Thursday, September 28, 2006

Portrait of a Boxer, by Timothy Syrota

This picture is not by me, but it's now mine.

Timothy Syrota shot it, in Burma, during a bare-knuckle Thai (or, in this case, Burmese) boxing match organized by the rebel Burmese army, the DKBA (Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army). It was exposed six months ago in Bangkok, at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondant's Club of Thailand), where I first saw it and began thinking of purchasing it. I jotted down Tim's e-mail and wrote him to congratulate him on his amazing work.
"I went to your exhibit and I was blown away. Your work has created a lasting, harrowing impression on me.

I saw the exhibit as being on pain and going beyond pain, something close to sacrifice. The cover-picture's boxer, flat on his back, exuded this but also the "LV" belted boxer, with those outstretched heavily muscled arms and that hollowed, dark ribcage; his Christlike pose had something nearly satanic. The ring seemed like a dream of the unconscious boy being dragged away, and again, he made me think of a martyr.

These references are not the only thing I saw in your wonderful exhibit but I'm not writing to pose as some kind of critique so it's better I leave it at that. I'm only trying to say I was deeply impressed by your work. I really want to get a print but I have to wait a little bit.

I really look forward to your next exhibit."
Tim's a busy guy but he kindly replied and I emailed him a few more times over the past months because I could never quite get his pictures out of my head. I eventually told him which picture I wanted and that I finally had the dough. He stays only in Bangkok for a few days when he does, running around to see labs, printers, and other such people. Still, he made time this morning after popping out of IQ labs to see me at the coffee shop across from my office.

At his exhibit, he had provided written labels with some information on the amazing stories behind his pictures but he kindly shared more this morning and it's fascinating stuff. Just imagine the DKBA organizing these bloody boxing matches (most matches are done without gloves, just the traditional strips of cloth wrapped around the hands) in Burma but in zones where the junta has no power. Everyone crosses in and out of there with no visa, but with permission from the rebel army. Even the Burmese military come in to watch! Rebels and minions of one of the hardest military dictatorships in the world sit side by side to enjoy this expensive (for the DKBA) and exciting event. On the surface, the fights are not really about Burmese vs. Burmese though, as they pit Burmese against Thais in an expression of the hatred that has existed between the two nations for centuries. But this is definitely a show of power for the DKBA that resonates within Burma and amongst Burmese refugees.

That's the political backdrop, but the individual stories, sometimes tragedies, that explain why someone would get his face punched to a pulp for twenty dollars are a lot more poignant. He's currently collecting more data, conducting interviews, and hopefully shooting some more for the next three months. It should all culminate in a fantastic book. At the end of the year, he'll be through with Mae Sot (the Burmese refugee camp in Thailand) after spending 2 and a half years there. He is now considering a stint in Africa before coming back to settle in SE Asia more permanently. Too bad he's out of here soon but we'll keep in touch, I'm sure.

You can see images by Tim, from "Boxing on the Border" but also of the DKBA and of his art project with refugee children on his flickr account (link).

You won't see this particular image on his flickr account. I might also be the first to buy it since I have number 1/48 (this is the copy that was exposed at FCCT). It's not one of the most striking images, and Tim didn't show it at his last exhibit in Australia but then again he was showing not just the boxing so he had to trim down on that. But this picture grew on me particularly.

Part of the reason it is so beautiful, and this goes for all Tim's pictures, you can't see on your screen. Tim has all his pictures hand-printed in Thailand by two masters in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai. I think this print was made in Chiang Mai. There's just no way you can have any idea of what this picture is about by seeing it here on a screen. A hand-made print surpasses anything you could ever get by dropping off your pictures at a lab, even if you ask for a high-quality print. Trust me, I've tried. Hand-made prints means the printer will make test-strips or even entire prints before he makes the one you eventually get to see. It's total perfection. The quality of the blacks and the tonal range is simply amazing. It's also very luminous. I tried to raise the levels on the small scan he had sent me to confirm we were talking about the same image but it just looks murky now.

