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Young Thai lenser rejects digital photographic tricks

Young Thai lenser rejects digital photographic tricks


Accomplished photojournalist Suthep Kritsanavarin takes the time to get a true photo, and it shows in his award-winning studies of Southeast Asian peoples


Suthep Kritsanavarin once modelled his photos on the pages of National Geographic but says he’s now moved beyond that influence.

AWARD winner Suthep Kritsanavarin has worked as a photographer for nearly two decades, and during that time the 37-year-old Thai has had his works published in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.

His most recent work, Khone Falls: Soul of the Mekong, is a study of the lives of the people on the lower Mekong, and is currently being exhibited at The Bopana Audiovisual Centre as part of Environment Week.

The project, which took Suthep three years to complete, will be on show until September 27.

Suthep first became interested in photography when he was 22 and started going into the countryside and jungle. He wanted to tell the story of what he was seeing and learning there "because those areas need to be protected.  But I am not good at writing or speaking, so what could I do?" he asked.

"I began on a manual camera, and my first attempts were very bad.  I mostly taught myself, reading books and magazines because there was no internet then - nothing. Later when I met some other photographers I went to their studios to learn about lighting."

After about a year Suthep started to sell some photos and stories to Thai magazines, but as the pay was "very bad" he didn't think he could make it a full-time career.

But as he didn't want to do any other job, he realised he had to figure out how to make a living out of photography.

Not 100 percent true

"I knew I needed to work internationally, so I learned English. I don't know why, but in Thailand the standard of English is very poor, especially compared to neighbouring countries like Cambodia. There were many foreign journalists based in Bangkok - too many, I think - and I began to work with them on assignments as a team. 

"We did a lot of stories about the culture of Thailand as that kind of stuff is easy to sell. But I think I like working by myself better. I could not even say we were a team when I did those assignments with a writer, because we didn't go out together. They would sit at a desk in their home and I would go out and take photos. Being Thai, being Southeast Asian, I think I know my people better than a Western journalist. Sometimes their idea is good but it's not practical and I don't think it's 100 percent true to the culture."

I need to do things that offer personal reward.... my photographs need to benefit the places i visit and the people whose photos i've taken.

Suthep says he was always interested in doing bigger, lengthier projects but money, skill and experience held him back. After he worked for some international magazines, he decided to do some stories outside of Thailand.

"Thailand is so well-covered, not like Burma or Laos.  People in those countries do not get so much attention, even if they are facing difficult times," he said.
"To judge my work along the way, I used to compare it to similar stories in top magazines like National Geographic.  Oh my God, how did they take this photo? I would think at the time.  But now it's no longer a mystery, no longer a problem. I always thought I could get to that high level. Even though I knew it would be hard, I was sure I could do it if I had enough time and money.

"I don't use National Geographic as the highest standard anymore, though they are still a good magazine. They don't take so much time shooting their stories now. Their projects used to take one, two or even three years, while now it may only be a few weeks, if that. The quality is not like it was 20 years ago. Companies just don't want to spend the money, not when they can get pictures for free from citizen photographers or journalists."

Suthep says the new digital era is opening up new opportunities, but in his opinion it also means the photograph can be compromised.

"There are a lot of new opportunities with digital photography. Before digital when you took a night shot you would almost always have to use a flash. Now with digital you can boost the [film speed] so high that it's possible to take night photographs without a flash.

"And with digital, people take more photos, but also spend less time taking them, and in this way the story inside the photograph is being compromised.  The pictures may be more beautiful, more amazing, but there is less story inside the photograph, which to me is the most important thing.

"People are also using Photoshop really heavily - even some of the photographs that win awards. Improving the sharpness and the contrast of a photograph is OK, but much more than this and it starts to become a fake, in my opinion.

When asked where he saw photography heading, he pointed to the trend of artists merging photography and video. But, he worried, "They are so different. Making a video, you are moving all the time, but with photography you just have to wait, wait for the right moment.

"With video, you can't do that, but with photography, you have to do that."

Heading to Myanmar

Looking to his own future, Suthep said, "Publishing in a magazine or winning an award is not enough anymore. I need to do things that offer personal reward.... I need to work with the NGOs and my photographs need to benefit the places I visit and the people whose photos I have taken.

"My next project will be inside Burma, looking at the Muslim minority. The Burmese government don't consider them as citizens and are trying to force them outside of the country, but there are nearly two million of them.  So it will be a story of human trafficking, and will probably take me about two years."


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