Thursday, February 23, 2017

Harvesting Salt

Workers carry salt out of a field south of Ban Laem, in Petchaburi province, during the 2017 salt harvest. 

I photographed the salt harvest this week. It's the fourth or fifth time I've photographed workers in Thailand's salt fields. I like photographing people who "make stuff," including the men and women who work in the salt fields. 
A worker gets a drink of water.

The first couple of years I photographed the salt fields, I went to fields in Samut Sakhon province, less than an hour from Bangkok. The first year I went, 2009, there plenty of fields to choose from and the workers did almost everything by hand. The area is close to Bangkok though and many of the fields were sold and turned into industrial parks and factories. 

There are still some salt fields around Samut Sakhon, but it's getting harder to find them and the fields are frequently bordered by factories or housing estates and it's difficult to photograph the fields without getting an ugly hulking factory in the background (which is great if you're doing a story about industrial encroachment on traditional industries but not so great otherwise). 

Last year I couldn't find any fields in Samut Sakhon that I really liked and I went further down the coast to Petchaburi province. It's about 90 minutes past the fields in Samut Sakhon, so the travel time is more than doubled. Photographically it's worth it though because the fields are more photogenic. 
A worker picks up her salt baskets. She'll carry them to a warehouse about 50 yards away. Almost every small salt farm has its own warehouse. The warehouse in the background is on a neighboring farm.

The other thing I like about working the fields in Petchaburi is that the work is still done in the traditional way - using bamboo baskets to carry the salt from the fields to the warehouses. Most of the salt gathering operations in Samut Sakhon have started using wheelbarrows. 

Gathering salt this way is back breaking work. It's hot (late February through April is the hottest time of year in this part of Thailand) and humid (workers spend their entire days working in 2-3 inches of brackish water). The baskets of salt workers carry out of the fields weigh between 60 and 100 pounds each and workers carry two of them suspended from bamboo yokes.
A worker rakes salt into piles that another worker will eventually put into a basket and carry to a warehouse on the edge of the salt field.  

Gathering salt is a seasonal activity. It starts after the rainy season and continues through the dry season until rains make it impossible for water to evaporate off the fields. The last few years were marked by excellent harvests because the drought in Thailand meant the salt gatherers had an extra month to work. This had the unfortunate but predictable effect of depressing prices (more salt at the same demand means lower prices) and stressing storage because some salt farms had to store their crops from one year to the next. 

This year's harvest started a little late because unseasonable rains in south central and southern Thailand flooded the fields with fresh water but weather forecasters are predicting a long dry season (and the possibility of another drought) so salt gatherers are confident of a good crop this year. 
A worker rinses out his salt baskets with water from an irrigation canal that serves fruit farms in the area.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Not So Distant Shore

A boatman pulls passengers across Khlong Samrong in Samut Prakan province, a Bangkok suburb. 

Bangkok used to be known as the "Venice of the East" because of the canals (called khlongs in Thai) that crisscrossed the city. Now the khlongs are filled in and cars have replaced the boats. There are still a few parts of Bangkok though that have regular boat service. 
A passenger in the back of the boat...

While the boatman pulls her across. He's 19 years old and has been working the crossing for years. 

There used to be small "mom and pop" ferry crossings, little more than a dingy pulled across the canal by rope, throughout Bangkok. Most are now gone, replaced by bridges, buses and motorcycles. I found one of the remaining ferries on Khlong Samrong in Samut Prakan province, a suburb of Bangkok. The boatman grew up in the neighborhood and has been working at the ferry since he was a child. He sits in a shady spot and waits for a passengers to show up. He pulls them across the canal, only about 50 feet wide, for the princely sum of 2Baht (about 0.06¢ US). 
Taking a passenger across the khlong. 

