The photography scene in Bangkok used to be about specialised venues such as Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Serindia Gallery or RMA Institute. Or maybe a handful of others if just pinning photographs on walls counts as an exhibition.
Photo Bangkok 2015, the first home-grown photography festival, is currently taking place across the city in a high-profile showcase of art. While the main exhibitions are being held at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) and Bangkok University Gallery, 19 others partner with galleries throughout Bangkok with their own photo shows.
In many of the shows, photography functions as an artistic medium, as well as social and political reflection. Some of the highlights include selected works by iconic American photographer Ralph Gibson; a showcase of “forgotten” Thai masters, from Buddhadassa Bhikku to an early nude lensman; contemporary Southeast Asian photographers; street photos; and works by international artists.
In the West, there’s hardly any need to mention how photography has long had a “proper” status in the realm of fine art. Most of our neighbours have had photo festivals for many years (Cambodia has two annually, in Phnom Penh and Siem Riep). In Bangkok, it’s long overdue but festival director Piyatat Hemmatat, prominent photographer and RMA Institute founder, said there’s absolutely no point in comparing ourselves to others.
“It’s just the beginning of a long journey,” said Piyatat. “Photo Bangkok comes from my experience of working in this industry, with other photographers, artists, curators and galleries. I’m lucky that I’m in a position to see the potential in these people and I think that we, as a city, are ready for this. We saw the possibility and it would be a shame to let this chance go by.”
Piyatat said 60 per cent of exhibited artists and photographers are Thai but nationality was never a criteria.
“Photography is a universal language. One of the inspirations in coming up with the festival is the divisiveness in Thai society in recent years. Not just in politics, it is the same in the art scene. Galleries tend to show artists who in one way or another are affiliated with them. That’s natural, I know, but I believe with this festival, we can overlook that and can work together without such boundaries.”
Piyatat said workshops and talks are also a significant part of the festival, from collectors’ talks and portfolio reviews by guest professionals to photo editing workshops. It’s the element which makes the project rounded, not just for the emerging and established to showcase their works, but also for those who have just started out to learn and develop themselves as well.
Renowned curators Manit Sriwanichpoom, Ark Fongsmut and Nikan Wasinondh have been the driving forces since the inception of the project, three years ago. Despite countless hindrances, including last year’s political turmoil which forced the postponement of the original schedule, the festival is finally taking place and will continue until late October.
Manit, a prominent photographer and Kathmandu Photo Gallery owner, said that Bangkok is ready in every aspect, especially for new-generation photographers.
The closest to a proper photo festival was “Month of Photography”, organised by the Alliance Francaise Bangkok years ago. Manit curated that once and said the reason it didn’t continue is because the organiser felt that Thais should be more involved with such festivals.
“We have a number of new and emerging photographers,” said Manit. “But the problem is that there’s no proper platform for them to continue, especially financially. Even those smaller cities have done it. Photography is an integral part of our lifestyle now. It’s the most easily accessible medium.”
The festival is sponsored by BACC but the state sector like Office of Contemporary Art And Culture has remained unresponsive despite the team’s approach, something Manit found extremely odd, as support for such a project is the office’s mission.
While the show Manit curates, “Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography”, will begin in September at Bangkok University Gallery, another main show “Pause”, a photographic exhibition by artists from Southeast Asia curated by Ark Fongsmut, has already started at BACC.
“In Thailand at this point, the notion towards photography is too detached from what we think of other mediums and I don’t think it should be like that,” said Ark. “This festival will give an opportunity for artists to showcase their works. At the same time it gives viewers a chance to develop themselves as potential audiences.”
The Photo Bangkok will continue until late October. Check out schedules and details of talks and workshops at www.photobangkokfestival.com.