Commentary On My Photographic Series: In the Village
Koh Samui, Thailand
The first day I arrived on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, I was extremely curious to explore the little beach town of Lamai; to find good restaurants, to do some shopping, to find interesting areas to photograph. The first thing I did after unpacking was grabbed a meal at a local spot with a couple of classmates. Shortly after, we did some shopping in the little stores along the main road, and then got a Thai massage. The day felt completed and I was so satisfied with my first day in Thailand. Later that night, I did some research about the customs and language of Thailand, I did not do too much research on this prior to arriving. Upon further research that I read from articles and blog posts, I found myself utterly stricken with shame: on my first day in Thailand, I unintentionally, went against many of the Thai customs. For example, I waved a lot- they do a Wai (which is a slight bow for greetings), I blew my nose near the eating table (which is rude mostly anywhere, but especially in Thailand!), I pointed a lot (which is considered very rude), I didn’t learn any of the language (I spoke English), and I wore revealing clothing (shorts and a tank) - Thailand is pretty conservative. After doing an absurd amount of internet research, feeling the culture shock that hit me fast, and feeling ignorant and badly for my behavior, I tried really hard to form to the Thai customs and to be 110% open to learning about their culture from there-on-out. I took that moment as a lesson, and really dedicated myself to being a considerate and respectful foreigner/tourist.
After a few long days on Koh Samui, I felt myself fitting in more and feeling more comfortable. I was exploring the town everyday, trying new foods, practicing Thai customs, I was speaking the basics of the Thai language to locals and workers, and I was learning something new about the culture every single day. I desired to explore deeper into the culture than what lay merely at the surface - and I wanted to capture images that would show what I had experienced. I decided to research and find a way to photograph inside a local village.
I had met a kind woman named Ann through one of my teachers. Ann is a travel agent in the town of Lamai, and she is bilingual in both Thai and English. My teacher recommended that I stop by her office and talk to her about places to explore for building my photographic portfolio, or for creating a small photo series. Ann had a few ideas in mind, giving me some town names and where I could see different things. Ann and I ended up traveling to a Muslim fishing village on a weekday and I spent about three hours photographing there.
Off the main route, we made a left turn onto a long dirt road. On either side of the road was open grass with a few cows and some palm trees. A little ways up ahead I saw the homes and buildings that made up the village. The day was hot and humid, and I was dressed conservatively in an all black: a long skirt to cover my knees, a black tank, and I covered my shoulders with a lace black shawl. After stepping out of the cool SUV, I was blindsided with heat and the intimidation of being the only white person in the entire town; I stood out like a sore thumb. As I walked through the village, scouting for subjects, I had a twinge of jitters and anxiety. It was nerve-wracking for me to come into a small town with such an intimidating and invasive object - such as the camera - and to also be so-clearly a foreigner. I was cognizant of this fact before even entering the village. I was adamant about respectfully interacting with, and capturing the local people in a way that did not make them feel exploited by me.
When a documentary photographer decides to tell the story of their subject through photographs, they have a responsibility and duty to be truthful and fair in what they portray and share with the rest of the world. Even more so, it is important what kind of information and/or message they attach to each image. It is also crucial that the photographer knows their own morals and ethics before creating photographs that involve other sensitive human beings. For me, I most always ask permission to photograph from the subjects. I believe that it is basic human decency to let someone know before you capture their picture. I would not appreciate some random person coming up to me and snapping my photo without, first asking, and introducing themselves. Otherwise, it can be creepy, intrusive, and exploitative.
My initial hopes and intention with visiting the village was to learn about the lives on a more intimate level. I know that the people in the village lead a life that is vastly different (but in some ways similar) to the one that I live. I wanted to know more about the communities that exist on Koh Samui, but through my camera’s viewfinder. It is exciting and comfortable for me when I am able to experience life behind my camera. I feel as though I have a purpose or reason to be in the town if I have my camera with me, and I am able leave there with proof of what I have experienced. I tried to capture many aspects of what I saw in the town, but in a way that was depicting real life and exactly what I saw. I never intended to focus on photographing only the clutter that laid outside of the homes, without also photographing the beauty that the townspeople possess. Did I photograph the clutter outside of the home? Of course. I did not want to leave out that part of the town, even if I would deemed it unattractive or unusual. I was aware of being mindful and shedding any biases I had before photographing. The point of my going there, was out of my personal curiosity, to explicitly depict the livelihood of the town, and what that entails.
When I saw something that caught my eye as we walked down the town’s dirt streets, I would point it out to Ann and we would stop. From there I photographed what interested me: a building, a detail outside a home, such as a birdcage or clothes hanging on a drying rack. The first subjects that I photographed were an older woman on a motorbike, and a younger Muslim man in Shalwar Kameez (full religious dress). With the help from Ann as the translator, I asked both of them to take their portrait. I think that it was really beneficial that I could speak a small amount of Thai and knew how to Wai (greet). It showed that I was trying to learn the culture, and that I respected it enough to practice the language, even as a foreigner. I could tell that the locals especially appreciated this, and would reciprocate back to me, respectfully.
Ann’s demeanor toward the photograph-taking process was really calm, casual, and nonchalant - while inside, I was filled with adrenaline and excitement. Turned out that all of the people I asked to photograph that day displayed similar demeanors, and were willing and open to being photographed by me. Having Ann by my side, knowing the culture full-well, and having her translate was incredibly helpful. She was able to explain the conversations that she had with the townspeople. Ann would also describe what things meant: for example, there was a miniature temple (that resembled a doll house) that was posted underneath a tree near a house. She said that the temple houses the spirit of the relatives who have passed. Knowing little details like this helped shape my overall experience, and I was able to gain more knowledge about the culture, customs, and town. This kind of information also helped me understand my own images, helped the photographic series feel more personal and intimate, and come together as a whole, conceptually.
This short trip to the village was very rewarding, and only a surface-level view into one of the many different culturally-rich areas on Koh Samui, Thailand. In the brief time that I was there, I gained insight and permission into the homes and lives of many kind-hearted people. Capturing their faces and livelihood was only a small part of my entire three-hour experience there. The images will help me remember that time, and to share it with people, but the genuine memory lives in me. I am very grateful that I had this opportunity, and I only wish that I could have spent more time there. I would like to go back and photograph in this town again once I return to Koh Samui one day. This is just one of my first photo series and worldly experiences of many.