As for the picture itself, I guess my first e-mail to Tim describes what I feel pretty well. Intense, dark, harrowing, with a lot of pain. I showed it around at the office, quite proud of it, and people just shrank from it and made grimaces. One asked, "You like this kind of stuff?" At first, I thought, "Oh well, they don't get it." But now I realize that they do get it, and they can't take it.

This is the first piece of art I buy, ever. I never put anything on my walls. I hardly ever print my own pictures. But this image is getting framed right now. It's 16x20", and the frame will extend 4.5" on all sides but the bottom, which will be at 5.5". Tim said that if the top and bottom are the same length, it looks as if the top is longer. I just know it will look beautiful and I will never tire of it, unlike with my own stuff.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

true (advertorial)





True is a service provider and these pictures are meant to be accompanied by an interview where Champ (the young lad in the pics who is the host of some kind of sports TV show here) will tell us all about how, when he goes shopping, he always makes sure there's True wifi available cuz he never leaves home without a PDA, a mobile phone, and a laptop. Oh and he loves eating at Kuppa restaurant, hence the odd "Kuppa" sign. Good thing Playground!, the hip mall on Soi Thonglor home to the restaurant, has True wifi.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

the illusion of democracy will return after these messages

Soon 3 years in Thailand and already one tsunami and one military coup. Amazing Thailand, never boring.

With the new visa rules, I couldn't care less. Even knowing the Prime Minister may well soon taste the bitterness of exile himself fails to cheer me up.

Oh and for the record, democracy was interrupted here in 1947, not last night.

"On November 8, 1947, army troops seized various government installations in Bangkok. The coup, led by Lieutenant General Phin Choonhavan and Colonel Luang Katsongkhram, ousted Luang Thamrong's government. It marked the return to power of Phibun." (link)

It should resume shortly, when every farmer in Isaan learns to count and read.

Monday, September 18, 2006

on assignment in China

I'm most likely going to be on assignment in China. I'm going to shoot the construction of a high-rise. I've been dreaming of doing that for a long time now and when I suggested it to a friend who works for big steel company that supplies the beams for such a project in Shanghai, he said, "Cool. Let's do it." I'm completely psyched at the idea. I can just see those night shots of welders operating 40 stories above ground.

The bad news, still today (what a day), is that visa laws are changing in Thailand and on October 1st, all foreigners that don't have retiree or work permits have to (to make a long story short) pack up. I'm in a bit of a panic and will try to meet up with some lawyers this week on this issue. A sizeable portion of the expat community here must be in a panic come to think of it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Studio 47 Sunday Muay Thai

Studio 47 is packed high up with people, nearly to the ceiling, just like on any Sunday. There's a single tiny door out of this hellish cube so that spectators must begin to file in over an hour before the first fight. Don't look at the maze of cables on the ceilings, feeding the burning spotlights--if this place caught fire, hundreds would never make it out. Along with the lights, the fevered crowd has cooked what little air hovers above our heads to a boil. Shorts are not allowed here. This is not some joint where kids come to break in their shins and noses while the latest crop of tourists swings Singha beers on their 1,500 baht ringside seats. This is the site of a mass followed weekly by an entire nation. TVs throughout the Kingdom are turned onto the feed coming from this very room and provided by just two cameramen and a Louma crane (47 stands for channels 4 and 7). On the ground, we're all squished against each other but no one seems to care. Eyes are on the bright white square in the center of the studio, where two 13-year-olds are currently pounding each other's faces in with their elbows and knees. For every blow, the entire crowd shivers and lets out a gigantic roar. Hypnotic music played by a few dry old men, the pervasive smell of camphor oil, two bodies dancing/fighting in synch with a rolling sea of Thais--Studio 47 packs quite a punch itself.

Khun Pong spots me clutching my Lowepro camera bag, covered in sweat, attempting to adjust to the noise, the lack of oxygen, and the heat. I'm not hard to miss. I'm the only white guy in the room, and that's not very rare in Bangkok for rooms that pack a thousand people. I just stand there, the wind knocked out of me, taking in the bloodlust, so thick it inebriates me. So this is what a crowd at boiling point feels like. Khun Pong starts to elbow his way to me, barely less viciously then the kids in the ring.

