Prawien Bunnak was shot dead outside government buildings on 11 July 1995 in Wang Sa Pung town in Loei Province. He was the Secretary of the Farmers Assembly Agricultural Cooperative Federation and was leading a protest against the construction of a large quarry. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.Fig. 4. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Prawien Bunnak was shot dead outside government buildings on 11 July 1995 in Wang Sa Pung town in Loei Province. He was the Secretary of the Farmers Assembly Agricultural Cooperative Federation and was leading a protest against the construction of a large quarry. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.
Fig. 5. Duggleby, Luke, Woman Human Rights Defender Ms. Pawkipa Chalernklin, 49, was shot dead on 14 October 2004 near to her house in Ba Mok District of Ang Thong Province. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.Fig. 5. Duggleby, Luke, Woman Human Rights Defender Ms. Pawkipa Chalernklin, 49, was shot dead on 14 October 2004 near to her house in Ba Mok District of Ang Thong Province. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.
Fig. 6. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Sittichok Tamtecha, member of Surat Thani Provincial Administrative was shot dead at his home on 6 May 1997. He led the protest against the Kangrung dam and managed to stop an illegal logging permit. Further, he fought against corrupt transport infrastructure projects. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.Fig. 6. Duggleby, Luke, Mr. Sittichok Tamtecha, member of Surat Thani Provincial Administrative was shot dead at his home on 6 May 1997. He led the protest against the Kangrung dam and managed to stop an illegal logging permit. Further, he fought against corrupt transport infrastructure projects. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.

With the photograph of a place, Duggleby introduces a visual component to a possible knowledge of violence. The photographs are presented separately in a linear series, not organized chronologically or geographically. Although the Thai state is seldom directly inscribed in the photographs, when seen together the images are like red dots on a map for the onlooker to draw a line between them. Each photograph draws our attention to a single crime scene, but the various locations that make up the series form a visualization of interconnectedness and as such can be seen as a representation of the Thai nation-state.

The Portrait and the Victim in the Thai State

The second component that is repeated throughout the series is the photograph of the “human rights defender” who has died. Like activists bringing photographs of the dead and the disappeared out in the public for commemoration and protest, Duggleby uses photographs that typically would have remained in the private sphere of a family, had no crime taken place. Duggleby describes the process for choosing photographs: “Generally we let the family choose the photo but most often there was only one picture anyway, the photo that had been used at the funeral cremation as is Thai tradition. This tradition is what allowed us to complete the project successfully as most families had a large portrait. However sometimes the family only had an ID photo, especially in the older cases, so we had to scan the ID photo and print an enlarged version ourselves.”[37]

In a study of power and photography in Thailand, Clare Veal looks at portraits produced and disseminated to confirm and enhance a person’s so-called barami – a “charismatic power” that serves as the foundation and legitimization of social and political power in Thai society. Veal argues that the portrait mirrors a societal hierarchy, and the extent to which a portrait is disseminated mirrors a person’s status and power.[38] In the cases of the murdered and disappeared rights activists, sometimes the only photograph of the person is from an ID. The photograph is produced by state authorities with the purpose of registering state subjects. Through the photograph, the state acquires the subject, as Susan Sontag writes: “Through being photographed, something becomes part of a system of information, fitted into schemes of classification and storage”.[39] The ID photo and the funeral portrait confirm that the dead or disappeared person has once been seen and fitted into the order of the state.

Forced disappearance is not a crime in the Thai penal code, and as the body is missing, no conclusion can officially be drawn. The portraits, belonging to the sphere of private commemoration, are placed in spaces accessible to the public: the place where the crime happened, the exhibition in Bangkok, and on the Internet. As such, the portrait reclaims the photographed person’s place and belonging in Thai society. Taken into consideration here is also the fundamental assertion made by Barthes that we cannot deny the being of what has once been in front of the camera.[40] When the state denies the individual’s right to life and justice through violence and impunity, the photograph in Duggleby’s scene talks back at the state — the reproduction of that individual’s photograph in a location that is a place in Thailand is a visual imprint of the being (that once was) in the state.

