Discovering old neighborhoods in Thonburi is a favorite for photographers and urban explorers in Bangkok. Cruising along walkways with a camera, almost too narrow to fit a motorbike through. Concrete paths on stilts above murky waters, lotus flowers, and lily pads. Surrounded by old teak houses, you’ll find yourself weaving through snapshots in time, scenes of a historical and authentic Thailand. The city’s canals keep the tropical plant and animal life flourishing – it’s a welcome change from all the cars, noise, and pollution of the inner city. You instantly feel as though you’ve left Bangkok when you walk these paths.
It’s great for photography, it’s visually stunning around every corner you turn and you meet so many interesting people along the way. I’ve made some friends whom I still visit when I’m in the area. It’s a great place to capture the essence, the people of Thailand. So full of character and life, and people who have always been kind and welcoming in my experience. Something often missing in larger cities. The vibe is very laid back, a slow pace, to better adapt with the sweltering heat. The neighborhood is quite diverse, different ethnicities and cultures every direction. From Buddhist temples to mosques, you can often hear the chanting of monks in one moment and the call to prayer in another. To me, this place is magical – or maybe I’m just buzzing from the heat.
And not to paint a perfect picture – there’s poverty, canals filled black sewage, stray dogs, and some rotten smells that’ll burn your nose hairs out of your nostrils. But this is life here, gritty at times, and I dig it.
A while back I found myself walking down a newly discovered alley which was lined with colorful houses, potted plants, and dragonflies whirring all over the place. After a few minutes in, the path opened up into a lush green garden filled with lettuce, melons, and papaya trees. The crops were green as could be, flourishing in the tropical sun. As I moved closer, I saw an old man perched in the shade under a rickety old gazebo which had now been overgrown with emerald green vines. His eyes scanning over towards me with such an intensity. His penetrating stare almost stopped me in my tracks, which of course made me want to capture that moment in time. His features were so unique, almost glowing eyes..
“Nice garden, looks like you’ve got some papayas that are almost ready for a salad.”
It became instantly clear this guy was definitely not interested in talking about papayas. Normally Thais can talk about food for days, but not this guy. He just slowly looked up at me and nodded, seemingly uninterested in anything I was saying. So yeah, this conversation was going absolutely nowhere and it didn’t feel right to bother him for a photo. It was all kinds of awkward, so I gave up on the idea, I’d just leave, it was easier.
“Well, I’m gonna get going, see you around.”
But the truth was, I probably wouldn’t see him around or ever – and I was annoyed at myself for not at least trying. So I walked away frustrated, thinking “What kind of fool doesn’t at least make some effort to get that shot in such a unique situation?”
If he declined that’d be Ok with me, at least I’d know I made an effort, but no, I had just walked away from an amazing photo opportunity. So after a minute of arguing this out in my head, I turned around for another attempt. I just couldn’t pass it up.
Of course, there’s the more aggressive style of street photography, no asking permission, shooting photos quickly through crowds like a ninja warrior (or maybe Rambo), fearless. I do that in some busier areas, but it was just the two of us in this peaceful little village in Thailand. Fantastic people live here, and prefer to build relationships in these parts.
Anyways, I turned around and headed back to the old man, camera in hand and ready to try this again. This time I approached him and asked if he wanted to see some of the photos I taken that day, hoping this would this would be more interesting than my garden talk. He looked at the photos, then to me, and smiled. What came next was a surprise. He tapped his ear and shook his hand to say “I’m deaf, can’t hear a word your saying..” Holy crap, this guy didn’t mind me hanging around, he just couldn’t hear me. I then pointed to my camera with the universal “May I take your photo?” gesture. He smiled and nodded in approval. Nice!
First shot – His eyes were closed. Second shot – Eyes closed again. Damn, this is some kinda Earl Hickey situation going on here. I really gotta learn to shoot to continuous mode in times like this. Snap Three – Annnd third time’s the charm!
The lighting, the depth of field, his intense expression – still to this day it’s one of my all time favorite portrait shots. It all happened so quickly and might not have happened, but I forced myself to go back and follow through with it. I then realized this lesson can applied to so many things in our daily life. It’s those times when you’re glad you challenged yourself, took that chance. Use it to make new acquaintances, get perspectives, and walk towards experiences and opportunities, not past them.
Lastly, thanks to the man who inspired this post:
The Old Man of Thonburi – Josh Sullivan, 2014
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