The Vegetarian Festival just ended in Thailand. The festival is celebrated in Chinese communities throughout Thailand. Bangkok generally gets dismissed as a Veg Fest destination but with hundreds of thousands of Thais of Chinese ancestry in Bangkok, it’s mostly a matter of knowing where to go to enjoy the Vegetarian Festival.
The temple is a part of Bangkok’s history though. The Chao Phraya River used to be Thailand’s gateway to the world. The tall ships and 19th century steamers dropped anchor and unloaded their freight at piers along the river. Foreign embassies were along the riverfront. Chinese junks used to drop anchor near a pier at what is now Wat Yannawa. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Thailand made landfall at that pier. In some ways, it’s Thailand’s “Ellis Island.” Because of its role in the Chinese influx into Thailand it hosts one of the city’s better Vegetarian Festival ceremonies.
I’ve always consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to photographing religious and cultural events in Thailand. Whether it’s Buddhist events, like Vesak or Hindu events like the Ganesh Festival or Muslim holidays like Eid al Adha or any of the many cultural events here, I’ve always been able to cover them pretty much the way I want to.
I call it “luck” but that’s not really accurate. Even though I don’t plan it out, I try to pay attention to local customs and respect local traditions. And although I’m not a very patient person or one who’s good at “hanging out” and seeing what happens, sometimes that’s exactly what it takes.
I went to Wat Yannawa in search of Vegetarian Festival events. I had seen banners advertising the Vegetarian Festival on walls near the temple so I wandered down there not knowing what to expect. I got down there about 1.30PM and planned to just hang out. Because I wanted to photograph religious events I was dressed in white – white slacks and a white shirt (Buddhists traditionally wear white when they go to temples for religious ceremonies).
When I cover a religious or cultural event I dress appropriately.
I chose to wear white not because I wanted to camouflage myself or pass myself off as a Buddhist, which would have been dishonest and, with my cameras, pointless. People would have seen through the subterfuge in a second. Wearing white was about respect. I didn’t want to disrespect the people I was photographing.
A crowd was gathering for the food distribution and people were praying at shrines set up in the parking lots specifically for the Festival. I’ve been photographing Vegetarian Festival events all week in Bangkok, so I didn’t photograph very much at this time. I mostly watched.
In the middle of the afternoon a truck delivered a big load of charcoal and dropped it in the middle of a parking lot. I took that as a good sign because firewalking ceremonies are held on beds of burning charcoal. The prayer services ended and I was getting ready to go outside the temple to get a bite to eat when a couple invited me to join them at their table for the vegetarian banquet that was coming.
They didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak Thai, but we enjoyed a great meal of Thai-Chinese vegetarian dishes like stewed duck (with tofu playing the role of the duck), and pork (with tofu playing the role of the pork). It’s a good thing I like tofu because I ate a lot of it at the Vegetarian Festival banquet.
After dinner people gathered for another prayer service and procession. The procession circled the parking lot (which had been turned into a large shrine) three times, each time around the parking lot people stepped over a small pot of burning coals. A couple of tourists showed up halfway through the procession.
This is where dressing appropriately pays off. They were dressed in shorts and tee shirts. One of the attendants at the service asked them to stay at the edge of the ceremony while I was allowed to wander freely and photograph. While he was talking to them, he specifically pointed at their clothes. They stayed for about 10 minutes but left before the main event started.
The procession ended with a clash of cymbals and people moved over to the fire pit. A few men and women lined up at the end of the fire pit while men tending the fire stirred the coals and sprayed it with alcohol (to keep things toasty).
Then men and women ran through the coals. The whole time I photographed freely.
I tried to be as respectful as I could. Showing respect at an event like this is a complicated equation. I am there to photograph it but I don’t want to interfere or lessen the experience for the participants. At the same time, I need to make pictures that accurately capture the emotion and reality of what’s going on around me.