While the photographs work to create a public memory of individual destinies, they also show that these individuals are part of a context in which they risk anonymization as one among several similar cases. The ID photographs that Duggleby uses in some of the images lack other signs that could inform us about the subject: They are not ornamented with a personalized frame, and there is no name or title inserted over them as in the funeral photographs. One example is the two women “shot and killed while they were on their way to the market.” Their enlarged ID photographs, cropped from the chest and up against a blue background, are placed in low vegetation in what could be a tree plantation. The photograph contains no clues as to where, more precisely, this could be (see figure 7). In Duggleby’s series, the caption informs the onlooker of the person prior to death and at the moment of death: This is Mr. or Ms, who was shot, abducted or last seen on this date, at this place that the person had a relation to, fighting this cause. The captions connote the photographs with a pattern that adds a layer of connectivity among them and also function against anonymization.[41]

Fig. 7. Duggleby, Luke, Women Human Rights Defenders Ms. Montha Chukaew, 54, and Ms. Pranee Bonrat, 50, were shot and killed while they were on their way to a local market on 19 November 2012. They were members of the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT). The SPFT is a landless peasants’ network formed in 2008, campaigning for the right to agricultural land in the Khlong Sai Pattana community, Chaiburi district, Surat Thani province, and other areas in the region. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.Fig. 7. Duggleby, Luke, Women Human Rights Defenders Ms. Montha Chukaew, 54, and Ms. Pranee Bonrat, 50, were shot and killed while they were on their way to a local market on 19 November 2012. They were members of the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT). The SPFT is a landless peasants’ network formed in 2008, campaigning for the right to agricultural land in the Khlong Sai Pattana community, Chaiburi district, Surat Thani province, and other areas in the region. From the For Those Who Died Trying series, 2016, © Luke Duggleby/ Protection International.

Conclusion: Photography and a History of Violence and Impunity

In the beginning of this article, I discussed the potential power of photography in relation to the visibility of violence and impunity in Thailand. On the one hand, there are press photographs of violence as described in the opening scene that make it visible while also reinforcing a state order of violence and impunity. On the other hand, the singular events of such violence tend to become only traces in the archives that risk invisibility in history with memories confined to the private sphere. To avoid decontextualizing and depoliticizing the violence, photographic practices need to thread the individual suffering and the political, historical, or cultural context of that suffering.

With these caveats in mind, I analyzed the photographic series by Luke Duggleby and Protection International. Reading the production of the series against activist photographic practices in Thailand that have a similar intention — to protest violence and to commemorate the victims — I found it useful to analytically distinguish between photographs of violence and photographs referring to violence.

The staged photograph is a signifier of both a crime and a person’s belonging: The photograph of the person placed in a scene indicates a connection between person and place; the ID or funeral photograph indicates the person’s private and institutional relationships. The series, in turn, creates a connection between the separate events over time and space. In the series, the site where the photograph of the victim is placed becomes a place for memory through Duggleby’s documentation. The places are of seemingly no historical significance, yet the photographs refer to a historical continuity, that of the persisting state violence and the subsequent impunity. By placing the victims in a photographic frame of space and time, they and their destinies are symbolically placed in a history that is geographically and juridically bounded by the Thai nation-state. This is not to say that the history of violence cannot transgress the national borders, nor that it is a history exclusive to the Thai state.

Among human-rights activists, there is an expectation that photographs can be “evidence in the historical trial,” as Walter Benjamin wrote. The photographs in Duggleby’s series border the line between research and activism in the production of knowledge and challenge assumptions about the photograph as evidence of a crime, as a historical record, and as a material basis for memory. Although the explicit intentions are to spread awareness and to commemorate the victims and their struggles, I also see the photographic practice as archival. Against a state that does not secure justice for violence, producing and disseminating photographs of or referring to violence can be a way of writing the acts of unaccounted state violence into history.


Karin H. Zackari is a PhD candidate in Human Rights Studies at the Department of History at Lund University, Sweden. Her PhD project concerns the use of photography, by activists and scholars, to write human rights into the history of Thailand. 

