Please tell us a bit about yourself?
A rather late starter which I now regret a little! I had always been interested in photography since my father gave me a Pentax ME Super on my 15th birthday but I never thought about photography as a job so I joined the army instead. I did my time there and ended up doing some photography in my unit. I left the army in 85′ and worked in Olan Mills Portrait studio as the head photographer but left after a year. I then went into Estate Agency (sales negotiator) until 1993 when one day I looked out the window, totally disillusioned with my life and decided I wanted to be a photographer, so I left the office job, bought two Nikon f3s and a few lenses and called myself a photographer.
In hindsight the army taught me initiative, self sufficiency, a year shooting babies, families and pets taught me to work under pressure and to deal with the camera shy plus several years working in estate agency taught me the ‘art' of negotiation. Since 1993 I have self published a book (More Than Ninety Minutes in 1997) been published internationally and travelled extensively. I now mentor aspiring and early career photographers plus do some workshops, write and teach photography in London.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
I really have no idea other than the process of taking a photograph makes me feel complete. The incomplete feeling of doing something which is a chore rather than a pleasure comes with any profession but photography for me has the least amount of chores. The other inspiration I think comes from the desire to document history and leave something of myself here when I've gone back to dust. I guess that's an ego thing I'm not sure but I do my thing and just taking one day at a time. I remember looking at images created by W Eugene Smith and Sebastian Salgado and being memorised by the atmosphere and impact and remember wanting to create images of my own that gave me that same feeling.
Whats inspires your photography?
What inspired me at the beginning of my journey isn't commercially viable anymore. I get far more excited about shooting Ilford HP5 black and white film in a Leica M6 camera with a 35mm Summicron or an old Rolleiflex 3.5f twin lens reflex camera than with a digital camera. It's always been about the creative journey and the subject for me. The digital process is just a lot more instantaneous and therefore I feel something of the creative process gets lost. Not knowing what you have shot and works in my opinion is an aid to the process.
The chances of getting an assignment and being able to shoot film is significantly less now than a few years ago unless your a big name photographer and thats a shame but it is progress, the same as it was progress when 35mm film took over from medium format I guess. The inspiration is still very much knowing Ive got the shot which I feel does the scene and subject justice.
How did the project start?
I went to Bangkok with the idea of moving there for the longer term. Bangkok is many things like every city in the world but it’s different from the majority and has its own unique edge. Within days of arriving the film A Year Of Living Dangerously came very much to mind. A few days before I had arrived a state of emergency was declared even though my airport and taxi to Bangkok experience was anything other than soldiers on the streets and any hint of a curfew. I had no project plans before I arrived other than I was going to walk the streets with my Rolleiflex and shoot a lot of film. Good timing or luck I'm not sure but the day I arrived a state of emergency was declared as anti government protests including road blocks by the protesters gathered momentum.
Increasingly there were grenade and assassination attempts between rival groups and the government so I decided to create a series of with the idea of angels and demons within society. The idea of Angels and Demons came within a few days of walking around the city. Bangkok was a city in fear in early 2014 with government elections due alongside anti government protests which had closed down main junctions by anti government protesters. Whilst reading about Bangkok I found out its other name is Krung Thep and the idea of the city being full of angels and demons summed up the atmosphere for me. The approach was really simple.. just walk every day and shoot what attracted me.
How did you approach the subject matter?
The Angels and Demons series is a short photo essay but can also be viewed individually as a street images or portraits. Walking the streets everyday I begun to feel the energy of the people. The routine, the noises the pollution and the speed of everyday life. There are the ‘rich’ or rather locally termed ‘hi-so’ and there are the poor who live close or on the Chao Phraya River and its many canals and suburbs or under the highway flyovers. Let’s not even discuss the King or Royal Family. This country is proud beyond nothing else about their royalty. Bangkok is the Venice of SE Asia and Thailand’s rich hotspot. I’ve been to many cities where sensory overload rules…
Tokyo comes to mind as does New York and I hear Mumbai also battles the senses as well. Bangkok is a photographers dream. I use the same method for all of my projects. Research but mostly walk and talk to people where possible along the way. Generally having a fixed agenda strangles the creative process so for me I'm laid back and go with the flow if that makes any sense. I never generally look at a map because I rather have a start point and then walk in a general direction. All I know was that I wanted to shoot the story on film in black and white which commercially is a fail as stock and magazines have a desire for colour imagery generally.
What cameras did you shoot with and why?
I used a 55 year old Rolleiflex f3.5 twin lens reflex shooting Ilford HP5. This camera is silent and certainly not intimidating. I didnt want to look like a pro carrying an expensive digital camera and bogged down with gadgets and gear because thats not the way I like to work. The benefits of not looking like a photographer when shooting on the street is a huge advantage in my humble opinion and so the Rollie has a big advantage. Image ‘feel' is something film delivers exceptionally well especially medium format from the Rollei. It's that very special atmosphere which can be mimicked shooting digital but not really replicated even today. As Ive said the journey of shooting film is far more creative, honest and intuitive for me than shooting digital.
