Vinai Dithajohn was only 15 when he had to leave school and work as a bus fare collector. His father had to stop working because of an injury. And this misfortune came just a few years after Vinai’s family lost their savings on a series of poor harvests at their rural farm.
For a time, Vinai seemed destined to be just another forgotten page in the chronicles of lost opportunities plaguing his neighbourhood, the Khlong Toey community, one of Bangkok’s poorest areas.
But one fateful day, he came across the 1984 biopic “The Killing Fields,” about two photographers exposing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in neighbouring Cambodia.
“That movie stuck with me,” Vinai recalled. “I wanted to be like one of the protagonists in The Killing Fields.”
After spending the next years working odd jobs, he had finally saved up enough for his first camera, a second-hand Pentax, bought from Chinatown. Self-taught, Vinai picked up gigs from newspapers, first a dog fashion magazine, then travel advertorials. His journey in photography had begun.
It has taken Vinai, now 56, through some of the most iconic chapters of recent Thai history. He has photographed the idyllic beaches before the onslaught of mass tourism and covered all of Thailand’s major protests, a whirlpool of colour-coded politics that very so often ended in tragedies.
Sitting at VS Gallery, a small art space in Bangkok hosting his first-ever solo exhibition, Vinai reflected on an extraordinary career: how his upbringing taught him not to shy away from injustice and inequality, and why he believes a sincere practice of photography remains a powerful tool, as ever, to speak truth to power.
“I think photographers have a duty to study the root cause of the things we photograph, to find out how things came about, and why every issue is so complicated,” Vinai said. “We aren’t there for a fun adventure, just take photos for the aesthetics, call it a day, go home, and think the job’s done. It doesn’t work like that.”
He continued. “Before you can be impartial, you have to recognise the existence of injustice first. If you’re part of the media, but you’re blind to injustice, you’ll end up failing to be impartial as well.”
A storybook of Thai politics
The exhibition is a retrospect of Vinai’s lifetime work documenting political protests, rallies, and violence in Bangkok throughout the years, from yellow-clad urban conservatives to red-shirted convoys from upcountry and, most recently, the student-led protesters who challenged the country’s highest institution.
Gallery owner Voravuj Sujjaporamest first came across Vinai’s works on social media. He noticed a common theme: powerful images of various protests like a storybook of Thailand’s modern politics.
“I think this sets him apart from others. He’s like an archive,” Voravuj said.
And then there are the rawest emotions in his photos; anger, conviction, fear, confusion, helplessness, and even regrets, imprinted the moment he snapped the shutter; a microcosm of humanity amid the multitudes and chaos of protests.
“He likes to draw attention to the faces and eyes of people in those events. It’s really rare,” Voravuj said. “What he does isn’t just snapping photos of history. It’s a history about the people.”
Vinai said the key to his unique style is about seeing more than what just meets the eyes.
“I think photographers have to understand the meaning and causes of the events that we cover,” Vinai said. “We can’t just show up and take photos.”
The most poignant reminder of this was the student protests that began in February 2020 as outrage mounted over the dissolution of the Future Forward Party, a progressive political party popular among the younger generation.
A few months later, the movement had transformed into a bold call for reforms of the monarchy, a deeply sensitive topic in Thailand that many mainstream media shied away from.
Since criticising the Royal Family is both a taboo and crime, there were many inside-jokes and symbolism at the demonstrations that the uninitiated might have missed.
“Yes, some of those things are dangerous,” Vinai said. “But if you are artistic about the way you present them, it can save you.”
Not toeing the line
The exhibition’s sombre works make it hard to believe Vinai’s first steps in the trade were luxury dog photoshoots for a magazine catering to well-heeled pet lovers.
“But it was a good beginning,” he said, laughing at the memories of those early days. “After I tried photography as a career, I was touched. I didn’t feel stressed at all. I knew I loved it.”
But the bliss soon came to an end when new assignments became grimmer and bloodier. He covered armed conflicts in Myanmar and the separatist insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South, where he got the first taste of what was to come: constant suspicion from the authorities towards media workers who don’t toe the official line.
“There was a press trip to visit a base of women army volunteers. The reporters and photographers from large news agencies only reported whatever the officials told them, but I wanted to be close to the people and hear their own stories, and get to the bottom of it,” Vinai said.
“The base commander suspected I was up to no good. He gave me an earful lecture about why it’s important for the media to love their country,” Vinai recalled with amusement.
Vinai has worked for a range of publications, both domestic and foreign, from the Bangkok Post to National Geographic. He helped the European Press Agency, or EPA, establish its first office in Thailand back in 2003. (“I started with literally an empty room,” Vinai remembered.)
