Capturing the Authenticity of Chiang Mai: A Photography Workshop with Kevin and Pansa
Art comes in many forms, a beautiful painting, a well made sculpture, a harrowing film that grips the imagination. All these art forms share the same quality, a need to visually express something to convey an emotional impact.
Enter photography, literally translating to “writing with light” from the Greek. Most visual artists take inspiration from real world events or people, photography is the art form that best conveys truth and deeper meaning in a moment. Every photograph can tell a story or convey an emotion or remind us that living in the present is usually the best option. It’s a powerful medium and one I personally have embraced.
Growing up in the suburbs of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, I was constantly surrounded by my dad’s photography hanging on the walls. I would walk past various stills of children or nature or street folk daily wondering about different people and places. It was perhaps my first foray into my love of exploration and photography.
I would eventually buy a FujiXT1 camera and get serious about photography. Since that purchase, I’ve been to over a dozen countries photographing the very subjects I was surrounded by on the walls of my Canadian childhood home.
Forward to 2018 and I find myself returning to Chiang Mai once again, this time armed with my Fuji and not a simple iPhone. Wanting to continuously improve my skills as a photographer and get some great pictures of Chiang Mai, I turned to Kevin and Pansa’s Photography workshop. They were able to offer me a “Local Life in Chiang Mai Workshop”. It was just what I was looking for as I wanted to capture some of that “in the moment” beauty I was surrounded by so much growing up.
Meeting at the Coffee Club at Thaepae Gate, I met Kevin (in all his moustached glory), his lovely wife Pansa and the other participant of the tour, an Austrian woman named Ruth. Kevin gave us some tips about our cameras; how and when to adjust the shutter and f-stops for example. I got to learn about Kevin during this hour and discovered like me, his upbringing was a huge inspiration in what got him interested in photography:
“My love of photography started because I have two very creative parents and always enjoyed various art and craft activities when I was young. I used my dad’s Zeis Icon 120 format camera to photograph my brother’s band playing an outdoor gig one afternoon and shortly after bought my first Nikon from a friend. 3 of us used to go out photographing together and I was hooked!”
It would appear that if you want your child to have an appreciation for the arts in later years, expose him/her to the form early on.
The practical aspect of the workshop begun.
Our first stop was the Muang Mai Market. Instantly I was attracted to the lack of tourists and the general authenticity of the market. The amount of interesting faces, the colourful backdrops and the lighting made it a street photographers dream. I was getting more and more comfortable with my camera in manual mode thanks to Kevin’s tutelage. He taught me what sort of lights and shadows to look for to obtain a particular background that I was aiming for; completely black background with only the subject in the foreground lit.
As I continued to walk around with Kevin, he told me tales of the people he got to know on his tours, like the picture he took of a man at a particular stall and when he would return a month later, that man was gone only to be replaced with a woman. When asked what happened to the man, the woman’s face turned to utter despair. The woman told Kevin that the man was her husband and died recently. Kevin would later return with a framed portrait of the man which made her face light up and now hangs above her bed in her home.
Kevin also made me aware of which people are willing and not willing to have their photo taken. Good to know as I’ve had issues with a few people in the past when not asking. I would find however that over 90% of the people were happy to have their photo taken. One of the more valuable lessons taught to me was if you want to get a natural smile from someone, show them the picture you just took of them and more often than not, they will smile.
Our next stop was the Warrot Market. Like the former market, this one was abuzz with unique characters, backdrops and wares. What was most apparent about this market were the endless flower stalls which would add copious amounts of vibrancy and life to the atmosphere. The people were more than willing to have their photos taken. Kevin introduced me to an area where trishaw drivers would sit and wait for their next rides which provided a great opportunity for some portrait shots.
I was beginning to see for myself why Chaing Mai was such a special place to photograph. Kevin agreed;
“The people and their culture make Chiang Mai wonderful. It’s rare to have someone be negative towards you for wanting to take their photo. Also, the diverse landscapes, history and architecture of Chiang Mai all make up a never-ending series of photo opportunities.”
A quick lunch break ensued where Kevin helped me edit my photos with my favourite photo editing tool, Snapseed, a must have for anyone who likes to transfer pictures on their phone and edit on the fly.
We continued to our final destination, Wat Si Suphan, also called “The Silver Temple”. We weren’t so lucky on this day as there have been on occasion monks creating silver plated artwork which would’ve presented a great photo opportunity, but we were able to walk around the beautiful temple and take fantastic photographs of the temple itself which I would later learn, was completed in 2004.
I would continue to experiment with different lighting and shutter speed conditions, getting more and more comfortable with my camera in manual mode.
The tour ended with Ruth and I being returned to our respective drop-off points.
One thing that this tour taught me which is difficult to teach in theory, is that photography must contain the humanity of the moment. My experiences walking through Muang Mai Market and Warorot Market gave me the opportunity to capture humanity at its most authentic and expressive. From the heartbroken widow getting a photo of her late husband, to the laughing woman seeing her face on my camera, these markets provided the very elements that photography requires most; a story and authenticity.
Kevin told me at the beginning of the workshop that his grandfather climbed Mt Cook with a massively heavy camera in the late 1800’s. In fact, his grandfather was one of the first who ever photographed Mt Cook. He had to control everything on the camera manually but the results were still fantastic. Kevin has clearly taken up the photography mantle from his grandfather’s reign, much like I have from my father who was a big inspiration for my photographic pursuits.
Clearly photography has more of an effect on people that I realized. It can light up a woman’s face in the presence of loss, it can make a dull moment cheerful and it can turn men such as Kevin and myself into future artists.
Most of all, it captures life at its most vulnerable and I’m more than happy to be a witness to those moments.