Viewing the Grand Palace Through Phones & Cameras
When I was at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, I saw an overwhelming amount of people walking around looking through their cameras and phones. I asked myself, how many people are actually looking and how many people are seeing? To look means to direct your eyes in a particular direction, while in order to see, you must notice or become aware of someone or something by using your eyes. I became intently intrigued with photographing and videoing the people who were photographing and videoing the Palace.
The Grand Palace was built in 1782 and was home to the Thai king, the Royal court, and the administrative seat to the government for 150 years. It is Bangkok’s most famous landmark. The Grand Palace is made up of numerous buildings, walls, and pavilions surrounded by gardens and lawns. The palace is roughly rectangular and a whopping 2,351,000 square feet. It is massive! And I definitely got lost at one point because it all looked the same at every turn. The palace is dazzling, full of bright colors, intricate details, and gorgeous eclectic architecture. It is a must see if you are visiting Bangkok.
Not too long before I realized how many people were on their phones, I was doing a photography assignment. The assignment was to create fifteen different images from the same spot and I can only turn 45 degrees around. These limitations essentially forced me to see in a new way. I was shooting with a 24-70mm lens which allowed me to photograph wide angle, and some zoom - so I was able to have nuance in my photographs. With this ability, I was able to capture the detailed lines in a face of a passer-by up close. I was able to capture many tourists in one frame, to show their relationship to each other and with the Grand Palace that surrounded them. At one point, I got down on the marble-tiled floor, my entire body laying stomach-down, and I photographed the shoes of shuffling passer-bys. For some photographs, I slowed down my shutter to show the movement of my subjects. Some of the shots of the shoes were up-close to see the brand, detail, and dirt. Some shots were far away to show many shoes moving in all different directions. When I was down on the ground, I did not realize that I was drawing a lot of attention to myself, and I didn’t really care. In my head, I was sprawled out on a dirty ground for my art - for the shot. I looked up, and found that there was a crowd surrounding me, photographing me with their cell phones. They found my stunt absolutely entertaining, maybe even odd, or a bit funny. This was a moment that made me chuckle: the voyeur, herself, was being watched.
There were many different people that visited the Grand Palace the day that I did. People from all different backgrounds, cultures, and religions. The one thing that everyone shared was their admiration and interest in the Grand Palace. People outrightly showed their interest by taking photos of, and posing for photos, in front of the temples and buildings, taking selfies, face-timing their loved ones to show, and video-taping. The entire place was filled with tourists, and most of the people in the Palace grounds had some sort of camera, or technology with a camera function, in-hand.
I think that people often take photographs and also use photography-based phone apps like Snapchat and Instagram because it gives them a sense of a purpose - myself included. In our buzzing and fast-paced world today, moments are fleeting. Documenting these moments are trendy, normal, rewarding, and expected. Why not capture the good moments so that they can live on forever? This is the power behind photographs.
A year or so ago, when I was using the app, Snapchat, I posted photos and videos of things that I was doing onto my Snapchat Story; such as a concert, or a trip, or a fun night out with friends. Snapchat offered the feature called Memories, where one could save their stories and view them in an organized way later on down the road. This was especially appealing to me because I really enjoyed “reliving” an old time that made me happy. I had many comments from my peers that my Story was entertaining and enjoyable to watch. I felt that sometimes I posted intriguing things that I was doing in my life onto my story for the fact that I knew how many people viewed it. In my head, I questioned, “Who am I posting for - myself or them? What would change in my life if I did not post photos and videos of what I was doing?”
The reason that I deleted the app was because I found myself overwhelmed with the number of social media platforms that I could post onto. I decided to use solely Instagram and Facebook. I also want to challenge myself to “live in the moment” more often; to really see the world instead of just recording it. I think that moments can be fleeting if a special attention is lacking. How much do I miss in the moment if my attention is dedicated to taking a photograph and sharing it?
If I go to the Grand Palace again, I want to challenge myself in observing without recording it in photographs or video. I want to see how my perception of the Palace changes from the last. Would my time there be more enjoyable? Would I think back to the Palace and remember it more vividly than I would if I looked at the photographs? Photographs do not embody all the senses that you are able to experience when you live in the moment. What does the Grand Palace smell like, sound like, what does the air and sun feel like? Those senses do not come to life in a photograph - but one can get fairly close with the right amount of effort and talent.
"A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera." -Dorothea Lange
On the other hand, the camera’s presence can alter and even enhance the way you think, see, and experience the world. When I think back to my personal experience at the Grand Palace, I can’t tell you too much about what I saw of the actual, physical palace grounds in any great detail. Part of me wishes that I would have directed my undivided attention to that, since it is so historic and famous to Thailand. However, instead of being intrigued in studying the architecture, I was more intrigued in studying the visitors. I really focused my eye in on the relationship of the visitors with their cameras/technology. Without my camera, I don’t think I would have found this very captivating. I probably would have briefly observed the copious amounts of people and technology that surrounded me, and moved on with my life. But, since I am kind of a vueyer and interested in odd things, documenting the visitors and technology created a purpose for me: it kept me behind my camera, it kept me looking through my viewfinder. I was honed in on my subjects, and making conscious decisions whether or not I wanted to get closer or farther away from the subjects. Essentially, my camera allowed me to experience the people at the Palace in a way that I couldn’t have, without it.
Cameras and phones have an integral role in our society today. I think that the camera is a grand tool for communicating and sharing with others. Community is desired by many; people just want to share their experiences and to be included in return. However, when looking through the camera’s viewfinder/screen, one’s perception can be changed and distorted from actual reality. It is important to share moments with the people, but it is also important to experience life as it happens - as raw as you can experience it, to feel all of your senses being stimulated by the moments that entice you.
Dorothea Lange’s words are wise, a wonderful message, and one that I personally identify with. I have been photographing professionally for six years now, and whenever I am out in the world without my camera, I stop and see; I find myself taking the time to appreciate the beauty in what I am viewing and wish to be photographing - even the small things: like the sunlight that hits the water in just the right way, fingerprints on a car window, or the smoke rising from a chimney. I think that as a photographer, it is my responsibility to capture the world around me and share its allure and truth with others. Many people don’t have the luxury or the opportunity or the time to travel the world, or to see places like the Grand Palace. If it is something I deem worthwhile, it is most definitely worth capturing and sharing.