"Follow me. We wait for end of match here, then we go." He points to three photographers shooting from under the ropes with battered Canons. Once Khun Pong has pulled me to the steel barriers cutting the masses off from the ringside, every other guy is some kind of special cop, in blue uniform unlike the regular police. They're not exactly nervous--everyone got searched on their way in and isn't carrying so much as a mobile phone--but they're definitely keeping an eye on things. It wouldn't even take a fire in here to get a lot of bodies. A bit of panic and a stampede would easily do the trick, at which point their Python .357s would only make things worse.

Lost in the crowd are men clutching plywood boards to which are glued dozens of mobile phones, the only ones allowed. They are the bookies, screaming into the phones while taking bets from inside the room that are made through hand signals no less sophisticated than those seen on the stock market in the old pre-computer days. Nobody takes any notes though, and there's no blackboard. It looks like everybody keeps track of what's going on in their heads. People bet with each other directly at times, skipping the bookies, or just stand there waving there fingers around for someone to pick up their bet. One old man dressed for a Sunday at the racetrack has completely lost his voice. He lets out a hoarse squeal then just explains something with half a dozen signals that the bookies copy A-Ok. And not a baht note in sight. It's all based on trust, or the grim fact that not paying up your debts would be the last thing you did.

Betting on Thai Boxing is the only form of betting or gambling allowed in the Kingdom. It's not the only one that goes on (thousands of households went bankrupt over England's loss at the last worldcup) but it's the only one you can't even pretend to ban. Half the men here are not around for the simple joy of watching two guys pummel each other, they're here to make it big. Lives are at stake here, perhaps more so than for the boys putting their necks out under the spotlights.

Guys are not the only ones taking this seriously. Women bet too, if less, but their faces can bend into masks of rage (as there favorite boxer takes a beating) that make the men look stoic in comparison. And girls and boys roars just as well, in perfect unison, for every blow delivered. Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah! The crowd carries the fight, the fighters carry the crowd.

The boxers (the fight is now two star fighters in the 120-pound range, probably in their early twenties), covered in camphor oil, doused in ice between each round, have skins that remind me of horses and dogs after a long run. Their veins are bulging, struggling to feed oxygen to their exerted muscles. Their jaws are slack, as the mouth tries to feed oxygen too, to the lungs this time. Every part of the machine is stretched to the limit. By the time I've made it to the photographer's pen, I can assuage just how hard the blows are. The smacks are loud, very loud, projecting clouds of droplets of sweat and oil into the air. When the boxers come crashing towards the photographers, we all duck for cover. These guys are very light, but they're throwing their bodies at each other with the weight of elephants.

Despite the nearly free-for-all aspect of Thai boxing and the savage violence of the blows, there is extreme grace and intelligence in it. The fighters seek each other out, trick each other, taunt each other, and when they move in, it is with exacting precision; it is the movement of an idea, of a strategy, not just of a body part. Boxing and fencing are really the same thing, only Thai boxing involves every single part of your body. Only head-butting is forbidden. Bruce Lee wrote that Thai Boxing missed only locks and dirty tricks to be the ultimate martial art. But if the crotch is off-limits, and hair pulling and eye-poking is impossible because of the gloves, it just makes the fight longer. Even projections are allowed but the fact they are not followed byimmobilization techniques again just make the fight more spectacular. When these are allowed, you get Ultimate Fighting, where burly men grapple at each other on the ground for what seems like forever. Bruce Lee may have been able to kick Thai boxer's asses, but that's not what it's about. There isn't a more fast-paced, consistently violent, punch and kick-packed martial art in the world. Muay Thai is a show. It comes with music, it comes with a ceremonial dance at the opening of each fight (ram muay) to call on the favors of the spirits, and it has a crowd that sings along. This is entertainment at its best; the kind that takes you out of your body and lets you commune with an entire crowd through two lone avatars dancing in the spotlight--the ultimate cathartic experience.

