Photo: BANGKOK – Urban Identities, Phra Sumen Fort, Santipachaiprakan Park, © Peter Nitsch 2011
What is your philosophy as a photographer?
As I have a strong interest in Asia I would describe it with the words of Rabindranath Tagore: “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.” For me and my personal work it is important to see the image before I make it and this “process” takes some time. Digital photography has made it easy for photographers to take thousand of pictures, but within those thousand pictures one can get lost and loose the sense-perception of photography, ‘painting with light’. Photography is a lifetime process of seeing and I‘m still learning.
According to your biography, your work mainly communicates “the conflict between Thai identity and the globalized living conditions”. The Thai installation artist Surasi Kusolwong, who is mainly known for his works about social interaction over economic exchange in modern consumer society, said the following in regards to “the consequences of globalization on the people (in Bangkok) and their cultural tradition.”(1):
“We are good at adapting but sometimes we are too open. However, in general, we are not worried about this kind of globalization, we just flow flexibly and use it in our own way, meaning and understanding…”(2)
How would you describe “Thai identity” and the globalized living conditions?
The Kingdom of Thailand or Kingdom of Siam is the only nation in Southeast Asia which has never been colonized by the westerner. Most of the population is Buddhist of Theravada School. The country has a long tradition of agriculture such as growing rice, vegetable, fruits, gum trees and palm oil. Between 1985 and 1995 Thailand experienced rapid economic growth and became the new industrialized country. With the ongoing westernization and globalization Thai people – mostly the new generation, the youngster – want to take part as well in the economic growth. But I think many people now realize that the consumerist paradigm isn’t sustainable from an ecological and sociological standpoint.
His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej has introduced the philosophy of sufficiency economics‘ 30 years ago to the Thai society. The sufficiency economy theme‘s relevance can be understood at several levels. At individual levels, they provide a sensible approach to economic life and are also helpful at firm and community levels. Nationally, the themes are highly relevant for countries adjusting to rapidly changing global environments. Sufficiency means to have enough to live on. Sufficiency also means to lead a reasonably comfortable life, without excess, or overindulgence in luxury, but enough. Some things may seem to be extravagant, but if it brings happiness, it is permissible as long as it is within the means of the individual, which I think is the only way out.
Photo: BANGKOK – Urban Identities, Siam Square, © Peter Nitsch 2011
I have never been to Thailand myself and my conception of the country relies heavily on photography and media. Your documentary work offers the viewer a delightfully intimate peek into the everyday life on the streets of Bangkok. Since Thailand has gained a reputation as a hub for excessive sexual behavior, which is not at all present in your work, I feel that your work is important in terms of bringing forth a broader understanding of Thai culture. How big is the sex industry in Thailand?
You‘re right. Well, you‘ve mentioned it. Ask someone about Thailand and he will tell you about sex tourism or sandy beaches, ask someone about New York and he will tell you about art, design, creativity and many other positive things. The sex tourism industry in Thailand came with the American G.I.‘s during the Vietnam war. The US used Thailand as a hub to Vietnam and to heal their wounds from the war. This is how Thailand gained international notoriety among travelers from many countries as a sex tourism destination. Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although in practice it is tolerated and partly regulated. The sex industry isn‘t much bigger than in any other country, it‘s just MADE bigger than it actually is by word-of-mouth. Thailand has a lot more to offer, the people and the country are so creative.
Photo: Shophouses – 4 x 8 m Bangkok, Hair Salon, © Peter Nitsch 2011
You live and work in Munich and Bangkok with design and photography. What brought you to Thailand initially?
My interest in Asia has been there since I was a child. At that time I had a strong interest in Chinese films, which I never lost, and it developed into a strong interest into Bangkok. Speaking about Chinese films at that time, you have to keep in mind that there was no Internet or mobile phones at all and the only hub to the world in our village was the video rental store. I went there nearly every day looking for something new and from that on I grew the interest in Asian films.
Your series “SHOPHOUSES”, which can be enjoyed in your monograph “Shophouses – 4 x 8 m Bangkok”, depicts commercial spaces cluttered with both personal belongings and items that are for sale. The Hair Salon with a big fridge bombarded with colorful stickers, potato peels gathered on a blanket on the floor and a laundry basket suggest that the space is filling many functions! I understand from the description of the series on Wikipedia (“… For many of them the mostly two-storey shop, that on the lower level is open to the street, is workplace and living space in one….”) that these shops are highly personalized because the shop owners reside on the second floor. I imagine whole families living together and children, uncles and aunties walking in and out of the commercial space; is this correct?
Yes, that‘s true and I like the stickers on the fridge as well. The big one says “Haeng Haeng Haeng” in Thai, which means “Luck, Luck, Luck”. The SHOPHOUSES photographs are arrangements that have developed from the necessities of everyday life and work in one limited space, which is mostly 4 x 8 m. I wanted the observer to be drawn in at eye level. I wanted to take a deep, satisfying look to immerse myself in the rich colors, the confusion of cheap junk and traditional treasures, the clever forms of self-marketing and idiosyncratic living arrangements and simultaneously insist on maintaining a distance in order to preserve everyone’s dignity: Both the observer and the observed.
Talking about the “Hair Salon”, the main image of the series, I wanted to give the viewer a real impression on such a situation with the time-lapse. Whilst the people are getting nice haircuts, the owner of this mamma and papa house is preparing food for her lunch. You can see the potato peelings lying on the floor in the final fine-art photography at time code 02:46 – which is permanently exhibited in the entrance at the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bangkok – shown at the end of the time-lapse.