Author’s Note: I would like to thank Luke Duggleby, Patporn Phoothong, Lena Halldenius, Malin Arvidsson, Søren Ivarsson, Linus Broström and Preedee Hongsaton for their help.

Notes

    1. Pravit Rojanaphruk, “Photos Suggest Third Mekong Corpse Was Found, Then Lost,” in Khaosod English, January 22, 2019, accessed March 9, 2019, http://www.khaosodenglish.com/news/crimecourtscalamity/calamity/2019/01/22/photos-suggest-third-mekong-corpse-was-found-then-lost/; Jintamas Saksornchai, “Police Deny 3rd Corpse Was Found in Mekong”, in Khaosod English, January 23, 2019, accessed March 9, 2019, http://www.khaosodenglish.com/news/crimecourtscalamity/2019/01/23/police-deny-3rd-corpse-was-found-in-mekong/; “BBC News DNA Confirms 2 Retrieved Murdered Corpses Stuffed and Thrown in the Mekong Aides to Surachai Sae Dan [BBC Ti Khao DNA Yan Sop Thukkha Khwan Thong Yat Thaeng Pun Thing Kong Khonsanit Surachai Sae Dan],” in Thai Rath, January 23, 2019, accessed March 9, 2019, https://www.thairath.co.th/news/foreign/1477553; “Is the corpse floating on the water ‘Surachi Sae Dan’, yes or no? Revealing deep information! Before the DNA evidence [Chai Rue Mai? Sop Loi Nam Khue ’Surachai Sae Dan’ Poet Khomun Leuk! Kon Lakthan DNA Cha Ok].,” in Thai Rath, January 1, 2019, accessed March 9, 2019, https://www.thairath.co.th/news/local/bangkok/1458996.return to text

    2. Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: a political ontology of photography, trans. Louise Bethlehem (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Verso, 2012), 54.return to text

    3. The Thai title as it appeared in the leaflet produced for the exhibition in Bangkok, January 31 to February 5, 2017 [Phueanak to su sitthi manutsaya chon ti tai].return to text

    4. Protection International describes itself as an “international non-profit organization that supports human rights defenders in developing their security and protection management strategies,” accessed January 30, 2019, https://www.protectioninternational.org.return to text

    5. Tyrell Haberkorn, In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018).return to text

    6. Haberkorn, In Plain Sight, 6.return to text

    7. Samson Lim, “Murder! in Thailand's Vernacular Press,” in Journal of Asian Studies 73, no. 02 (2014): 359.return to text

    8. Preedee Hongsaton, “‘Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys’: The Thai State’s Annihilation of Its Enemies” [Chuet Kai Hai Ling Du: Rat Thai Kap Kanthamlai Sattru Duay Nattkam], in Thammasat Journal of History 1, no. 2 (2015): 53–99.return to text

    9. Rosalind Morris discusses the circulation of photographs of violence in the aftermath of the crackdown on democracy protests in Bangkok in May 1992. Rosalind C. Morris, “Photography and the Power of Images in the History of Power,” in Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia, ed. Rosalind C. Morris (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 139–40.return to text

    10. Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 33.return to text

    11. Azoulay, Civil Imagination, 244.return to text

    12. Azoulay discussing Walter Benjamin, in Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 195–96.return to text

    13. Dorfman draws the practice back to Chilean women on a hunger strike in 1977. Ariel Dorfman, “Globalizing Compassion, Photography, and the Challenge of Terror,” in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 9, no. 1 (2007): 2–6.return to text

    14. Klima calls this to protest “in the idiom of funeral,” in Alan Klima, The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 54–57. See also Morris, “Photography and the Power of Images in the History of Power, 121–60.return to text

    15. “Documentation of Oct 6” [banthuek 6 tula], https://doct6.com.return to text

    16. Haberkorn, In Plain Sight, 5.return to text

    17. Haberkorn reads the sources “against the grain” to identify a “hidden transcript.” Haberkorn, In Plain Sight, 10.return to text

    18. The military seized power through a coup d’état on May 22, 2014, and ruled as an interim government through the National Council for Peace and Order until elections on March 24, 2019. For a discussion on the authoritarianism of the regime, see Haberkorn, 2018, 216ff.return to text

