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My best Shot

My best Shot

I made it out of the flat to enjoy some sunshine in the garden. This post, potentially the first of a series about making images, begins with a recount of how I came to take my ‘best shot’ which is inspired by the Guardian series of the same name.

I initially felt compelled to take photographs to document early adventures on my first trip to Asia. Josef Koudelka, a photographer whose work and philosophy I greatly admire, compared moving to another country as being reborn, which was pretty much how I felt when I moved East. Seeing things afresh and experiencing the contrasts of an entirely new culture brought exciting new opportunities and as a result photography quickly became less about preserving memories and more about communication, experimentation and exploration.

Inspired by the traditions of photojournalists such as the aforementioned Josef Koudelka, the decisive moments of Henri Cartier Bresson and the humanity of Sebastião Salgado, I found myself wandering with a camera on a daily basis, exploring and meeting people in the backstreets of Bangkok. I’d also never be without my camera on trips away to other parts of Thailand and to neighbouring countries. The simplicity of travelling alone with a camera brought an enormous sense of freedom. This is perhaps captured best through a diary entry I dug out that accompanies “my best shot”.

It was taken in Phuket, Thailand at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar which originates from a community of Chinese tin miners who settled in the early 19th century. You can read more about the event here. It was taken when my interest in photography was at its peak; when I’d get up in the middle of the night to shoot a thunderstorm or I’d travel at will in search of new experiences. The photograph was shot on film which I tend to use for personal work but I’ve also included a couple of digital images that set the scene.

Monday 6th October 2008

It’s just before sunrise and I’m at Samkong Shrine, just north of Phuket town. I’ve made the trip up from the south of the Island on a rented scooter with the intention of joining a street procession during the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Mah Song, devotees who who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies during the celebrations, have gathered in numbers and await the sedan chair they will accompany through the streets of the town. There is an eerie expectant quiet as the first rays of morning sun pierce the residual smoke from fire crackers as I take in the beginning of a ceremony which has become notorious for acts of self mutilation.

Numerous Mah Song in elaborate costume are having their cheeks or tongues pierced with objects as diverse as parasols, branches and knives. Darts and hooks are pushed through the skin of the chest and arms. It is the responsibility of these men, who are specially chosen, to shift evil from individuals and bring good luck to the community, and it’s claimed that they feel no pain as they are ‘possessed’ by the purifying spirits of the Nine Emperor Gods, who they believe will protect them from any harm or scarring.

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Heavy drum beats, the procession leaves the shrine and begins a winding route south through the old town. Residents line the streets to watch with heads dipped and hands together in reverent gratitude. I am moving with a group of men who carry the sedan chair holding a temple deity, the focal point of the procession. The bearers are in continuous motion, twisting and turning, raising and lowering the chair, spinning with it at great pace. I am swept along with them as if in a dance, constant movement, composing the frame and releasing the shutter as moments present themselves. At points along the route firecrackers are set by members of the community to welcome the procession. Great strings of firecrackers suspended from tall bamboo poles are draped the over the sedan chair, the explosions are thought to drive out evil spirits from the statue and the temples from which they come.

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It’s an hour into the procession and I am still waiting for elements to combine. I’m paying close attention to light, to shadow and the form in a state of continuous change. I’m also making efforts not to trip as I back pedal as I’m staying very close to the group. With a wide angle lens, I want to create a picture that throws the viewer in the scene to replicate this experience. I can feel the force and the heat as firecrackers spray me with fragments which burn my skin, while ash combines with the sweat of my arms and neck. My left eye narrows with the smoke and at times closes for fear of shrapnel, my right eye frames through the camera’s viewfinder.

I’m now aware that the light has changed. A side street to the right has allowed the raking morning sunshine to fall on the altar bearers just as a very intense series of explosions goes off. And this could be the moment I have been waiting for. I fire three or four shots before the firecrackers again fade and the procession moves on and I’m sure I have something special. It’s 1/250th fragment of time exposed on 35mm negative so I’ll have to wait to get the film back from the lab back in Bangkok before I see what I have.

Visiting the lab to pick up negatives brings a sense of excitement that never dulls. There are many aspects of the analogue ways that are lost with the immediacy of digital photography. It’s a slow considered process. Marking the contact sheet, editing a series from your initial sequence of images, reliving the emotion of the experience. I highly recommend ‘Contacts’, a wonderful series in which photographer’s talk through their relationship with their contact sheets and their creative process.

“Everything is just right… it’s a photograph” William Klein

The image was a clear pick from the twenty or so images I took during the procession. The wide angle, draws in the viewer – I was very much part of this group. Perspective lines created by the buildings and the overhead electricity cables accentuate the explosions and then fade beautifully to white. The raking light from a side street to the right of frame creates depth, tonal range and texture. It’s a perfect exposure. The framing of the bearers provide a sense of the burden on their shoulders and their shared commitment. The men’s faces are obscured rendering them unidentifiable, unifying them. None are looking to camera. Breaking the fourth wall in this case would have produced a different picture, a portrait. It’s a still, a silent moment in time, but the kinetic energy is profound.

The image was a clear pick from the twenty or so images I took during the procession. The wide angle, draws in the viewer – I was very much part of this group. Perspective lines created by the buildings and the overhead electricity cables accentuate the explosions and then fade beautifully to white. The raking light from a side street to the right of frame creates depth, tonal range and texture. It’s a perfect exposure. The framing of the bearers provide a sense of the burden on their shoulders and their shared commitment. The men’s faces are obscured rendering them unidentifiable, unifying them. None are looking to camera. Breaking the fourth wall in this case would have produced a different picture, a portrait. It’s a still, a silent moment in time, but the kinetic energy is profound.

It’s not until you print the image that know what you really have. This image is scanned from a darkroom print which really has to be seen to appreciate the detail of the sweat on the bearers’ chests or the organic beauty of the grain structure. I won’t go into the joy of printing here but I do wish to acknowledge and remember Surat who I commissioned to print this picture and who tragically passed away not long after I got to know him. Surat worked through a run of five or six prints until he arrived at the final version which you see above.

Surat was hugely popular member of the Bangkok arts scene and is deeply missed. I managed to find this video shot at his lab on Soi Ekamai which brings back wonderful memories.

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