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The way we look

The long-awaited 'Nine Days in the Kingdom' is delivered as a hefty volume of truth - Thailand the way it really is, ecstasy and agony alike

Published on November 15, 2007

 Last January 55 photographers from around the globe - 11 of them Thais - spent nine days capturing all aspects of Thailand from a variety of perspectives - on land, in the air and under the sea. Royalty, kick-boxing, youth culture, ladyboys, celebrities and the southern way of life are all on vivid display in the resulting book "Thailand: Nine Days in the Kingdom".

The mammoth tome was recently launched at the opening of an exhibition of the photographs - some not featured in the book - at the Zen Event Gallery at CentralWorld in Bangkok.

Sales of the volume from Editions Didier Millet are expected to reach Bt9 million, all of which will be donated to His Majesty the King's charitable foundations in honour of his birthday next month.

The vast photography project followed up on "Thailand: Seven Days in the Kingdom", a book published in 1987 to mark the King's 60th birthday. More than 100,000 copies of that edition were sold and it was translated into five languages.

The Zen gallery has devoted various rooms to specific themes, a deluge of 889 images on view.

The tour starts in "The King's Viewfinder", where photographs taken by His Majesty are shown, and in the next room is Anuchai Secharunputong's generous evidence on film of the loyalty which the King enjoys among his subjects.

Along with themes such as "Dawn to Dusk" and "Solidarity", the works of three photographers - James Nachtwey, Greg Gorman and Chien-Chi Chang - are highlighted.

American Nachtwey continues to document the global HIV/Aids epidemic in stirring black-and-white photos, this time following Catholic priest Father Mike to the Wat Phrabaat Namphu Aids hospice in Lop Buri.

Six hours a day for the past four years Father Mike has brought physical as well as spiritual comfort to the residents, bathing and massaging them and changing soiled clothing. 

Gorman, another American who prefers the true grit of black and white, spent time among muay thai boxers and katoey cabaret dancers at Tiffany's in Pattaya, and then blended the two in a lovely portrait of transsexual fighter Nong Toom.

Taiwanese-American Chang delved into the hardscrabble of migrant labourers' lives at Bangkok construction sites. Some were Burmese, some Cambodian and many were from the Northeast - all of them were earning just Bt200 a day.

The grim realities of life are also on display in Frenchman Gilles Sabrie's photos of the homeless people who live in the no-man's land beneath the expressways.

Briton Robert McLeod was more upbeat, twisting the arms of passers-by in Siam Square to pose for portraits in his temporary studio in a mall's car park. Collectively, the 186 pairs of people he photographed flaunt all of the capital's prevailing fashions.

Dow Wasiksiri of Thailand grabbed some amazing pictures of young punks giving alms to a monk after leaving an all-night concert in Bangkok.

Yann Arthus Bertrand of France went airborne aboard an Army helicopter to get bird's-eye views of historic sites in Kamphaeng Phet, a patchwork of flowers in Chiang Mai and the Muslim fishing villages of Panyi Island on Phang Nga Bay.

His compatriot Eric Valli visited the Big Cave - Tam Yai - on the Andaman coast to chronicle the risky ups and downs of the men who gather birds' nests for posh dinners.

"I would wonder if I was still on planet Earth," he recalls, "then realise that I was inside it. I was inside the belly of a gigantic beast which, if I made the slightest mistake, was just waiting to digest me and leave me in one of its darkest corners, a pile of white bones."

The Similan Islands held the attention of Nat Sumanatemeya, who dived into the rainbow of marine life, and another Thai, Manit Sriwanichpoom, explored the rainbow hues of Bangkok's high society.

Photographed in their homes in all their finery are Suriyon Sriorathaikul, Darunee Kritboonyalai, Marissa Mahavongtrakul and Lee Puengboonpra, among others.

"I didn't portray them negatively or satirically," Manit points out. "I tried to capture the reality and how they want the world to see them."

Carlos Freire, another Frenchman, took portraits of prominent figures in the arts, such as khon master Rakop Pothiwes, dancer Manop Meejamrat, theatre director Patravadi Mejudhon and choreographer Pichet Klunchun.

Nation photographer Charoon Thongnual was on the "Nine Days" team as well, but was able to draw on his three years' experience photographing the often-bloody events in southern Thailand to remind outsiders of the region's fundamental beauty.

He captured images of a traditional Muslim birth and a likay huloo performance, and a public aerobics class in Betong in Yala province.

The gallery has set aside a corner where you can watch documentary films of the photographers working behind the scenes, complete with all the excitement, drama and laughter inherent in their jobs.

Among those featured are Steve McCurry in a Buddhist scenario, Catherine Karnow shooting cultural diversity, Rio Helmi in Isaan and Martin Reeves among the hilltribes.

 Khetsirin Pholdhampalit

 The Nation

The exhibition continues daily from 10 to 10 until December 5. The Zen Event Gallery is on the eighth floor of Zen@CentralWorld. Call (02) 100 9999.

The 304-page coffee-table book is available at major bookstores for Bt1,750.

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