Sometimes in Thailand I don't know whether to be happy or whether to be sad. Removed from the cultural net of my own country, and language, and customs; I am confronted with things that just defy easy categorization.  I used to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market two or three times a year.  Because I am by personality a generalist rather than a specialist, it was fun to wander around just to see what I could see.  One year there was a store selling used cowboy boots.  Cool.  Makes you wonder though I mean what was his source of supply?  Dead cowboys?  Or did he just rip the boots off sleeping cowboys?  I'm single.  I've got time to think about these things.

 

"So within each man is the quick of him, when he is baby, and when he is old, the same quick; some spark, some unborn and undying vivid life-electron."  (D.H. Lawrence)

Sometimes in Thailand I don't know whether to be happy or whether to be sad. Removed from the cultural net of my own country, and language, and customs; I am confronted with things that just defy easy categorization.  I used to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market two or three times a year.  Because I am by personality a generalist rather than a specialist, it was fun to wander around just to see what I could see.  One year there was a store selling used cowboy boots.  Cool.  Makes you wonder though; I mean, what was his source of supply?  Dead cowboys?  Or did he just rip the boots off sleeping cowboys?  I'm single.  I've got time to think about these things.

And of course I would always make the obligatory trip to see the fighting roosters for sale, plus the fighting rooster tonic potions that are supposed to get them jazzed up.  Standing there in the hot sun holding one of these little bottles you have to wonder what effect it would have on your system to choke down the mysterious contents of about twenty of these bottles.  Hey, I can't be the only one thinking this.  Maybe that is where Viagra research started.  Anyway you don't see much of this stuff in Boston and you don't have many of these thoughts in Boston. 

Then of course there was always the food.  I'd never buy anything unless I had a Thai friend with me but it was fun to look.  What the heck is that?  And what is that?  And what in the world is that?  Fun to watch the Thais eat because they know what they are doing and they are happy.  Makes me feel happy to see happy people.  I like tropical fish so I would investigate that.  But just a tourist looker.  Tough to get plastic bags of time zone disoriented fish through Detroit customs on the way home.  The upscale textiles and clothing for women were sometimes works of art.  Reminded me of the extraordinary clothes for women that you can see in the Night Market in Chiang Mai if you look.  Made you want to buy some of the clothes and frame them and put them up on the wall.  Jewelry was always fun.  I love jewelry.  There is a lovely middle aged woman with beautiful black hair to her waist who works at the check-in desk at the Nana hotel who has jewelry up to both of her elbows.  Fun to talk to.  Again, works of art.

And so it would go.  Wandering around to no purpose other than pleasure.  Tourist.  Incredibly crowded and incredibly hot.  Being a tourist.  And at the end of the day I would always make my way through the landscaping section (want to buy some giant rocks?) and go across the street to the park to wind down and cool down.  Not that many people know about the park.  But it is right across the street and fabulous.  A large well tended botanical garden with water elements and benches and paths and civilized people.  The perfect end to the hot and crowded market.  So that would be my trip once, or twice, or three times per year to the Chatuchak Weekend Market.  

And every year and every trip I would forget about the elderly Thai couple that were weaving animals out of straw.  Every single trip I would walk into them, or come upon them, or almost trip over them and internally exclaim, 

"Oh, these guys. They are still here."

And then I would stand and watch.  These two elderly people, man and wife, had no money to rent a stall, or pay others to weave the animals, or even the infrastructure of a table and chairs.  Right in the middle of the weekend market crowd they would just plop themselves down on the concrete and weave little animals out of straw.  Pigs, and roosters, and water buffalos, and snakes, and birds, and frogs, and fish, and butterflies, and dogs, and chickens, and elephants, and monkeys, and scorpions, and spiders, and beetles.  The animals of their agrarian youth.  The animals of their lives.  The characters in their stories, and memories, and dreams.  Just the kinds of things that modern Thai youth sneers at and does not want to be caught dead near.

A public relations weasel and a smarmy agent would have recommended that this couple of ancients should be weaving Mercedes Benz automobiles, and cell phones, and karaoke microphones.  But that would not have been them.  Their race was run, and they were what they were, and the little straw animals were as representative of them as their cells.  The little animals were well woven, and artfully made, and about six inches to a foot high, and very cheap.  I never saw a single person buy one.  

I used to stand and watch and pity.  Poor and illiterate, shabby and filthy, without the means to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of life, and reduced to weaving straw animals that no modern Thais wanted.  And I used to think the paternalistic questions that so infuriate the destitute and the dispossessed.  Questions like:

  • Where do they sleep at night?
  • Do their children remember them, and help them, and love them?
  • Are they receiving any medical care?
  • How long have they been married?
  • Do their grandchildren even know who they are, and do they respect them?
  • Do they get enough to eat?
  • Why are they so filthy?

But over time they won me over.  They would look up and smile.  Smiles without calculation.  Acceptance without guile.  Smiles I do not remember receiving from my own parents.  Smiles I will never receive from a wife or children.  I would squat down and look carefully at each little animal.  They would say things.  Of course I never had any idea what they were saying, but they were talking to me.  Not negotiating or lying or pushing.  Just talking to me.  No one else at the market had talked to me all day.  I would always buy one or two of the little animals.