Showing respect means sometimes using lenses longer than I normally would – at this firewalking ceremony I mostly used my 50mm and 100mm lenses when I normally would have used my 24mm and 40mm lenses. It meant moving to a vantage point that was not as clean as I would have liked because the best vantage point would have obstructed the view of participants.
Covering events like this is frequently as much about overcoming obstacles as it is pushing the shutter button. It’s about dressing appropriately, being patient and working respectfully.
One of the things I’ve noticed while I’m leading workshops is that when people find something they want to photograph, they tend to make one or two photos and then move onto something else.
Back in the days of film, every frame we exposed cost money, the film, something we had a limited supply of, cost money and processing cost money. It was easy to spend $15 (US) on a roll of 36 exposure film and processing.
The economics with digital are completely different. Yes, memory cards cost money and they hold a finite number of exposures. But memory cards are reusable, and the number of frames they hold is an order of magnitude higher than the number of exposures on a roll of film. I carry eight 8 gigabyte cards with me when I go out with my 16 megapixel Micro 4:3 camera. Each cards holds approximately 300 frames, or more than 8 rolls of 36 exposure 35mm film. We are not bound by the same limits we were when we worked with film.
Now, the biggest expense we incur when we travel for photography is the getting there. With digital, the actual photography part is nearly free (I know, we’ve spent money on cameras, lenses, cards etc, but those are one time expenses, not ongoing ones like film was). We owe it to ourselves as photographers to fully explore a scene and make the most of the situation.
This doesn’t mean setting motor drive to 10 frames per second, leaning on the shutter button and blasting through gigabytes of card storage. It does mean exploring the scene, working it different lenses and lighting. Looking for the perfect moment, when your subject’s eyes are open (or closed if that’s what you’re going for), the right expression and the best composition.
I recently photographed the Thai Prime Minister before his first cabinet meeting. The event I was photographing lasted roughly 4.5 minutes. The PM came out to a shrine, said some prayers and walked back to his office. That was it.
In that time, using three cameras, I made just over 100 frames. I used three cameras because I don’t use zooms. I needed multiple focal length lenses but there wasn’t time to change lenses so I photographed with three lenses on three cameras. I used a 280mm lens (a 200mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter) for the long photos of the PM walking to the shrine and very tight portraits. I used a 100mm lens for photos of the PM praying and I used a 50mm lens for wider pictures of the PM walking around the shrine. If I used zooms, I would have used just two cameras but it would not have been possible to cover this event they way I wanted to cover it with just one camera.
I didn’t mindlessly motor through the event. In fact, I set my cameras to the slower settings (four frames per second) specifically because I didn’t want to mindlessly motor. But I was “working” the entire time the PM was at the shrine. Jockeying for a position among the other photographers, working different lenses to get different perspectives. Some pictures made with flash on (for fill flash) but most with flash off. Worried about making sure the PM had his eyes open etc.
I did not check my cameras’ LCDs while I was working. That would have been too much of a distraction. I did, before the PM came out for his moment, make test exposures with each camera and lens so I knew everything was working but once the event started I focused on making pictures.
You may not be photographing the Prime Minister or some other celebrity but you owe it to yourself to work the scene or whatever you’re photographing every bit as hard as you would if you were photographing the PM (or whatever subject you’re passionate about). And don’t worry about getting every frame perfect. We learn from our mistakes, so if you’re satisfied with every frame, you’re either a) an amazing photographer or b) not pushing yourself hard enough.
Summer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is nearly over, but it’s never to late to start a summer reading list.
Photography books don’t usually end up in the “going to the beach bag” and if these books don’t make your summer reading list, they’re perfect for those nights when you stay in. These are a few of the photography books I consider essential. They absolutely reflect my interest in photojournalism and street photography. There are no academic discussions on the merits of photography, like Susan Sontag’s “On Photography.” Nor are there picture books of cats, dogs or unicorns. My selection of photography books reflects the reality of the world around us.
Most of these books are available at Amazon but I am going to ask you, if you decide you’d like to spend time with one of them, rather than buy from Amazon scour your local used bookstores (most of them are out of print) or speciality book stores before you shop at Amazon.
