ESSAY

FOR THOSE WHO DIED TRYING:

A visualisation of violence and impunity in Thailand

Covering unaccounted violence and impunity poses many challenges for photojournalists. Human rights researcher Karin Zackari discusses a unique photographic series documenting extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in Thailand. 

 

By Karin Zackari

 

Thailand’s modern history is ridden with illegitimate state violence and subsequent impunity, from coups d’états to forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and assassinations – all in the name of national security and unity. The Thai state has done little to hide its capacity for violence. Rather, both state violence and impunity occur “in plain sight”, institutionalised by the police, the armed forces and in courtrooms.* Possible to be consumed through a sensationalist printed press filled with crime and gore, the very publicness of illegitimate violence and impunity are means by which the state also “secures compliance from its citizens”.* 

Additionally, the state exercises epistemic violence through its control over a nationalistic history that emphasises unity and denies societal conflicts and political dissent. Official history taught in schools ignores victims of extrajudicial state violence and misrepresents the causes for which their lives were ended.

The photographic series “For those who died trying” by Luke Duggleby and Protection International can be seen as an intervention in Thailand’s history of violence and impunity. Human rights activists habitually put hope in photojournalism not only to draw our attention to what is wrong and unjust in the world but also to protest such atrocities. 

While an image can be a powerful representation of harm done, a challenge to photographic practices that aim to make violence visible is to also make visible the political context and discriminatory regime of which the suffering is a part. By piecing together traces that expose a systematic and repetitive nature of the violence, Duggleby’s photographs create a connection between the victims and the Thai state and between the individual cases of violence and impunity over time and space.

 

Framing human rights defenders

The photographic series was produced and exhibited in Thailand under the government of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a military clique that seized power through a coup in May 2014 and used its powers to silence and punish any opposition, curbing all human rights activism. 

The exhibition, 31 January to 5 February 2017, at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre, just next to high-end shopping centres in the middle the capital was attended by foreign diplomats, political activists, and family members of the missing or dead featured in the photographs. Speaking at the opening was Angkhana Neelapaijit, at the time commissioner for Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the wife of Somchai Neelapaijit, the most noted case among the photographs. Somchai, a human-rights lawyer, who worked on lawsuits against police allegedly involved in torture in Thailand’s southern provinces, was forcefully disappeared in Bangkok on the evening of 12 March 2002. 

Duggleby places a framed photograph of Somchai, dressed formally in a shirt and necktie under a judicial robe, on a city sidewalk. It is dark outside, and cars, their headlights blazing, drive in the direction of the viewer and out of the frame. This is what the scene might have looked like when Somchai pulled over after his car had been hit by another. He got out and was forced into the car that had just hit his. It was established that five policemen had indeed abducted Somchai, but because disappearance is not a crime under Thailand’s penal code and his body had not been found, their trial was for robbery and coercion, and they were ultimately acquitted.

The photographs are taken all over the country in places as distant from each other as Chiang Rai in the far north and Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south. The images follow the same basic script: A framed photograph of a person is placed in or near the scene where the individual was killed or last seen. A caption gives the name and title of the person, the place and date of the alleged crime, and the causes for which the individual was fighting. While each photograph highlights one story of struggle, violence, and injustice, the series makes it clear that these should not be treated as isolated cases. It intends to raise awareness about violence and impunity against rights activists in Thailand. 

At the same time, the photographs are created as “a tribute” to the victims, so “that their fight and their death is not forgotten and left un-recognised.” These are photographs referring to violence: The event of violence itself is not captured, nor is the suffering before death or the lifeless body as evidence of violence committed.

The victims are defined as “rurally based and collectively organised environmental and human-rights activists.” In Thailand, a certain form of political activism is susceptible to a particular form of violence: People are killed or forcefully disappeared for standing up against a more powerful agent. The causes that the victims of the violence fought are of such a nature that state agencies are typically involved at some level, such as the construction of dams, illegal logging, palm-oil plantations, coal factories, and coal-powered plants. 

Categorising the victims as human rights defenders creates a link between the individuals involved by highlighting the rights claims implied in the broad range of struggles. The categorisation also has two other effects. First, it contests any other definition that could be used as a legitimising factor for the violence and impunity: such as security threats, threats to societal order, illegal squatters of land, or destroyers of property. 

Second, the use of the term human rights defenders gives a collective name to the victims. This counters an element in the Thai state’s production of impunity: By not naming a specific type of violence and victims, like forced disappearance, these are erased from records that otherwise could have provided evidence of systematic and repetitive violent practices. Thus, the act of framing a political category of the victims is a denominator over time and space and points to systematic and repeated violence. 

