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Capturing Thai Culture in Photography

Author: Ben Reeves
He is a travel writer and photojournalist working in Phuket. Originally from the UK, he arrived in Thailand by way of Oman.
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If you’ve so much as glanced at a copy of National Geographic at any time in the last few decades, you will know that the publication’s most astounding feature is its photography. There are some good articles, but the words are largely inconsequential because it is the pictures that really speak volumes. If Thai culture photography has ever intrigued you, you’ll enjoy this post with an on the ground perspective.

thai culture photography

The question is this: what makes a Nat Geo photographer different to you or I? These folks are paid to jet off to distant parts and return with A-grade shots, but how is that different to our holiday photos? The techniques they employ are not noticeably different to what you would pick up from photography courses in Bangkok, yet their shots make one of the most famous front covers in the world while yours make the back pages of a family photo album. How come?

There are a number of factors at play here, not least of which is the incomparable level of experience the Nat Geo people have. The really key factor, however, is the intention. You or I may wander around Thailand and document an interesting holiday, but magazines are filled with photos capturing a fascinating Asian culture. Have that as your mission, and approach it correctly, and the rest is just technical know-how.

What is Culture?

The most important part of your photographic mission is planning. That’s what makes the difference between documenting a holiday and capturing a culture. Your plan will need to be fairly detailed as you’re trying to visualise thousands of years of history, society and life in general. You’re probably going to need more than a Post-It note’s worth of ideas!

Ok, so we’re obviously going to need to simplify things slightly. We can start by identifying the important pillars of Thai culture – the bits that we need to show in order to properly represent life here, filtering out the things we cannot realistically photograph in the process. We need to pick out the things which make Thailand Thailand.

Thai Culture Photography – What is Thailand?

There is absolutely no denying that there is a significant difference between the general impression most tourists have of Thailand and the reality that expatriates and, indeed, the Thais themselves live with. A great example came from the media company I worked for in Pattaya. The drive-time radio DJ was actually UK-based but still did live shows from there (thanks to the miracle of the internet). He found the fact that the station was obliged to play the Thai national anthem at 6pm everyday kind of quaint and wanted, at one point, to try singing along on air.

It took quite some time to explain to this DJ the HUGE social gaff that this would have been. I think he eventually got the point when it was explained to him that not only would we definitely lose our broadcasting license and probably all of our Thai staff, but that we might also lose our freedom and maybe an important limb of two. There are two things in Thailand you just don’t play around with – Buddha and the Royal Family. So, we have our first two pillars of Thai culture.thai culture photography

What else? What is quintessentially Thai? Thai food, Thai jasmine rice, Thai massage, Thai boxing, Thai silk – again, these are all well known around the world and are certainly worthy of photographing, but several of these are not part of your average Thai’s everyday life.

Take a walk down a Bangkok street or a ride on the BTS and look around you at Thai culture in action. thai culture photography

You’re sure to see people on their smart phones, snacking from street vendors and little local restaurants, shopping at the market or hanging out with their friends at one of the big malls.

It’s a very social society, with chatting and laughing and generally being together being very important. There is a lot more to it than pretty temples and tuk tuks, and it is your job to express that in pictures.

Thai Culture Photography – Plan Your Shots

You now have a general idea of the culture you want to capture, though there is a lot more to it than just the few aspects I have mentioned above. You now need to work your way from the general to the specific. How are you going to visualise these concepts, many of which are quite abstract?

thai culture photography

An important part of it is people. A culture only exists because of the people who practise it, so get used to the idea of taking lots of pictures of complete strangers. Street photography is going to be a big part of capturing Thai culture since so much of it happen there.

An Example

Let’s take a case study to show you the process: Religion plays a very important role in Thai culture. The great temples are a major part of that, but the majority of the people you see around the more significant ones in Bangkok are foreign tourists. Tourism is also a big deal in Thailand, but it is not exactly what you’d call part of the culture.

Instead, hit the streets early – well before most tourists have risen. I love walking through a city at stupid o’clock (though, not being a morning person, it is not something I indulge very often). I visited Mumbai some years ago and the flight arrived at just after dawn, so my friends and I were able to watch people washing their faces and brushing their teeth in the street or doing Tai Chi by the Gateway to India – remarkable insights into the real local culture. The same applies in Thailand, where the early bird catches the monks collecting alms, which is a far better representation of Thai culture than any tourist attraction.thai culture photography

Thai culture photography is full of colourful traditions, fancy robes and unusual dances and all of the finery which makes the tourists coo. There is no denying that these things are part of the history and culture, but think carefully about the context you are seeing it in. For example, I’ve seen traditional Thai dancing in a number of restaurants and in a huge parade during Songkran in Chiang Mai. One of these, I would consider a great Thai culture photography. The other is a holiday snap.

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