manager's last instructions

Ram muay (ceremonial dance opening the fight)

the blue corner as their boy takes a beating

prize fighters

who will kick first?

the fight is not going well for him


Bitter rivals a second ago chill out in the shade after a quick shower.

photo tech notes:
I shot a roll of medium format outside so look out for that in the coming days. This here was all shot with a Canon 350D, 18-55mm (crap) kit lens at 1600 ISO, 1/160s to 1/200s, f/5.6 (wide open on this lens) to f/8 (because the autofocus sucks). Pictures at these settings were way too dark and levels were raised in post-production, hence the grain and aweful colors. Of course, no RAW as even in JPG my 1GB compact flash filled up in one fight. I need more of those and a faster lens (f/stop and AF), and maybe a 30D as well. Flash is not allowed at Studio 47 as this is a TV studio.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

True Cafe on Soi Thonglor

For me, what really matters here, is that I requested that they put the accent aigue on the first E of my name. The pictures are nice too.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Lomo Compact Automat, Niet Automat

When two Austrians picked up a piece of Soviet-era junk and decided they would bring it to the information-age masses of the capitalist world, they started a revolution that has become a legend. It took Vladimir Putin (ex-chief of KGB and Russia's current top dog) himself to ok the Austrian duo's plan to export his hometown's secret weapon, the Lomo Compact Automat, and the rest is history. The little black camera has since sold around the world and reached cult-status with such VIP users as Yasser Arafat (ex-user actually) and His Holiness the Dalai Lamai.

Lomo is now almost a synonym for the analog movement in its entirety and the dirty little secret is that most of it has nothing to do with the camera. Lomo users cross-process their film, which is what gives the wild colors and killer contrast. To cross-process is to use slide film and ask your lab to develop it as regular negative color film--basically use the wrong chemicals (see the Holga post). The final touch comes from the Lomo being a pretty bad camera. The dark corners it produces are from poor lens design. As for the under and over-exposures, they're from sub-par metering (the camera's ability to judge how to best capture the scene you're photographing). Normally these are considered inexcusable flaws which lens and camera makers spend millions of dollars in R&D to reduce to a minimum. But the genius behind the Lomo is to make their deffects selling points by turning them into the shortest path to developing a style of photography that doesn't look like everybody else's. The LCA can be found at for USD 200 (B16,000). Another option is the Olympus XA series cameras, reputed similar to the Lomo. Those start at 20 USD (B800) on and occasionaly pop up at the antique camera dealers at Pirom Plaza (Mahachai Rd., across Merry King and next to Grande Ville Hotel, map).

Tested at Benjakitti Park (Th. Radchadaphisek, MRT Queen Sirikit Convention Center, BTS Asok) with Fuji Provia 100F 35mm film.

TIP: For cross-processing, make sure you buy Fuji Provia film and go to a smart lab that understands, "Can you please cross-process this?" We went straight to the pros with our batch--IQ Lab

Now here's the unspeakable truth.

Half the pictures on the roll are completely dark. 4 shots are properly exposed (I mean within like a couple stops of latitude) and the rest really needed a lot of help during scanning (way too dark or bright). No shots were completely burnt out. I know that cross-processing + slide film (naturally contrasty) doesn't leave a lot of latitude when shooting but this is just ridiculous. If the cell on the Lomo Kompact Automat is that useless, it might as well not be there. The Holga, with its rudimentary sun/shade settings proves proves much more useable with a near 100% useability rate on the two rolls I shot with it. I'll have to ask Analog Memory what I'm doing wrong or if I should just take a beneath 50% success rate as part of the Lomo Experience.

Still, and like the Holga, I really like some of these shots. The thing with 35mm film is that it's easy to find places that sell it, process it, and put it on CD. 35mm is also cheaper than medium format per picture but if you consider the price in relation to surface of celluloid, medium format is not more expensive. I'm very interested in the Olympus XA which actually has rangefinder focus! Some people consider it a worthy alternative to the Lomo LCA. Ken Rockwell reviewed it here and thinks it's an excellent camera. Not too excellent, I hope.