 

Place and Visual Knowledge

A central feature of the photographs is “place”. Firstly, the place is a crime scene. Place serves to provide the photographs with an element of evidence despite them not being forensic: A violent crime requires both victim and a crime scene. Secondly, the geographical location is within the formal jurisdiction of the Thai state. That means that no other actor than the Thai state can ultimately take responsibility for law enforcement, for preventing and investigating criminal activity, and for the respect and protection of human rights within this space. Thirdly, places are inscribed with memory.

The photographic technology, expanding the human field of vision and replacing private memory with public recording of places, has shaped our visual knowledge of the world, making it possible to see places distant not only in space but also in time. Modern techniques such as mapping and landscape photography brought new conceptions of space, serving the nation-state building project with depictions of state territory for administrative purposes. At the same time, visual representations of landscapes both shape and articulate a sense of national identity and belonging.

Photographs transcend time and space – a photograph from the past can relate to a place in the present that has changed over time. A photograph of a place in the present can relate to a past event, despite the absence of that event in the image. The photograph can, at the same time, be both a place for memory and in place of memory. 

In Duggleby’s photographs the violent event is not captured, yet the images are not dominated by an aesthetic of absence. Duggleby engages with the place by bringing a photograph there to evoke or create memory in connection to the site. While memory is usually understood as private, photographs are external objects that are always potentially public. Photography can take the form of the material traces of memory and as such, can function as sites of public and collective memory, like museums and monuments. 

Thinking about place as a crime scene, as a geographical space that is the Thai nation-state, and as a place for memory, Duggleby’s photographs give seemingly “nowhere” places a space in history. These are crime scenes that, through the processes of impunity, are not supposed to be acknowledged as such. These are places in the jurisdiction of a state that has failed to protect the victims and failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. These become the places for the memory of the individuals and their struggles. 

The context for the violence is embedded in the photographic process and reflected in the chosen locations, as described by Duggleby: 

Our aim was to place the picture at the exact place of the crime. However, in some of the cases that wasn’t possible because either the place was private property or was too sensitive or dangerous. So, in that case we would find a place that was either very close, the other side of the private fence or a location within the same area that resembled the original location.”

These are everyday places in Thailand where one can stand without seeing any indication of the violence that happened there: a road passing by a temple, a pineapple field, outside a home, inside a home, a mangrove forest, a dirt track leading back to the village, a garage, a shophouse. The photographs give the impression that these crimes can occur anywhere at any time, in a public place frequented by people and in remote and deserted places, even at home, in daylight or in the dark, near or far away from state authorities. 

Prawien Bunnak, a secretary of a farmers’ federation, was shot dead outside government buildings in the northern town of Wang Sapung (see figure 3). Duggleby places his photograph in a lane of a road, a tuk-tuk and motorcycles are driving by, and in the far background, sharp eyes can spot the logo of one of Thailand’s larger rural banks. The lampposts in the middle of the road are decorated with gold paint, signalling that this is an important street. Blurred to the left in the frame is a Thai pavilion, a sala, with gold-ornamented roofs as is customary when used for worship. The pavilion stands behind walls decorated with golden garudas (the national emblem), several Thai flags, and a standing royal portrait towering over a large blackboard with writing in white. This is what official places in provincial towns usually look like, and a quick Internet search reveals that the sala stands in the compound of the district office, the administrative unit directly under the Ministry of Interior. 

Just outside her home, 49-year-old Pawkipa Chalernklin fighting the construction of a container port in her community, was shot dead (see figure 3). Her photograph is placed on a road as it leads past a green fence that can be presumed to belong to a private home. Electric poles follow the road that continues in between trees and high vegetation, giving the impression that this is on the outskirts of a town or village, yet beneath the poles is again the Thai flag, now coupled with royal blue flags.

In most photographs in the series, Duggleby has brought a photograph of the victim into a more or less accessible public place, but some of the crimes happened in locations that, for one reason or another, were closed to the project. One man was abducted from a police station, and thus his portrait (in this case a drawing) is placed in his home. The crime can also happen at home. Sittichok Tamtecha, who held a position in the local administration and had been fighting against corruption, illegal logging, and the construction of a dam, was shot at home . Working with the effects of lines and light, Duggleby draws the viewer into the home and toward the victim whose photograph is placed in an open window frame.

With the photograph of a place, Duggleby introduces a visual component to a possible knowledge of violence. The photographs are presented separately in a linear series, not organised chronologically or geographically. Although the Thai state is seldom directly inscribed in the photographs when seen together, the images are like red dots on a map for the onlooker to draw a line between them. Each photograph draws our attention to a single crime scene, but the various locations that make up the series form a visualisation of interconnectedness and, as such, can be seen as a representation of the Thai nation-state.