There's a foot bridge over the canal about 50 yards up the canal but the little ferry is surprisingly busy. I spent a couple of hours photographing the boatman. I think he made 20 or more crossings in the time I was there. The canal isn't very wide and it only takes a minute or two to get across, when he's not busy pulling people across the khlong, he chats with his girlfriend, who kept him company while I was there, or passersby. 
Waiting for passengers. Looking up the canal from the ferry you see the Bangkok skyline. There are multiple bridges and a shopping mall within easy walking distance. Looking down the canal is like looking into old Southeast Asia, with houses on stilts (previous photo). 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Day For Love

A couple poses for an iPhone snapshot during their wedding at the Bang Rak wedding event on Valentine's Day. 

Valentine's Day is a big deal in Thailand. At first blush, it might seem odd that Buddhist Thailand celebrates a day that venerates an Italian Catholic saint. But it's really not. Christmas is very widely celebrated in Thailand, especially in urban areas, and All Hallows' Eve, better known as Halloween, is becoming more popular in Thailand. All Hallows' Eve was originally the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed and is very closely tied to the Latin American Catholic Day of the Dead. 
A couple waits for their wedding to take place. 

When Thais celebrate Valentine's Day or Christmas or Halloween they aren't celebrating the spiritual nature of the day. They're celebrating the fun nature of the day. On Christmas, it was the parties and giving of gifts. On Halloween, it's the parties and costumes. Thai children don't usually go door to door soliciting sweets or threatening mayhem, but their parents do get dressed up and go out to parties. 

On Valentine's Day it's the romance, the giving of flowers and gifts, the fun aspects of the day. Many Thais get officially married on Valentine's Day, believing it to be an auspicious day to get hitched. Most Thais essentially have two weddings - an elaborate wedding presided over by monks and usually include a big party and then a very brief civil wedding at a government office where the wedding is recorded as being official. The elaborate wedding may last hours or even days but the civil wedding in a government office is done in a matter of minutes. 
Buddhist monks bless newlyweds during the mass wedding event in Bang Rak. 

In Bangkok, an area known as Bang Rak is by far the most popular place to get married on Valentine's Day. Bang Rak is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Bangkok, the name of the neighborhood translates to "Village of Love," (Bang = Village, Rak = Love) and people flock to the local city offices to get married there on Valentine's Day. 

It's such a popular day that officials moved it from the cramped confines of the local offices to the old General Post Office, a beautiful historic building that has been converted to an event space. 
Newlyweds participate in a blessing. 

Hundreds of people go to the old post office to get married in the eyes of the government. It's become such a big deal that many companies set up booths to help the couples mark their special day. Private clinics promote family planning. The government promotes fertility treatments. (Thais are having fewer children and the population is aging out, so the government is trying encourage married couples to have children.) Dentists promote tooth whitening. Financial planners promote financial planning. And there are food vendors, photographers, car dealers, lottery ticket sellers all hoping to make a Baht. 
Couples wait for their turn to be called so they can have their civil wedding. 

It's a fun event but it's not quite like photographing a mass wedding in the US. Because it's "just" the official part of the wedding, many Thais don't view it as a wedding at all. "The" wedding, the one that matters, is the one that's held in their home village with the monks and the music and the party. The civil wedding is more an onerous chore that has to be completed to satisfy the government.
A couple is tied together in blessed matrimony at a booth sponsored by a beverage maker. 
While another couple waits to be photographed in another booth. The bouquet and teddy bear are props, returned after the photos are made.

Some people went just long enough to register their nuptials, others made a day of it. Valentine's Day is not a legal holiday, so people had to arrange for time off to go to the mass wedding ceremony. That's easier for some than it is for others. 
A toy vendor waits for customers at the mass marriage event.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Makha Bucha 2017

Buddhist monks walk to the pagoda at Wat Phra Dhammakaya to take their positions before the Makha Bucha ceremony. 