Since his highest education was a 9th-grade diploma, Vinai said he made up for his lack of formal qualification by self-studying technical matters, reading books, and learning English on his own. After a successful tenure at the EPA, Vinai left to pursue photojournalism as a freelancer.
A bullet in the leg
Since the early 2000s, Thailand has gone through two coups, five constitutions, and seven premiers – two of them installed through putsches, and three others removed in controversial court decisions.
And against this backdrop of political turbulence, there were street protests and, more often than not, violent crackdowns.
The deadliest was the army operation against Red Shirt protesters in April 2010, when Vinai himself was shot in the leg as the soldiers were advancing on the protesters. He had to hail a motorcycle taxi to a hospital, clutching his camera all the way to the emergency room.
By the time a final military crackdown ended the months-long protest in May 2010, up to 90 people had died, mostly civilians. The fatalities included two photojournalists, one from Japan and the other from Italy.
The latest round of protests organised by monarchy reform advocates in the past two years, also saw many cases of disproportionate use of force against protesters and journalists. Water cannons, rubber-tipped bullets, and teargas were often deployed without warning.
At least eight reporters and photographers were injured by baton rounds throughout 2021, according to a year-end report compiled by rights watchdog group iLaw.
Vinai was enraged by the police tactics of sealing off areas from reporters when they advanced on the protesters, sometimes making sweeping arrests. In one notorious case on 6 December 2021, riot police blocked off reporters with shields and pointed lasers at photographers to stop them from documenting a crackdown on protesters in front of Government House.
“The demonstrators were being dispersed right in front of my eyes, yet the police would not let us get close,” he said, “I want to know what kind of power they have, to stop the media from doing their job.”
Thai Journalist Association president Mongkol Bangprapha said there were many cases of security officers not following the proper protocols causing difficulties to reporters and photographers working in the field.
“Freedom of information belongs to everyone,” Mongkol said in an interview. “Members of the media, as well as the public, deserve protection from the state when they exercise those rights.”
Vinai’s work was made even more difficult because of his status as an independent photojournalist. Security officers are often suspicious of freelancers, apparently perceiving them as less credible than mainstream media or news agencies reporters, he said.
Assume the worst
But Vinai also conceded that the authorities aren’t to be blamed solely for the lack of protection for photographers working in the field. He points out that news agencies often send photographers into conflict areas without proper training and safety gear, such as masks protecting them against teargas.
Most photographers have to pay for protective gear out of their own pocket, making them particularly vulnerable in violent situations. Vinai believes this lack of support from employers pushes away many talented individuals who do not have the means to fund their careers.
In an interview, freelance photographer Chalinee Thirasupa, who’s currently a stringer for a foreign news agency, echoed Vinai’s concerns. She said that there’s a stark difference between foreign and Thai news agencies when it comes to safety; the issue seems to be an afterthought for the latter.
“Training is an important thing for photographers, because once troubles start, they may not know where to go, what to do, which way to run,” she said. “I’ve seen some of them too focused on taking photos, and before they knew it, they were pushed into between the protesters and riot police.”
All in all, Vinai warned, a career in photojournalism is still a tough one. His advice to people who wish to take up this line of work: assume the worst and don’t expect to get rich.
“I know many young people who want to take up this career, but I want to tell them, it’s not as glamorous as people may think,” Chalinee said, laughing. “I mean, it’s fun. You get to report and show people what’s going on out there. It’s a charming job to do. Just, don’t expect too much money.”
The vulnerability of media freelancers was once again highlighted by the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent border closures. Projects were postponed, and demand for photographers plummeted while the pandemic wreaked havoc in the economy, Vinai said.
So to make up for the lack of income, he took up a new part-time job: a rider for online food delivery services that became ubiquitous all over Bangkok in recent years. And he was surprised to learn that he loved it.
“I felt like I was going on an adventure everyday. I got to see the new parts of this city that I never saw before,” Vinai said. “I noticed romantic aspects of Bangkok I never knew existed. But I also saw so many stark reminders of the inequality in our city.”
Vinai said he’s now interested in street photography, thanks to the food delivery gig. And so it seems like his photography journey that began in the dog photoshoot studio so many years ago still hasn’t reached its final destination.
On his phone, he keeps a detailed GPS log of the locations his food orders take him, together with photos and notes of the place of interest. In one such note, Vinai reminded himself to go back to a certain alley at a certain time of the day, when he believed the light would be in a perfect position.
“Bangkok has so many tones,” he said. “I put the pins on all these places so that I’ll go back and bring a camera with me next time.”
Vinai added that he’s considering compiling these photos from his delivery trips into an exhibition in the future.
“That’s what photography does to you. No matter what career you’re in, you’ll always see the world through the viewfinder. You’re always curious what it would look like in a photo.”
“I think it’s a very delightful way to look at the world.”
Edited by Fabian Drahmoune
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