Almost anything by William Albert Allard. Allard has been a National Geographic photographer for almost 50 years. He’s also a gifted writer. At one time or another, I’ve had most of his books but two I especially recommend are “The Photographic Essay” and “Portraits of America.” Portraits of America is a collection of his pictures made in America. There’s a timeless quality to the photos. The Photographic Essay is the only how-to book on the list, but it’s not so much a how to as it is an exploration of the thought process that goes into a photo essay.
Dancing on Fire by Maggie Steber. Documents her time covering the situation in Haiti in the 1980s. This pictures reflect a view of Haiti that’s not often seen. The brutality of the time is here but so is a Haiti of incredible spirituality and beauty. The pictures in this book will put you in Port au Prince circa 1986.
Telex Iran by Gilles Peress. All of the books on this list are a product of their time. But Telex Iran especially reflects the late 1970s. Iran was in a state of revolution, the Shah had fled and Ayatollah Khomeini was remaking Iran. This book is full of beautiful, sometimes jarring, black and white photos.
It also has the telegrams and telexes between Peress, his editors and magazines he was working for. His contact sheets, with editing notes are in here.
Now when we think of multimedia, we think of audio, video, maybe recordings of Skype calls or emails. But in 1979 none of that was possible. Telex Iran was the multimedia of its time, before multimedia was a thing.
This is also the most expensive book on this list. Used copies of Telex Iran go for about $140 (US). New copies for up to $850 and “collectible” copies (I don’t know how collectible differs from new) for an eye popping $2,800. If you stumble upon a copy of Telex Iran in your explorations of local bookstores snap it up.
Tim Page rocketed to fame for his coverage of the wars in Indochina.
He worked his way through mainland Asia (not as a photographer) and ended up in Laos where he started photographing the then “secret war.” After making an exclusive series of photos of an attempted coup in Vientiane, Laos, he was hired by United Press International, transferred to Saigon and, barely out of his teens, produced some of the most iconic photography of the war years.
This is the most straight forward photojournalism book on this list.
There aren’t many books on this list that can be credited with restarting a travel industry, but Cuba, by David Alan Harvey can. Harvey had virtually unlimited access to Cuba for a while in the late 1990s and created this masterpiece for National Geographic.
Americans are barred from freely traveling to Cuba because of a US imposed travel embargo (technically, travel to Cuba is not prohibited but spending money there is, it’s enforced through the Trading With The Enemy Act. “Trading with the Enemy” is another excellent non photographic book about Cuba) and this book whetted the appetites of thousands of Americans who wanted to experience the forbidden country 90 miles south of Key West. It started the trend of photo workshops in Cuba, led by Harvey, Allard, Steber and other photographers and was the only way many Americans could travel to Cuba without breaking the law (because educational and cultural trips were permitted under the terms of the embargo).
This is a very short list of the photo books that I most enjoy. If you see one of them in your local bookstore, pick it up, enjoy and be inspired.
Although many tend to think of photography primarily as a way to show people what they saw, I have to agree with the famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh who at the close of his commercial career recalled his overall approach of always being aware that “the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.”
There are no formulas for this, no shortcuts although some have said that we should spend equal time observing and thinking as we do in making pictures. For me this has been a good place to start. All too often we head out with a camera and just photograph whatever tickles our fancy. This is a good approach if we are practising our craft, something akin to musical scales which are not to be confused with the real performance. To make really good photographs, we need to approach our photography with more than just what we see.
Many artists will tell you to carry a notebook and with good reason. Ideas can pop into your head at any time through a thought or an observation and you need to write them down as they occur because they can disappear as fast as they came into your head. I used to think that if something was a really good idea, there was no way I would forget it. Sadly I think many a good revelation has been fleeting because of my lack of discipline in carrying around a notebook. Writing down ideas at the moment of their conception will allow you to forget about them and to come back later and see a connection which can point you in a direction. You will only record a thought or an idea because it meant something to your heart or your mind. That is not to say everything you write down is going to be good or even directly useful but what you write in your notebook will create a map for what you are thinking and what is important to you.