The full moon in February (the third lunar month) is Makha Bucha Day, one of the most important holy days in the Theravada Buddhist calendar. It marks four events that took place during the time of Lord Buddha. 
  1. 1,250 monks convened at Veluvana Bamboo Grove without being summoned. 
  2. All of the monks were personally ordained by the Lord Buddha in what is known as ‘Ehi Bikkhu Upasampata’. 
  3. They were Arahants possessing the six higher knowledge.
  4. The event occurred on the full moon day of the 3rd lunar month.
People go to temples all over Thailand (and other Theravada Buddhist countries) to pray and meditate.
People pray and meditate in the plaza that surrounds the pagoda at Wat Phra Dhammakaya. 

I've been photographing Makha Bucha for years now. I even photographed the holy day in Phoenix when I wasn't able to be in Thailand. Most of the time in Thailand I've gone out to the Dhammakaya temple, about an hour north of Bangkok. 

Dhammakaya is a new sect of Thai Buddhism. It was founded in the mid 1970s and has attracted new followers at a dizzying pace. It differs from more traditional sects in a couple of ways - adherents actively proselytize and seek new members and followers believe that if they give to the sect, they will be rewarded in material ways (similar to the "prosperity gospel" preached by some evangelicals in the west).  

People and monks pray and meditate during the ceremony. 

Wat Phra Dhammakaya sits in a huge complex in Pathum Thani province. The main pagoda resembles a UFO ready to ascend into space. The temple is clearly visible from planes landing at Don Muang, the older of Bangkok's two airports.

The Makha Bucha ceremony ends with candlelight processions around the pagoda. Monks process around the pagoda in the inner courtyard, while adherents, all dressed in white, process around the outer courtyard. 

Top photo, adherents, dressed in white, process around the pagoda while monks process around the pagoda (timed exposure, bottom photo). 

The Dhammakaya movement is not without controversy though. The Thai government has filed corruption charges against the abbot and has issued warrants for his arrest. They made repeated, unsuccessful, efforts to arrest him over the last year. 
Monks sit around the pagoda while the full moon rises behind them. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A New Camera

or at least new to me. 

Olympus Pen F on my Domke bag.

We went to Singapore for the holidays and I came back to Bangkok with a new camera. The Pen F has been out for almost a year, but it's expensive in the US and very expensive in Thailand. For some reason, and quite unexpectedly, it's much cheaper in Singapore. I walked into Cathay Camera in Peninsula Plaza to see what they had and walked out with a Pen F. It was about $400 (US) cheaper than it would have been in Thailand and $200 (US) cheaper than it would have been in the US. 
Sorting bed linens from an overnight train in Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok. Pen F, 12mm f2, ISO 200, 1/400th @ f2, shot in BW mode using Tri-X simulation. 

This is sort of a non-technical review of the Pen F. The conclusion: I've had it for about six weeks and I like it. A lot. 

The big headline when this camera came out was the stunning retro styling. It's named after and borrows a lot in the looks department from the original Olympus Pen F, a legendary SLR film camera of the mid 1960s. The style of the new digital Pen F is often compared to Leica screw mount cameras of the 1930s, but to me it evokes the original Pen F, which was a uniquely designed SLR. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Cuttin' It Old School

A barber gives a customer a shave in a small barber shop under the Phra Khanong Bridge. 

One of the things I love about Bangkok is that no two neighborhoods are alike. In 2015, while I was working on the evictions from the Bang Chak Market, I explored Ko Klang, a small island in the middle of the Khlong (canal) that runs between the Phra Khanong and On Nut neighborhoods. After wandering around the island, I walked through what I thought was a small market under the Phra Khanong Bridge (which takes Sukhumvit Road traffic over the canal). There were a lot of small barbershops under the bridge, but it was too early in the day and most of them were still closed. 
A barber naps while he waits for a customer.

Bangkok's wet markets open early in the morning but most businesses don't really get going until mid morning. Or later. That's the case with the barbers under the bridge. In the year since the first visit, I made repeated trips back to the bridge and the barbers were never open. The ones that were open were not busy.
There 9 or 10 barbershops under the bridge and a couple of beauty shops. Most have just one chair.

