Thai Photography: reality and ambiguity

An online exhibition curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani

 

“ It is difficult to say whether or not there is a real Thai photography movement right now since a lot of us
[Thai Photographers] are highly influenced by world culture, even though our subject may be local”.
– Miti Ruangritya

 

             Since its first appearance with King Mongkut, photography in Thailand has been adopted as a medium that is receptive to selected realities, being one of the means to authenticate and dignify the royalty.

King Mongkut, or King Rama IV (1851–1868), was the first Thai king to be photographed (in accordance to the Khmer traditions images of Lord Buddha were used to represent the king in life and death). Photographic images of King Mongkut were taken by the first missionaries in Thailand and were not intended for the local public but to be disseminated internationally.

His son King Chulalongkorn, or King Rama V (1868–1910), embraced the medium even more. His photographs became very popular thus available to more people than before in Thailand and the West and in this way initiate photography as a way to authenticate the royalty.

King Bhumibol became the current monarch in 1951 at the end of a long period of fictitious monarchies (after the change to constitutional monarchy in 1932 and the abdication of King Rama VII in 1935). He together with his young wife travelled extensively while being photographed, bringing a breath of fresh air to the Thai monarchy and its image.

While the use of photography by the previous monarchs was a way to connect them to modernity, the widespread use of royal images with King Bhumibol progressively reinforced the monarchy itself. The lèse majesté law (since 1909 henceforth kept in all revisions of the constitution) helped discourage affront to the monarchy, whether verbally, in writing or in imagery, thus contributing “iconic value” to the images of King Bhumibol.

Decades of political instability and national issues have morphed the role of photography, which entered the realm of art at the turn of the twentieth century, from sole representation of the monarchs to the representation of the nation, intended as the individual search for national, social and global identity.

Issues of cultural belonging and Thainess, migration and dislocation, social minorities and discrimination are approached by young Thai photographers questioning the essence of photography by exploring its inherent ambiguity—or multiplicity—in the representation of reality.

 

Migration and Social Dislocation

Artists Maitree Siriboon (b. 1983) and Tada Hengsapkul (b. 1987) approach themes such as migration and dislocation in their photographic essays.

In Isarn Boy Dream (2007) Siriboon invited foreigners to visit his hometown in Isaan, thus uncovering the diaspora of Isarn people to Bangkok and their idiosyncrasy with the local and foreign inhabitants.

In his recent exhibition PARADE (2013) Hengsapkul renounces his faith in the nation and in the ideal of national identity. His images are staged in a simplistic manner not claiming technical perfection but spontaneity.

 

Minorities and Social Discrimination

Piyarat Piyapongwiwat (b. 1977) and Hom Phanphiroj (b. 1970) in their series Queerness (2012) and Identity Crisis (2007), respectively, talk about minorities and social discrimination.

In spite of Thailand having an open mind towards people with sexual diversity, bias against gender-related ambiguities still remains. The photograph series Queerness focuses on Thai homosexual couples in their intimate and domestic environment.

Hom Phanphiroj started Identity Crisis in 2007 as a documentary survey of transsexuals and transvestites, presented in a triptych format. The first of the three mug shots shows the subject without make-up, eyes closed, a hint of embarrassment rising from his/her features. The second shot of the subject is taken with the eyes closed, waiting for the transformation, and the last shot shows the subject with eyes opened and full make-up, wearing a smile of fulfillment.

 

Global Photography to Reflect Universal Preoccupations

Miti Ruangkritya (b. 1981) and Piyatat Hemmatat (b. 1976) in their respective series Imagining Flood (2011) and 11:11 (2012) focus on universal preoccupations.

Contextualized in Bangkok during the flood Ruangkritya’s series Imagining Flood evokes surrealism in the progression of the water in central Bangkok. Yet the photographic essay is detached from the city, which it references, though embracing a universal sense of fearful anticipation, dread and stillness.

Pyatat Hemmatat’s photographic work 11:11 immerses the viewer in the pure experience of light and shadow, where material and immaterial forms appear and disappear as in a ghostly realm.

Photography is no longer used as a medium to authenticate the royalty or to represent a selective reality but to project the multiple realities of Thailand, the nation and the monarchy.

 

Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani is an independent art curator and part-time lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts. She has a master’s degree in Asian Art Histories and collaborates with several university journals, art magazines and symposium publications. Currently based in Singapore, her curatorial work focuses primarily on young and emerging artists from Thailand and Singapore, enabling the public to access this talent pool through reputable commercial and institutional art venues in Singapore as well as Bangkok. Her academic research revolves mostly around contemporary art in Thailand.