The really good ideas for your photography happen slowly. They need time to incubate and percolate before they can take a form that is both useful and instructive for you. The best ideas will reveal themselves because when you encounter them again through your notebook, you will have the same or a similar feeling as the first time they came to you. The not-so-good ideas won’t resonate in the same way.
One of the best tools I have found that works for me is the virtual notebook. I use the program Evernote to record ideas, thoughts, pictures and links I want to remember. It is on my desktop computer and the information syncs to the app that is on my iPhone and my iPad. Information is organized according to “Notebook” but there is an added benefit of being able to use tags so I can connect articles I’ve read to current or potential photography projects and more. Using a virtual notebook is also good if you are prone to losing your notebook.
I used think of notebooks as a bit pretentious but now that I am using them on a regular basis I wonder how I would have remembered half as much as I record in them. For photographers who subscribe to Karsh’s view of making pictures, notebooks are essential and you can never have too many of them.
Most of the stories I work on are ones I assign to myself. I read something in a local newspaper or stumble on something on the internet that piques my interest, do some research and start photographing. Sometimes it’s a news event, like the exodus (and subsequent return) of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Sometimes it’s an issue related story, like drought in Thailand. Other times, it’s just fun stuff. Sometimes it just takes a lot of “sticktoitiveness” to get the story done.
Chinese opera definitely falls into the fun category. This is Ghost Month in Chinese communities around the world. Thailand has a large Chinese community and Chinese holidays, like the Chinese New Year or the Vegetarian Festival, are usually cause for a big celebration here.
Chinese opera, called “ngiew” in Thailand, is popular and I thought that Ghost Month would be a great opportunity to photograph some Chinese opera. The problem with photographing Chinese opera, though, is finding one. It’s not that the operas are secret, but they’re held at small Chinese shrines and temples and they are not usually advertised. They’re as much religious as they are entertainment and announcement of a coming Chinese opera is usually limited to posters in the temples. The posters are frequently in Chinese, which for me is a problem because while I don’t read Thai I can get it translated. But Chinese? It’s all Greek to me.
I’ve photographed a couple of Chinese operas since coming to Thailand. If I can, I collect contact information from every opera I go to, but it’s always been a challenge to pin down the exact time and location of a Chinese opera.
Last month I started sending emails and making some calls on Chinese opera. I contacted an opera “source” who had always been very helpful. She told me there were probably no Chinese operas in Bangkok for Ghost Month because Chinese opera during Ghost Month was not a big part of the Thai Ghost Month tradition. She told me that most of the Thai Chinese opera troupes went to Malaysia for Ghost Month, but that a couple of opera troupes might be performing in Bangkok and told me at which shrines they might be performing.
So I put on my walking shoes and went on a research mission. I went to a Chinese shrine on the riverfront in the Dusit district. No one in the temple spoke English but iPhone to the rescue. I showed people in the temple pictures I had on my iPhone from other Chinese operas I photographed and used the Translate app to ask about opera. People in the temple liked the photos and thought the app was amusing. But said no, they had no opera for Ghost Month. They did say they had one coming in December. I added that to my calendar but left disappointed.
Then I went down to Chinatown and Talat Noi and wandered through the alleys and shrines looking for evidence of a Chinese opera. It was nice but fruitless stroll. I found no operas.
My last stop was a small shrine in a neighborhood behind Chulalongkorn University, between MBK shopping center and Hua Lamphong train station. My opera “source” said there had been Chinese operas in the neighborhood for Ghost Month in years past but the neighborhood was being torn down (urban renewal Bangkok style) and she wasn’t sure if the neighborhood shrine was still open.
On my first visit the shrine was deserted. It was open, candles and incense burning inside, but there was no one there and no sign of a coming opera. Although the shrine is still open, the neighborhood around it is being razed to make way for condominiums and shopping malls, which I took as a bad sign.
