Bangkok Photo Exhibit: Beyond the saffron scandals

Ekkarat Punyatara’s photos offer insights into the lives of Thai monks in New York

Ekkarat Punyatara’s photo exhibition “It’s Personal” plays with viewers’ perceptions and prejudices. At the far end of the gallery stands a centrepiece photo of two monks hanging out at the beach. One is crouching with a camera in hand, apparently trying to get to the best shot of his friend.

On the other side of the wall, there are plenty more shots of monks in rather unsettling acts, from taking a sightseeing-like trip on the subway to queuing up in the supermarket or sunbathing in a garden. One shows a monk sipping a Frappuccino from Starbucks.

Documenting the lives of four Thai monks in New York, this exhibition by the 28-year-old National Geographic Thailand photographer is likely to be more provocative than aesthetically soothing, especially after so many recent saffron scandals, notably the notorious case of the defrocked Luang Pu Nen Kham cavorting with a woman on his private jet.

“The concept is to take photos of these monks’ ways of life there,” Ekkarat explains. “They sort of tease Thai people’s myths and mindset of what ideal monks should be like. Their lives are quite different from the monks here due to a lot of factors. Some people will see this and might ask, ‘Why are they doing this?’. We have our ideas of what good monks should be but in reality, it’s something that’s personal.”

Ekkarat explains that the two monks in one photo are by the beach because they have been invited to a Thai restaurant nearby.

And while the one sipping a Frappuccino didn’t buy it himself, but was given it by a Thai Buddhist, the monk queuing up at the supermarket is only buying some cement to fix his temple.

“Our mindset is to have negative thoughts when we see monks in department stores. Before knowing anything, your mind has already become tainted,” says Ekkarat.

Ekkarat went to New York to study languages but it was during a short workshop on photography that he got started on the project.

There was no fixed subject or theme on which he had to work. “I went to the temple because I wanted to work on a subject that I’m most familiar with,” he says. “And it’s probably also because I was feeling lonely. In Thailand, you just leave after giving things to the monks. But over there, people would stay on and talk. It made me think of what I’ve been told about the community in a temple in the old days.”

With the exhibition’s main concept being “It’s my personal, maybe. It’s your personal, maybe. It’s somebody’s personal, maybe”, Ekkarat says that his work simply aims to capture the monks’ way of life, but such a way of life that can make Thai people feel something.

“I was like other Thai people who would feel bad seeing monks in department stores. But the more I worked on this project, the more I realised that there are a lot of factors involved like society and place surrounding a monk’s way of life,” he explains. “Their journey along the Buddhist Middle Way is also something that’s personal, they are doing it in their own way and we are not in a position to control their thoughts.”

Asked if this exhibition criticises the attitude some Thai people have towards monks these days, Ekkarat says that it is more like posing a question to the his audience.

“It’s like asking if we’ve gone in the right direction, having a prejudice like this. Personally, I’ve come to the point where I can eliminate these negative ideas and feel at ease when I really understand. I think there’s this kind of myth with our society because we are not very intimate with the community in the temple,” he says.

“I want the viewers to come and see. I don’t mind if they feel something negative, I just want them to feel something. Being conscious of that feeling, not just seeing a monk on a private jet and criticising them.”

“It’s Personal” is on display at Kathmandu Photo Gallery until Nov 10. The gallery is at 87 Pan Road (near the Indian Temple), Silom, and is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am-7pm.
Call 02-234-6700 for more.


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