 

The Portrait and the Victim in the Thai State

The second component repeated throughout the series is the photograph of the person who died. Here Duggleby connects to global human rights activists and memory practices, going back to the 1970s South America, where women first came out to demand justice for their sons, brothers and fathers who had fallen victims to state violence. To bring photographs of people who have forcefully disappeared into the public realm is at the same time to insist on the presence of those whose deaths have not been officially recognised. These acts are making traces of unaccounted violence visible and can be understood as an intervention in the public memory. Drawing on past atrocities of military rule, combining commemoration with protest for democracy, Thai activists commonly display photographs of the dead after public events of state violence. 

Like activists bringing photographs of the dead and the disappeared out in the public for commemoration and protest, Duggleby uses photographs that typically would have remained in the private sphere of a family, had no crime taken place. Duggleby describes the process for choosing photographs: 

“Generally, we let the family choose the photo but most often there was only one picture anyway, the photo that had been used at the funeral cremation as is Thai tradition. This tradition is what allowed us to complete the project successfully as most families had a large portrait. However, sometimes the family only had an ID photo, especially in the older cases, so we had to scan the ID photo and print an enlarged version ourselves.”

In the cases of the murdered and disappeared rights activists, sometimes the only photograph of the person is the ID card – a photograph produced by state authorities to register state subjects. Through the photograph, the state acquires and classifies the individual citizen, the subject. The ID photo and the funeral portrait confirm that the dead or disappeared person has once been seen and fitted into the order of the state. 

The portraits, belonging to the sphere of private commemoration, are placed in spaces accessible to the public: the place where the crime happened, the exhibition in Bangkok, and on the Internet. As such, the portrait reclaims the photographed person’s place and belonging in Thai society. Taken into consideration here is also the photographic postulate that we cannot deny the being of what once stood in front of the camera. When the state denies the individual’s right to life and justice through violence and impunity, the photograph in Duggleby’s scene talks back at the state — the reproduction of that individual’s photograph in a location that is a place in Thailand is a visual imprint of the being (that once was) a state subject.

The photographs in the series work to create a public memory of individual destinies. They also confirm that these individuals risk anonymisation as just one among several similar cases. In Duggleby’s series, the caption informs the onlooker of the person prior to death and at the moment of death: This is Mr. or Ms, who was shot, abducted, or last seen on this date, at this place that the person had a relation to, fighting this cause. The captions connote the photographs with a pattern that adds a layer of connectivity among them and function against anonymisation.

There is a potential power of photography in relation to the visibility of violence and impunity. On the one hand, there are press photographs that make violence visible while also reinforcing a state order of violence and impunity. On the other hand, the singular events of such violence tend to become only traces in the archives that risk invisibility in a history where memories are confined to the private sphere. To avoid decontextualising and depoliticising the violence, photographic practices need to thread the individual suffering and the political, historical, or cultural context of that suffering

The staged photograph is a signifier of both a crime and a person’s belonging: The photograph of the person placed in a scene indicates a connection between person and place; the ID or funeral photograph indicates the person’s private and institutional relationships. The series, in turn, creates a connection between the separate events over time and space. In the series, the site where the victim’s photograph is placed becomes a place for memory through Duggleby’s documentation. The places seemingly have no historical significance, yet the photographs refer to a historical continuity, that of the persisting state violence and the subsequent impunity. By placing the victims in a photographic frame of space and time, they and their destinies are symbolically placed in a history that is geographically and juridically bounded by the Thai nation-state. 

The photographs in Duggleby’s series border the line between research and activism in the production of knowledge and challenge assumptions about the photograph as evidence of a crime, as a historical record, and as a material basis for memory. Although the explicit intentions are to spread awareness and to commemorate the victims and their struggles, the photographic practice is also archival. Against a state that does not secure justice for violence, producing and disseminating photographs of or referring to violence can be a way of writing the acts of unaccounted state violence into history.

 

You can view the project in its entirety here.

This is an abridged version of an original article published in 2019, with Trans Asia Photography (formerly TAP Review). Volume 10, Issue 1: Writing Photo Histories, Fall 2019, Permalink here

Karin Zackari is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of History at Lund University, Sweden with a PhD in Human Rights. Her PhD concerned the use of photography, by activists and scholars, to write human rights into the history of Thailand. In addition, she also researches historiographic photography, visual practices, archives, the performative aspects of nationalism and citizenship, political violence, exile, and the political history of Thailand.