Silence Has An Echo | 2010

This series came about as a reaction to my experiences living in Bangkok during a period of intense political and social unrest. While the underlying issues behind Thailand’s current political problems are complex, longstanding and deeply ingrained, over the last few years these divisions have risen much closer to the surface and Thai society has become considerably more fractured. Much of the population is now polarized between two ideological extremes and very few people occupy the middle ground or are willing to take a more critical look at the real motives and intentions of parties on either side of the political divide. I would argue that ordinary people are being used as pawns in a power struggle between the nation’s dueling political and economic elite, and in reality the average citizen stands to gain very little, regardless as to who may ultimately seize power. The losses, however, are all theirs to suffer.

In May 2010 this situation came to a shocking and violent climax when large areas of Bangkok’s exclusive commercial district were destroyed during demonstrations and almost 90 anti-government protestors were killed by the Thai military.

My friends come from all echelons of Thai society, and from both sides of the political divide. In the months leading up to the events of “Savage May” tensions had been high, and arguments frequent. Propaganda, misinformation and rumors contributed to an increasingly paranoid and volatile atmosphere. To my Thai vocabulary I added the words “car-bomb”, “sniper”, “criminal court” and “conspiracy”. “Then came the government crackdown, followed by nightly curfews as the military ‘cleaned up’ all remaining pockets of resistance, out of view of media or public eye.

I’m not a journalist and nor do I have any romantic notions of dying for my art, so when the killing began I stayed safely in my apartment building with friends, but I experienced first hand the toll this situation took on everyday human relations. How could I react to what had happened without glorifying the actions of either one side or the other? Without propagating cliches? Without further contributing to this climate of fear?

Ultimately I realized that I was less concerned with the spectacle of political violence itself, but rather the personal stories of those ordinary people left to live in a society deeply fractured by the power games of their nation’s political elite. Consequently, I felt that the only honest reaction was to focus my attention on the experience of the voiceless individual.

The project consists of a series of portrait and landscape images that are intended to serve as a form of ‘internal reportage': documenting the private world of psychological and emotional states rather than external phenomena. The landscapes were created (rather than ‘found’) to encompass my own feelings and experiences during this period. While clearly there is symbolism and metaphor at play in these images, I very much wanted them to function on a more instinctive and subconscious level, without overly intellectualizing their meaning.

The people in these photographs are mostly friends, friends-of-friends, neighbors. I’ve been close to a couple of the participants for almost 20 years and recently seen them change: the worry lines deepening on their faces; the increasing division and anger. As some friends fall on opposing sides of the political divide, I’ve also seen all that goes unsaid when they meet. My intention, then, was that these images would serve to document the unspoken sadness, anger and despair that many of us were feeling at that moment in time, when the rifts in Thai society were so irreparably chasmic that the nation appeared on the brink of civil war.

In order to gradually broach what was, for many, a highly delicate subject, I began by asking participants to recall a situation from their past about which they had come to feel regret for not having spoken their minds openly at the time, and for which it was now too late to do so. I explained that it could be a situation in which they themselves made the decision not to say anything, or in which they felt unable to speak due to constraints or circumstances beyond their control, or indeed because no opportunity to speak ever presented itself. This could have been regarding a highly personal matter – such as in a friendship, a romantic relationship, or with a family member – or in relation to a more public or social affair. All that I insisted upon was that it be something of considerable concern to them, and that the opportunity to make amends had long since passed.

As each participant became more at ease with the process, the focus of my questions began to shift towards the current political situation, until ultimately I asked them to think about what, given the opportunity, they would like to say to the people or person they held responsible for the recent tragic events. I did not ask anyone to specifically identify who they held responsible – as indeed I did not ask participants to verbally share with me any information at all regarding their stories of regret – I only requested that they silently focus their attention on these thoughts and emotions as we produced their portraits. Often a participant would give a knowing look when finally it became clear that the real subject of the work was political: as if all the slightly bizarre questions I’d asked up to that point suddenly fell into place and made perfect sense.

 


 

 

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Silence Has An Echo at Christinger De Mayo, Zurich, 2012.

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