Great! I always shot Fuji Velvia 50 slide film in them.

I preferred the XA2. It's meter was more consistent and had a clearer center weighted pattern. I preferred the full program automation. The XA's meter had a weird sensitivity pattern which extended beyond the image.

The meters are traditional and non-evaluative. You must use use the Zone System and compensate for light and dark subjects. I set the ISO lower to increase exposure and higher to reduce it.

The XA adds a +1.5 stop backlight position.


Both lenses are sharp. The XA has a very complex lens design allowing it to fit in the camera without needing to retract or extend, and as a result of this design has some barrel distortion and light falloff at all apertures.
So I went on PBase to see real-life shots (here) taken with XA but I don't see any vignetting, unfortunately. I really liked what people were doing with it though. It kind of upholds my theory that some cameras have a little magic in them.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Holga 120GN: From Benjasiri with Love

Chromatic aberration: Check
Vignetting: Check
Spot focus: Check
Under/overexposure: Check
It's a HOLGA!

If only the Russkies had nuked the Yanks in the 80's, we wouldn't have all these idiotic forums debating which camera has the least noise at 1600 ISO. For one, we wouldn't have internet but, more importantly, we would all be shooting pretty sorry excuses for a camera. Unfortunately, we'd know how crappy our cameras are because the party photographers would be shooting 35mm from captured Japanese stock while us deep-coal miners would have to settle for the mass-produced all-plastic Holga. Pictures from our vacations to the Black Sea would come back after a month at the lab followed by three months sitting on the desk of the regional head of the Photographic Ethics Bureau looking something like this:

We wouldn't even be able to claim they are high-art and that the effects are intentional because millions of other factory-plant workers' vacation pictures would look just as bad. We'd tack the least worst one to the wall of our now sub-zero (August + 4 months = December) apartment in the suburbs of Putingrad and dream of next year's summer vacation, hoping it wouldn't be canceled due to compulsory "voluntary sacrifices and utmost dedication from all workers" in the arms race with China.

For real (fun ends here, comrades), our pictures wouldn't have to look quite as funky as these. These pictures were shot with Fuji Astia 100F and cross-processed. When the lab handed them over, I thought, "Yikes, it's all green. Where are the colors? And how come it's a negative. I gave them a slide film." (I'm very late on this whole project so the idea of having to get new film and re-shooting, with the friendly guys from Analog Memory waiting for me to give them back their cameras, was not pleasing at all.)

Once I loaded the reversal film turned negative into my awesome Epson 4990, I got a whole different story than from the old Epson at work. You can correct a lot during scanning because of the incredible bit depth of high-end scanners like the the 4990. I tried not to correct the pics too much because I like the original feel but see how almost all of the reddish cast is gone in the shot below:

Cross-processing is using the wrong chemicals to develop your film. Since these pictures were shot with slide film, they were developed with the chemicals designed to process negative film. Different slide films will produce different results. These pictures don't have the famous "Lomo" look (yellowish/greenish cast) because Fuji Astia, when cross-processed, comes out exceedingly red/magenta. According to Analog Memory Fuji Velvia comes out really red and black (worse than this). So for the "Lomo" look, make sure you use Fuji Provia. I don't know about Kodak because I don't have Kodak film. Fuji gave me this film for free. They are nice. They will grow old and prosperous. Their families will be blessed for a thousand generations. Shoot Fuji and you too will receive these blessings.

The fact that the slide film turned into a negative is normal. It's a product of the cross-processing. I find that fascinating because it means slide and negative film are fundamentally the same thing. They're just tuned differently to produce the right colors when processed with slide or negative chemicals. It's like activating a gene with a certain hormone or something. IQ Lab developed the film for free and the big boss even wrote to me to explain cross-processing in detail. Here's a summary of his letter:
"Color reversal (slide) film is normally processed in E6 chemicals. Color negative film is processed in C41 chemicals. Cross-processing is developing reversal film with C41 chemicals. The differences in film dyes (negative's bases, which have lower contrast, are usually dyed brown or orange to look good in print) create the shift in colors.