    19. In 2016, the exhibition was displayed at the Palace of Nations in Geneva; the European Parliament in Brussels; and Casa de La Juventud, in Pamplona, Spain. Protection International, accessed 08 March 2019, https://www.protectioninternational.org/en/news/those-who-died-trying-photo-exhibition-tour.return to text

    20. Sunai Phasuk, “Thai Lawyer’s ‘Disappearance’ Unsolved 15 Years On: Still No Justice for Somchai Neelapaijit and Other Victims,” Human Rights Watch, March 12, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/11/thai-lawyers-disappearance-unsolved-15-years.return to text

    21. ”For Those Who Died Trying,” Luke Duggleby Photography, accessed May 22, 2019, http://www.lukeduggleby.com/for-those-who-died-trying.return to text

    22. The series will be expanded to include the 1970s. Luke Duggleby, email conversation with author, March 20, 2019.return to text

    23. “For Those Who Died Trying,” Luke Duggleby Photography, accessed May 20, 2019, http://www.lukeduggleby.com/for-those-who-died-trying.return to text

    24. Exhibition folder published by Protection International.return to text

    25. For an in-depth discussion, see Haberkorn, In Plain Sight, 2018, chapter 6.return to text

    26. These are events of mass violence that happened in public in Bangkok and for which no one has been held accountable. The official state version of the events is largely contested by historians and activists. On the anniversaries of the events, activists and relatives of people who were killed or never found again after the events commemorate the dead while also protesting the violence and injustice.return to text

    27. Sing Suwannakij, King and Eye: Visual Formation and Technology of the Siamese Monarchy (PhD diss., University of Copenhagen, 2013), 28ff, 223; for a discussion on the construction of modern conceptions of space in Thailand, see Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press), 1994.return to text

    28. 28 Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan, “Introduction,” in Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, eds. Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003), 3.return to text

    29. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” in Representations 26, no. 26 (1989): 7–24.return to text

    30. Berger, drawing on Susan Sontag, discusses the intimate link between the subject and the photograph as the foundation for photography taking the place of private memory but not preserving meaning. John Berger, “Uses of Photography,” in About Looking, ed. John Berger (New York: Vintage International, 1991 (1978), 52–67.return to text

    31. Dirk Reinartz, “Sobibór: Extermination Camp Grounds,” in Reinartz and Graf von Krokow, Deathly Still: Pictures of Former German Concentration Camps (New York: Scalo, 1995); Mikael Levin, “Nordlager Ohrdruf, 1995,” in Levin, War Story (Munich: Gina Kehayoff Verlag, 1997).return to text

    32. Ulric Baer, “To Give Memory a Place: Holocaust Photography and the Landscape Tradition,” in Representations no. 69 (2000): 55.return to text

    33. Deborah Luster, “Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish,” accessed September 3, 2019, https://www.deborahluster.com/tooth-for-an-eye.return to text

    34. Susan Meiselas, “Reframing History,” accessed September 5, 2019, http://www.susanmeiselas.com/latin-america/nicaragua/#id=reframing-historyreturn to text

    35. Nutcha Tanti, “‘6 Oct’ Looking Behind the Film No.1: Patporn Phoothong about 2 Electricians in the Film ‘Two Brothers’ [‘6 Oct’ Mong Phan Nang No.1: Patporn Phoothong 2 Chang Faifa Nai Nang ‘Song Phi Nong’ ]” Prachathai, October 5, 2017, accessed March 13, 2019, https://prachatai.com/journal/2017/10/73559.return to text

    36. Luke Duggleby, email correspondence with the author, November 21, 2017.return to text

    37. Luke Duggleby, email correspondence with the author, November 21, 2017.return to text

    38. Clare Veal, “The Charismatic Index: Photographic Representations of Power and Status in the Thai Social Order,” in Trans-Asia Photography Review 3, no. 2 (2013): 1–36.return to text

    39. Susan Sontag, On Photography(London: Penguin, 2008), 155–56.return to text

    40. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 76–77.return to text

    41. For a discussion on captions as “connotation,” that is, an imposition of meaning on the photograph, see Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text: Essays, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), 25–27.return to text