I made another run at the barbershops yesterday, many were open and some had customers. I hung out under the bridge and photographed for a couple of hours. 

There are street barbers all over Southeast Asia. But because the Thailand is so much wealthier than its neighbors, traditions like the street barbers are disappearing, especially in Bangkok. The barbers under the bridge are about the closest thing Bangkok still has to the street barber tradition. 
A barber cleans up after finishing with a customer, while another customer waits for her to start with him. 

Bangkok is changing at what feels like light speed. Neighborhoods are being relocated, markets closed and vendors evicted, all in the name of development. Thriving markets just a kilometer or two either side of the bridge have been closed so developers can build new condominiums. 
A customer gets a shampoo and shave in a barbershop. 

The shops are small and dingy. In some cases, the walls are made of plywood. In other cases the barbers use the bridge abutments as walls for their shops. 

I'm hopeful though that the community of barbershops under the bridge will survive a while longer. What will save the barbershops, and other merchants under the bridge, is that there's not much else the land can be used for. The bridge is a major conduit for traffic coming in and out of Bangkok, it can't just be torn down. The danger for the barbershops is that the market and community north of the bridge would be closed and torn down. The barbers would lose their customer base. 
The barbershops are decorated with pictures of Thai and foreign movie stars and celebrities. 

I'm optimistic that this won't happen in the near future because there hasn't been any talk of it yet. But in two or three years? Anything is possible. 
In what is a nearly universal scene, a barber reads a local newspaper while he waits for customers. The give away that this is Thailand are the portraits of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered late King of Thailand, that decorate the walls of his shop. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

New Year's Opera

Performers on stage during an opera performance in Khlong Toey. It was a special performance to mark the Lunar New Year. 

When I moved to Thailand in 2012, one of the things on my "Thai Bucket List" was to photograph a Chinese Opera, called "Ngiew" in Thailand. I can scratch Chinese Opera off the bucket list. I think I've photographed more than 15 operas in the nearly five years I've been here. 

The time around the Lunar New Year and the Vegetarian Festival (usually in September) are peak opera times. You could photograph a different opera every night during the holidays and not repeat yourself. 
Early in the afternoon, a performer naps before getting into character.

At other times of the year, it's very hit or miss. Operas are performed at Chinese temples and shrines but knowing when and where operas are staged is hard to figure out. I don't read Thai or Chinese, but I've become adept in spotting the signs of an opera and most of the operas I've photographed I've stumbled upon while out photographing other things. 

Performers put on their makeup before the performance. 

This year, since the death of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, the kingdom's revered Monarch, the opera schedule has been somewhat curtailed. In the week's following the King's death, public performances of any sort, including Chinese operas, were cancelled. 

Thais are still mourning, but in the last six weeks or so public performance are beginning again but they haven't resumed a full schedule. I went out looking for an opera before Tet and the shrines I visited, ones that usually host an opera, told me they cancelled this year out of respect for the King. 
Performers sit backstage in the evening before the start of the performance. 

There is a small shrine that hosts a couple of operas a year near Khlong Toey market. My wife walks by the shrine every day on her way to work (she teaches at a school in the neighborhood) and saw them putting together the stage at the shrine, so the next day I went to photograph the opera there.
A worker helps a performer get into her costume before the opera.

It was a "command performance" of sorts, a special three night run for the shrine's elite members. There was seating for almost 150 people, about 10 tables, with linen table cloths and attended to by wait staff in long sleeve shirts and vests, set up for the spectators. Usually, spectators at an opera buy food from roving noodle vendors and sit on plastic chairs, so this was a formal affair. Given the ornate nature of the setup, I was very surprised when only 10 or 12 people showed up. 
A performer waits in the wings to go on stage. 

The small crowd didn't seem to discourage the performers though. A musician banged a gong a few seconds before 7 and sharply at 7 performers took the stage and put on a spirited performance. 
A performer on stage. 

There are many more photos of the 2017 Lunar New Year and Chinese Opera in my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.