Any anecdotes you can share?
It wasn’t until my last day in Bangkok that I realised the depth of hate that the majority of people in Bangkok has for the government. I’d been to all of the roadblock protest sites and yes there was hate there. But nothing compared to real visual hate that is mixed with fear when situations allow people to really vent their anger. That’s when you see the mask fall and you can really take in what humanity is capable of and willing to endure. This was very low level conflict and no where near civil war. It’s a few moments of intensity that has ended moments after it began but for some, it was the end of their lives. I was to fly at midnight on the Wednesday 19th February but went on a walkabout to the Ratchadamnoen protest site late morning. Twitter was alive with reports of a fatality and injuries earlier in the day as the government troops and police intended to remove the protest site and roadblock. Taking the river taxi from Sukhumvit, the taxi wasnt going to stop anywhere near the site as usual.
The first scene I saw were Buddhist monks and one talking over a loudspeaker. I have no idea what was being said but no one here looked happy. Like a scene from a film with protesters waving flags some wearing a kind of uniform and flak jackets and gas masks at the top of Ratchadamnoen Avenue and soldiers and police lined up at the other end by the Royal Plaza. 12 exposures from one roll is a challenge when what's happening in front of you is moving very fast. First I covered behind the lines and in front of the protest barrier of tyres and sandbags. Flag waving protesters but by now the Thai authorities were very obviously telling the protesters to move back. The protesters jeered like a pre battle scene from Braveheart this was only going one way and it wasn’t going to be good. I moved forwards towards the government lines. Several Thai photo journalists were being searched but I avoided eye contact with the searchers and shot several rolls. The troops were exhausted and I didn’t see any kind of strength in their eyes. They were scared and tired and didn’t want to be there (I later found out that they had been there from the early morning for a dawn raid and had not even been given food or water). As I walk to the soldiers/police I’m figuring out when it’s going to go off, how it will play out, who has the upper hand and noting good areas to run for cover whilst photographing.
After my 3rd roll and moving away from the troops line the tension raises as protesters are moving forwards. This is the time to get good cover because I figure the troops wont allow them to move to far forwards. In recent weeks there had been grenade attacks and protesters using hand guns and automatics so theres no reason why its not going to happen again. I head close to a side alley which has an outside food bar with plastic rain cover…Small arms crackle and then the troops open fire but its not spraying the protesters… rather I felt it’s targeting those seen with weapons. Rounds exchanged and I’m standing in my cover with several other locals and we look at each other I guess all with wide eyed terror. Adrenaline rush but I’m staying focused here. I look out from cover and shoot off several frames of everyone outside on the floor and those trying to make the thin avenue trees wider than they really are. I’m shaking as I change film and all I’m thinking is to get the load right, get the exposure right, get the composition right and get everything right.
There’s a lull… a pause with no rounds being fired. I venture out and to be honest I can’t remember for how long but no more than 30 seconds. I’m trying to figure out if that’s it and I’m working out my next step in the open but crouched down. I see a protester 10 yards in front of me with a hand gun and as I raise the Rollei then cracks again from the troops and I run back to cover and pull two paramedics in as they got stuck… wedged between the opening and all I can think is that this is some kind of comedy moment if it wasn’t for what was going on outside.The shooting lasts for a few minutes. Screams outside from where I saw the handgun guy. A crowd surrounding someone and Im out in the open regardless now. I head for the crowd to a small opening and a man is on the floor with blood spewing from his mouth. I don’t think he’s the handgun guy though but I know he’s going to die. The protesters lift him and carry him 20 yards up the pavement and are met by a stretcher. His shoes are removed and have no idea why and he’s taken up to an ambulance. He did die. I’ve seen death before but to see someone on there way out is a different matter. It’s a harsh reminder of how precious life is. No one but his family and friends will remember him plus those who were with him in his final moments. I will never forget that’s for sure.
What are you looking for in street photography?
I have no idea what it is but when I see it, I know it because I can't get the image out of my head… rather like being visually slapped in the face with a fish! As much as you try to explain any of the greatest images ever taken only seeing it can you really appreciate it's message. So often you get excited about an image and when you see the contact sheet or scan (or screen) its like ‘naaa'. I think shooting film makes it harder but the hunt for the image is so much sweeter when you nail it. Street photography is an addiction and most definitely requires an inquisitive nature and the ability to become ‘one' with everything around you. Its far more a ‘zen' like experience for me. It's not just about the end result it's as much about how you arrived at the fraction of a second that saw it that counts.
Any closing comments?
Bangkok is nothing like I imagined it would be. It's one of the best street shooting capitals in the world and would just suggest don't think about it.. just go there.
[userpro template=card user=stewartw]