Most photographers choose to cross-process and pull-process together for more balanced contrast. Cross-processing increases contrast and pull-processing reduces it.

Pull-processing is over-exposing the film but then under-developing. This creates correct exposure with less contrast. For example, using Fuji Provia 100 film, set the ISO speed to 50 ISO on you camera. This will make it systematically over expose. Then come to lab and tell them that your 100 ISO film was shot at 50 ISO and we will perform one stop pull-processing.

Of course, you could cross-process and push-process.

Push-processing is under-exposing and over-developing. This increases contrast. Cross and push processing combined would create extremely high contrast that could be suitable for scenes in the shade with low contrast.

In the end, it's up to you and the best way to find what you like is to experiment. Different films will give different results.

Lomography is a stylish form of photography. Using a simple camera and an unusual developing process, images will appear eye catching. Sometimes these toy cameras suffer from extreme chromatic aberration and light dispersion but these are good effects for this kind of photography. Lomography is very popular with our clients here, along with giclee prints."
Well thank you Khun Sompetch! This is the boss of the biggest pro lab in town with three or four addresses all over Bangkok and he took the time to write all that in English. Get your film processed at IQ Lab. They rock.

It's not obvious with this Fuji Astia 100F film used here but he's right that cross-processing can be way too contrasty in direct sunlight and I'd definitely push-process Fuji Provia 100F to get lower contrast if I ever try this again. You'll see what I mean later this weekend when I post the Lomo LCA/Fuji Provia 100F pictures.

I'm in love with the Holga. The pictures it produces are packed with emotion. My initial take on cross-processing and hip sovietnik junk cameras were that they were just gimmicks to help people devoid of artistic talent give an arty feel to their work. Well, maybe that is exactly what they are but it's mission accomplished as far as the Holga is concerned. There's a magic to it that definitely wouldn't be there if you took the same shots in digital or with a standard 35m SLR. I don't like a single digital shot I've taken in roughly two months with my 350D. I don't like a single shot I've shot in two years with my Sony DSC-P200. I really like some of the shots here. I think the Holga's lens has so much personality that the cross-processing is a bit overkill. I'd love to try it simply with the beautiful Velvia 100 ISO and normal processing.

Taking perfect digital pictures requires a LOT of skill and know-how (contrarily to what the camera makers would like you to believe) and bores everybody to death. Taking the cool and trashy pictures shown here from the Holga just took 2 rolls shot in 1 hour at the park. I never touched a Holga before in my life and I didn't have the manual. This camera takes no batteries and you don't even need to know how to read to use it. The lens has drawings of a bust, two people standing with a kind, a big group of people (like a wedding), and a mountain. Use these to focus the lens. For light, there are only two settings: sun or cloudy/shade/flash(if you have one). Point, shoot, enjoy. The viewfinder is simply a piece of plastic that gives a rough idea of the frame. It's not connected to the lens in any way.

What further stuns me is how bad the camera is. I mean, as a toy for bored hipsters, the quality is just perfect, but if this was the vacation camera of the masses, no wonder the masses got pissed off. This thing is total junk. It takes all the defects you'd find in a cheap third-party zoom, multiplies them by ten, and packs them into a single fixed focal lens. The older Holga even suffered from serious light leaks from the body and required to be taped shut every time you changed film. While the model I used here has a glass lens, most Holga cameras are all plastic so image quality should be worse with those. With the Holga 120GN, the very center of the shot does have ok sharpness.


Holga = cool + fun + art + easy

Tested at Benjasiri Park (Th. Sukhumvit, between Soi 22 and 24, BTS Phrom Pong) on Fuji Astia 100F medium-format film.

In Bangkok, Holga 120 CFN (all plastic) cameras can be found for 3,400 baht at Room Interior (3/F Siam Discovery Center, Rama I Rd.) and the Shop@TCDC (6/F Emporium, 622 Sukhumvit Rd.)

Big Thanks to:

Analog Memory
, who lent me the Holga
Fuji, who gave me the film
IQ Lab, who processed it for free and K. Sompetch for his advice.