Snapshots of Chiang Mai’s working class, an exhibition

Capturing Chiang Mai’s working class during a pandemic

By | Thu 7 Jan 2021

“I got super dirty collecting photographs for this exhibition,” said Will Langston, a photojournalist from Buffalo, New York, who’s exhibition, Working Class Portraits: Chiang Mai, Thailand, opens on Friday, 8th January 2021.

Langston has lived in Chiang Mai for five years teaching grades 6-12 at Ambassador Bilingual School in Saraphi. He is also enrolled in the Masters of Fine Arts programme at Chiang Mai University, where he is studying photography. As though that doesn’t keep him busy enough, the past six months Langston has been a regular contributor to Citylife, mainly covering political activism stories in Chiang Mai as well as travelling to Bangkok to cover student protests.

And yet “Most of my free time and vacation days over the last year have been spent driving my motorbike in an arbitrary direction and hunting for a good photograph,” says Langston. “I found myself knee deep in a rice field, floating down the Ping River or lost down a dirt road in pursuit of a good photograph. In order to research and document the working class I had to get out of my classroom and into the real world. I’ve ripped my pants, dropped a camera, lost countless lens caps and spent tons of hours lost down random roads. I looked for great working class subjects, lighting and composition. Some days I would get lost adventuring and I wouldn’t take a single photo. On other days, I would get lucky and quite a few opportunities would arise. This project got me off my butt and into the field. Going out was a gamble but it made me feel a little closer to Thailand. It’s all about the Chiang Mai experience for me.”

Having fallen in love with Chiang Mai during a weekend visit while living in Bangkok many years ago, Langston gave up the busy streets, and traffic, of the big city and moved to the north. While enjoying his career as a teacher, Langston’s passion for photography attracted him to the MFA programme at CMU, “Because it’s thesis base and very self-driven. The CMU’s programme allows me to use all the knowledge and tools I’ve acquired throughout my education and apply it to the world around me. I’m able to go out into the field, take photographs and get feedback from my professors and colleagues.”

“The people of Thailand are beautiful,” said Langston. “It’s not just the smiles that touch me but it’s also their warmth, dedication and style. Thailand’s working class has these in spades. I see working class labourers everyday while driving around the city. I want to capture the Chiang Mai working class in a way that reveals their importance and uniqueness. I was inspired by photographers like Dorthea Lang who capture truth in people. I was also inspired by her bravery for approaching people and fearlessly taking their photograph.”

When asked what his biggest challenge has been so far with this project, the answer was pretty predictable, “The hardest aspect of the project probably won’t surprise anyone; It’s got to be COVID. If you ever wanted to experience an art student’s nightmare, my current situation would be a good start. Organising and preparing photographs for an art exhibition in the middle of a pandemic is extremely challenging. COVID has kept me out of certain working class environments and kept me on my toes. I’ve had to think quite creatively to get into a few locations.”

That having been said, and in spite of current climes, do pop along to the Chiang Mai House of Photography to support a young and aspiring photojournalist. See you there!

The Working Class Portraits: Chiang Mai, Thailand exhibition is a series of 55 black-and-white documentary portrait photographs. The images are a study of the working class people in Thailand who, according to Langston, are often seen but rarely described. The photographs were taken in and around the city of Chiang Mai in districts such as San Sai, Saraphi, San Pa Tong, Hang Dong, Mae Rim and Mae Taeng. Images of various local occupations such as construction workers, farmers and blue-collar labourers are documented in their working environments.

“I use strong compositions, unique framing techniques and bold value in my photographs to showcase the working class in a bold manner. The black-and-white quality of the photographs adds to the grit and rawness of the working class occupations. It also removes the distractions that colour photographs can sometimes produce.”

This collection of photographs is Langston’s final CMU thesis exhibition and these images will accompany his written thesis on the working class in Thailand. The photographs will be shown at Chiang Mai House of Photography from January 8th – 28th, 2021. Opening reception is at 6pm on January 8th. The Chiang Mai House of Photography was established to collect and preserve photographs for the documentation and understanding of northern Thai culture. Through the collection, local people are made aware of their living heritage and how it is founded in the history of the ancient Lanna kingdom. Developed in cooperation with Chiang Mai University, it offers an extensive resource that is accessible to the public.