Photo: Shophouses – 4 x 8 m Bangkok, Frame Maker © Peter Nitsch 2011
The photograph “Frame Maker” suggests a very peaceful moment in the life of a frame maker, who is seated in the back room with a bare chest. It looks like he is talking to you; what did he say?
It looks very peaceful, but just behind me you‘ll have the sky train and a 4-lane street passing this shop house near the Emporium Shopping Mall. He didn‘t talk to me in that situation, although it looks like he does. But we have been talking afterwards.
In great contrast to the personal and intriguing interiors in the “SHOPHOUSES” series, we are shown the sales people in the malls of Bangkok during the moments between customers in “Wait for Service”; some are thoughtful, others are emotional. I am curious to know which series came first, unless you were working on them simultaneously and how you see them working in relation to each other.
I started the “Wait for Service” series two years ago, some months later than the SHOPHOUSES. It‘s an ongoing urban study. I wanted to show the complete opposite site of Thailand – compared to the warm and peaceful family business in SHOPHOUSES – the glamorous and commercial world that is build upon manpower, manpower and manpower. The buzzing malls and their customers seem to flow in a rhythm that sets the pace, but whilst looking at the salesperson the mall comes to a standstill for a brief moment, they wait for service the customer. I wanted to picture those moments of great authenticity when the salesperson feel unobserved, waiting, lost in thought or deep in conversation, staring at nothing and the mall holds its breath for a moment.
Photo: Wait for Service, Bangkok, © Peter Nitsch 2011
How would you describe your creative process?
For my personal fine-art photography and documentary work, I always start with text sketches writing down my concept. Leave it for some days and then get back to it, correct it and finalize the script. Then when I go out to take the images, I try to forget all about the concept and just try to feel and see the images. The idea is still in my mind, but without thinking too much when shooting. I believe that the translation from concept to final without tracing helps me correct my mistakes as I go.
Do you think that new technology is mainly to the advantage or disadvantage of fine art photography?
I think it‘s an advantage. You can‘t change the process of modernization, so I decided for myself to embrace it. As I learned from Milton Glaser, while he was talking about fear of failure: “You have to embrace the failure … this is the only way out …”
Photo: DANGER – Never Open When Hot, © Peter Nitsch 2011
Photo: DANGER – Never Open When Hot, Mounting © Peter Nitsch 2011
The series “DANGER – Never Open When Hot” gives us a peek into the Thais creative approach to vehicle maintenance. It is both fun and impressive to see the solutions they come up with. In Thailand they are obviously not tied to the strict regulations we have to follow in Europe. Would you be able to describe what’s going on in “Mounting”?
Improvisation in general is a great skill of Thai mentality; I would call the Thai people the true masters of improvisation. The Thai art of improvised tuning demonstrates the Thais’ great level of tolerance, stoicism and, yes, importance of freedom, rising above the dogmatic and narrow-minded bureaucracies in the West. It often looks funny and peculiar, and sometimes mind-boggling, but it works. In “Mounting” we see a simple, but effective way of using a snap hook for placing a typical Thai beverage bag with straw. And it‘s multifunctional at the same time.
Your work is revered in Thailand and can be found in the AAA Archive (Asia Art Archive Collection), BACC – Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, Thai Art Archives, Bangkok and in the German Embassy, Bangkok. What is the contemporary photography scene like in Thailand?
To speak it respectfully it‘s still growing. Compared to other Southeast Asian cities, like for example Shanghai or Singapore, the contemporary fine-art photography scene is still in a process of finding themselves and the interest in contemporary photography is still in the early stages of development.
I am struck by the vivid colors in your work! Bangkok must be vibrating with this radiance. How does it feel to come back to Munich after a long period in Thailand?
This can really bring you down to earth. One could say worlds are colliding. It‘s not only the light that is different, it‘s also the speed of living. But both countries have their pros and cons.
Photo: BANGKOK – Urban Identities, Soi Thong Lo, © Peter Nitsch 2011
In the series “Urban Identities” you take us on a journey around Bangkok to places like Siam Square, Santipachaiprakan Park and Soi Thong Lo. What do these places have in common in terms of shaping urban identities?
They all are public spaces taken by the people trying to do their own way of respectful living within the public without disturbing each other. All places in Bangkok seem to look at first sight very chaotic and busy. Siam Square for example doesn‘t look at first sight very tempting, but if you stay at this place you will notice that the scenery is very peaceful and Buddhistic, and Soi Thong Lo looks very chaotic and stressful, but within that chaos you‘ll find your own way of tidiness.
What is your favorite camera?
I love to shoot with the Canon EOS 5D MKII, my iPhone and I would love to have a Digital Hasselblad for larger fine-art prints in 2 x 2 m.
Does your love of the streets, which is present in most of your work, stem from your days on the skateboard?
I haven‘t thought about that yet, but yes, I think you‘re right. Back in the days I was more involved into the action sports scene and co-founded the Skate- & Snowboard magazine called “Playboard”. But after having serious problems with my back I began to look for alternatives without losing contact to the action sport scene in Germany.
I always like it when I‘m on the move and travel light with just one camera.
(1), (2) Surasi Kusolwong in conversation with Gerald Matt in 2005, INTERVIEWS by Gerald Matt