On a whim I went back to shrine over the weekend. There were a couple of new posters in the shrine in Chinese but more importantly there was a charming woman who thought it was quite nice that a foreigner had wandered into her temple. (This is way, way off the tourist trail.) I started the whole iPhone translate routine of asking about Chinese opera and she said, “you want to photograph a Chinese opera?” In English.
I told her that I did, that I was a journalist working on a story about Chinese opera and Ghost Month and asked if she knew of any Chinese opera. She said her shrine was having a Chinese opera in 18 days. That didn’t seem right because it would take us out of Ghost Month so we hunted down a calendar and I counted ahead 18 days. While I was counting, she stopped me at August 18 and said “Here. In 18 days.” And I said, “you mean on August 18?” She pointed to the poster (which was in Chinese) and said, “yes, August 18.”
Yesterday I went down to the shrine. There was a small stage blocking the street in front of the shrine. It was the Chinese opera I was looking for and the performers couldn’t have been nicer. When I started photographing they thought I was just going to make a couple of snapshots and leave. After about 90 minutes, they realized that I was in this for the long haul. So they pulled up a chair for me, offered me dinner and regaled me with stories about their lives in greasepaint. Of course, no one spoke English and I speak neither Thai nor Teochow (Chinese) so our conversation was limited to my laughing and nodding but it was a great evening and good experience. All thanks to a healthy amount of sticktoitiveness.
One of the things I like to do when I’m photographing is layer my images, usually by framing them so you’re eye travels around the picture from foreground to background. Sometimes there’s a big element of luck involved, in the top picture, for example, I was riding at the front of the bus, photographing the driver and some of the passengers when we passed another bus. I looked over and made one frame and the moment, where everything lined up so well, was gone.
Sometimes the framing works on multiple levels. In the picture above, the drummer’s warm skin tones are picked up with the red in the cart, at the same time, the yellow embroidery in his shirt mimics the yellow accent colors on the cart and the banners hanging over the street.
I photographed demolition workers tearing down a neighborhood of cheap bars, run down hotels and faded cabaret theaters in Bangkok (it’s being turned into another high end shopping mall) and I liked the way the entrance to a theater framed the work going on inside.
When I’m photographing, I use the layered approach as much as I can. It adds depth to the photo and helps set up a way for the viewers’ eye to wander around the frame.
One of the things I like to do is spend time as a tourist in my own town. Literally. Every so often I will join a walking tour and let someone take me around and show me the sights. I sling my camera around my neck like any self-respecting tourist and with a new set of eyes I begin to appreciate things I seem to miss living here every day.
Walking tours are usually inexpensive and are led by knowledgeable hosts who are frequently well connected. Often when you arrive at stops along the way, you are taken behind the scenes and you are given the opportunity to make photographs you might not otherwise have. The tour host will have a good relationship with the people you meet since they see them on a regular basis and you might even parlay that into a story later on.
Here are a couple of photographs I made while on a tour of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
We visited a Chinese bakery and were treated to some fresh baked buns at the front of the store. It was only when the owner invited us into the back that we were able to photograph the people preparing the buns and then taking them out of the ovens. That kind of access in Chinatown is almost unheard of unless you know someone there. We also stopped at a local traditional medicine store and were given free range to photograph inside and to ask as many questions as we wanted. This is a great way to do research for future stories or to get ideas for a new photographic project.
Ten months ago I moved to a new part of town and last weekend I joined a walking tour of the village where I now live. The Boardwalks, Barrooms and Boats tour cost me $5 (yes that’s right, just $5) and I was the only participant. The guide was very open to giving me the usual talking points but because we were on our own, he was able to go off script and I could ask him anything I wanted. During this tour I didn’t make a single picture with my camera although I did carry it with me. Instead I used the opportunity to collect more information helpful to my long-term photographic project on the village plus I came away with a few new ideas.
The Bangkok Photo School offers private workshops that appeal to those who are just visiting the city for a few days but you can also be a tourist in your own town. There is an option to bring together 3 to 6 of your photography friends and we can take you around for a day or half a day. For more information, visit us here.