On 15 March 2013, for imag(in)e sea #002, I am pleased to have curator Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani present a talk titled “Thai Photography: Between Reality and Ambiguity” at Select Books (Singapore).
She has been kind enough to share a summary of her presentation below. I have re-posted what she has provided without further verification, except some very minor edits to make her points clear.
Since its first appearance during the reign of 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 in 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, 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 identities.
Issues of cultural belonging and Thai-ness, 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.
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 the idiosyncrasy between 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.
Piyarat Piyapongwiwat (b. 1977) and Ohm Phanphiroj (b. 1970), in their respective series Queerness (2012) and Identity Crisis (2007), talk about minorities and social discrimination.
[Piyarat Piyapongwiwat , Queerness, photographic series, 2011]
Despite Thailand having an open attitude towards people of other sexual orientations, bias against gender-related ambiguities still remains. The photo series Queerness focuses on Thai homosexual couples in their intimate and domestic environment.
Ohm 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 open and in full make-up, wearing a smile of fulfillment.
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 during the flood in 2011, Ruangkritya’s series Imagining Flood evokes surrealism 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.
Piyatat 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 in a ghostly realm.
In the works of these young Thai photographers, 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.
 See forthcoming article by Peleggi Maurizio, “The Aesthetics and Politics of Royal Portraiture in Thailand,” Ars Orientalis 43 (2013):
Photographs from imag(in)e sea #002