In the years to follow I made some advances in my thinking and the pity turned to admiration.  They had each other, and they had had each other their whole lives.  I had no one.  It was they that probably pitied me. Their ancient Thai thoughts might have scrolled:

  • Where was my wife?
  • Where were my children?
  • Where was my love?
  • Why was I alone every time they saw me?
  • What was wrong with me that I could not attract a woman?
  • What part of my life could I make with my hands?

They loved each other.  They had each other and their little straw animals that no modern Thai wanted to buy.  Each one was made unhurriedly and with love.  They had a common interest.  They had something that connected them to their lives.  And throughout their lives they had not abandoned the electron spark of their lives that D.H. Lawrence speaks of.  The essential thing that we are born with that makes us unique.  The part of us that can not be sold, or bought, or modified, or denied.  They were what they were, and that is what they went with in their lives.  And to find someone else to share your primal electron spark of humanity and uniqueness is everything.  It is beyond love. It is mating.  They had and they had had everything.

Natural lives lived in concert with the life spark that had been given to them at birth.  The same baby cries, and twitches, and eye movements at the start would be repeated on the death bed.  We are what we are.  To forget or deny bone marrow deep wisdoms is to miss out on life in the pursuit of the ephemeral like social acceptance, or material things.  The only things that matter are to love and to be loved.  Animals that mate for life know this.  Many people do not.  

What was I doing wandering around looking at stuff I did not need?  What grotesquery of foolishness caused me to judge these people based on their lack of power, or their clothes, or their poverty?  I had not one thing that connected me to my life.  Like many modern people my life was one of schedules, and timetables, and quotas, and production meetings, and bills to pay, and then a vacation to some faraway place.  But if someone came in my apartment and tried to pick out something that was 'me' nothing would cry out for attention.

  • What is the quick of me?
  • What is my spark?
  • What is my undying vivid life-electron?

Maybe there was no me to me.  Christ, I am feeling sorry for these people, and I do not even have little straw animals as talismans of my life, or my accomplishments, or my past.  These people are doing better than I am doing.  I had been feeling sorry for them because they did not have any things, and they might have been feeling sorry for me because I did not have any memories.

Sometimes in Thailand I do not know whether to be happy or to be sad.  Why do I go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market?  Because it makes me feel happy.  Doing inconsequential time filling tourist things makes me happy.  Never successful in my business or personal life I am now reduced to little things that make me happy--like going to the Chatuchak Weekend Market.  But then I would stumble into the elderly couple weaving little straw animals.  Now I feel kinda sad.  But I'm not sure whether I feel sad for them, or whether I feel sad for me.  Happy or sad?  Sometimes in Thailand I do not know whether to be happy or to be sad.

Sometimes in my own life I do not know whether to be happy or whether to be sad.

So . . . what is the final denouement of this personal epiphany story?  After all, this is a website for photographers.  I had a camera that day and I knew how to use it.  I also had extra film.  Did I do a circle around these two ancient Thai anachronisms and take lots of pictures?  Did I order them to smile?  Did I move their arms and heads around as if they were puppets?  Did I attempt photojournalism as if I was Margaret Bourke-White or a Life magazine documentarian?  Did I do out-of-scale photo studies of their straw animals as if I was a Japanese commercial photographer?  Did I take a long shot including the surrounding crowd as if I was a stringer for National Geographic magazine?  Did I snap wacky angles and unusual points-of-view as if I was an Orson Welles wannabe?  Did I reduce forty shots to eleven pictures cropped and matted and framed and displayed in a downtown Bangkok gallery, or sidewalk show easel displayed in the Soi Diamond alley between the Windmill Bar and 2nd Road?  Oh, and naturally in this 'show' no mention would be made of the names of the husband and wife.  Too busy engaged in photography to remember humanity.

No, and no, and no, and no, and . . . I didn't take any pictures.  I had a camera and I knew how to use it.  I had plenty of film.  But somehow the idea seemed offensive, invasive, insensitive, boorish, trivial, mean-spirited, and ignorant.  Just because you have technology it does not necessarily mean you have the right or the privilege or permission to use it.  Technology is not moral power, it is an opportunity for moral choice.  Power comes from right intentions, right decisions, and right actions.  I am sure there are many pictures the Buddha would not have taken.

Maybe sometimes it is the picture that you do not take that credits you as a photographer.  Available technology does not confer on you rights to objectify or dehumanize people.  The world is not an amusement park and people are not 'quaint'.  We are all swimming in the same river of life.  We all count.  Sometimes the best way to show respect and sophistication is to not take a picture.  I rarely (never?) read about this idea in photography magazines.  When is the last time you read a story in a photography magazine titled:  The Picture I Did Not Take.  

Maybe it is time for photographers and photography to push back from the gearhead technology table and take a break.  If you can not take an acceptable picture now with today's camera advances then you are in the wrong hobby anyway.  Maybe it is time to consider larger issues.  Maybe the 'primitives' who complain that taking their picture 'steals their soul' should be thought of a little more seriously.

I believe sometimes one of the responsibilities of the photographer is to make a choice about when to take a picture and when not to take a picture.  Notice that the operative word in that sentence is 'take'.  You aren't giving anything.  You are taking.  Choosing not to take a picture does not diminish you as a photographer and it may highlight your value as a human being.  I rarely hear about that.  If you are ever in the Chatuchak Weekend Market and you see these two elderly people sitting on the concrete sidewalk making their straw animals you will have a picture taking opportunity.  The choice is yours.