Ethnographic Photography Workshop
29 Jan to 1 Feb 2016
Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University (TU), Bangkok
First, I wish to thank Samak Kosem from the Center for ASEAN Studies at Chiang Mai University (CMU) for connecting me to Aj Jui Sorayut Aiemueayut (Department of Media Arts and Design, Faculty of Fine Arts, CMU) and Aj Panarai Ostapirat (TU). Aj Panarai has been responsible for putting together this workshop, aided by her colleagues Khun Rapeephan Tan and Aj Waew Kasamaponn.
I co-teach this Special Seminar Class with Aj Jui. Participants include undergrad students (Year Two to Year Four) from the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology at TU. I open the session, on Day One of the class, with a lecture titled Documenting as Method. Using my photographic work and those of other artists whom I have collaborated previously as examples, I propose a more expansive definition of documenting, examining how documenting as method converges and problematises ethnography and anthropology.
After lunch, Aj Jui delivers his lecture, Ethnographic Photography as Social and Cultural Artefact through a series of shifts within the field. To conclude Day One of the class, participants attempt to read and analyse the single images that they have shot or picked from the web beforehand.
We spend the next two days in the “field”. For this seminar class, we have decided to work at Talat Noi, a specific site within the sprawling Bangkok Chinatown. This is an area that is still somewhat familiar to me. I stayed there some eight years back while shooting my first book, Chinatowns in a Globalising Southeast Asia (published by Chinese Heritage Centre, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore).
On Day Two of the class, we have the luxury of being given a tour by local resident-cum-architect Churit Kangwanpoom and other community leaders. After lunch, participants propose the research questions that they hope to address through photography and text. During the two-day field visits, we use River View Guest House and Loftel22 as places where participants consult us on their methodologies and findings.
The last day of the workshop consists of a critique-cum-editing session. It opens with participants offering their interpretations of fellow students’ work. Hopefully, this will help them realise that there is sometimes a gap between their research questions and the photographs that they produce. The editing part is a condensed version of what I usually teach in an editing workshop, helping participants craft their projects in a more coherent manner.
After the workshop, I have an internal discussion with colleagues from TU. This is part of the ongoing process of evolving my pedagogy. Aj Panarai notes that one of the challenges in her class is to get the students to see that their findings are sometimes descriptive rather than offering analysis to their research questions. Since my workshop concerns photography, it is easier for participants to see the gap between their research questions and their photographs (their findings). The editing process helps to surface this issue. Participants can then tweak or change their research questions, just as artists and photographers often rewrite their artistic statements during the creating process. However, as students training to be social scientists, it is more important to emphasise the pertinence of their photographs to the research questions. Unfortunately, the expressive potential of anthropological images, as proposed by Elizabeth Edwards, is not explored in this seminar class.