Thursday, February 11, 2016

Salt of the Earth

A salt worker in Phetchaburi province walks out of the flats after raking up salt. 

I photograph the salt workers of Thailand's gulf coast every year. I like seeing how things are made, especially something as ubiquitous and taken for granted as salt. There are some small salt mines in northern Thailand and I photographed salt being mined in northern Laos a couple of years ago. But on Thailand's gulf coast, salt is gathered in the traditional way. 

Fields near the ocean (or in this case the Gulf of Siam) are flooded with ocean water and then left to dry out. As the sea water evaporates it leaves behind salt. 
Salt workers walk through an empty warehouse on their way to the fields to harvest salt. 

The last few years I've been photographing salt workers in Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram provinces, both very close to Bangkok. We could leave Bangkok about 6AM and still be in the fields at sunrise, which is about 6:45 at this time of year. 

It was very foggy when I went out to photograph the salt this week and when we got to Samut Sakhon I couldn't see across the highway. It would have been almost impossible to photograph the workers. So the person I was working with suggested we keep going down the coast to Phetchaburi province. 
Workers use shovel like things to break up the crystallized salt in one of the fields. 

It was a good call. Although we missed the sunrise, the workers in Phetchaburi start late and we still managed to get to the salt fields before the workers started for the morning. The Samut Sakhon / Samut Songkhram fields are in a rapidly industrializing area (the two provinces are next to each other and the salt fields are in both provinces) every year the fields get smaller and the backgrounds become more cluttered with factories and industrial parks. Every year there are fewer fields to photograph because the land is being sold for industrial use. 
A worker pushes the salt into piles. 

Phetchaburi is about an hour further away and a little more remote, plus the roads are only two lane (the salt fields in Samut Sakhon are off a six lane divided super highway). The ambiance in Phetchaburi is much more rustic. 

Gathering salt this way is very much a seasonal task. It's done only in the dry season, as the fields dry out. I've been in Samut Sakhon when the harvest was delayed by a couple of weeks because unseasonal December rains made it impossible to gather salt. 
A salt worker pushes salt into his basket. Workers in Phetchaburi carry the salt out of the fields in wicker baskets suspended from their shoulders by a bamboo yoke. It's the way they've harvested salt for centuries. In Samut Sakhon, workers use wheelbarrows to get the salt from the fields to the warehouse. 

It hardly rained at all during last year's rainy season and Thailand is in the midst of a drought. While it's a disaster for rice and fruit farmers, it's a good thing for salt harvesters. Warm dry days and lots of sunshine are perfect "growing conditions" for salt gatherers. 
Women relax in the shade of a salt barn next to a field in Phetchaburi. Most of the workers in Samut Sakhon are migrant workers from Isan. The workers in Phetchaburi told me they were local people. 

Salt producers in Phetchaburi and Samut Sakhon are hoping for a good season this year. In Phetchaburi, they usually gather salt from late January until May. In Samut Sakhon they start a little later (usually late February or early March) and go until May. A salt field owner in Phetchaburi told me it was too early in the season to predict whether or not they would have a good year. But salt workers in Samut Sakhon have told me the drought was good for their harvest and could mean a longer season. 
A worker carries baskets of salt out of the fields...

...While another worker empties his baskets of salt in a warehouse next to the fields. Gathering salt, like so many other agricultural jobs, is brutally hard work. The sun beats down, you're standing in a shallow pool of water that is evaporating around you and you're carrying almost one hundred pounds of wet salt on your back. Think about that the next time you order a margarita with a salted rim. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Year of the Monkey

Lion dancers perform on Yaowarat Road in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown during the kickoff celebration of Chinese New Year. This is the Year of the Monkey. 

Thailand celebrated its second New Year's Day with gusto this week as thousands of people jammed into Bangkok's Chinatown neighborhood to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Millions of Chinese have emigrated to Thailand through the centuries. By some estimates as many as 14% of Thais are Thai-Chinese or have Chinese ancestors in their family tree. Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year, also called Tet in Vietnamese communities) is a big deal here.
People think of Lunar New Year as a raucous party with fireworks and lion dances, but there is an important religious component to the holiday (and the truth is the fireworks and lion dances are religious). Monks at Wat Traimit start the holiday by lighting candles in the courtyard in front of the temple.  
People gather to pray at Kuan Yim Shrine in Chinatown. 

Although Lunar New Year is an important event on the tourism calender, it's not a creation of tourism authorities. Hundreds of thousands of Thais flock to temples to make merit and pray for a prosperous new year. Bus and train stations are packed with people going to their home provinces to spend the day with family. While the it's not a legal holiday in Thailand, so many people take the day off that rush hours are (a little) less congested.  
A boy in a lion dance troupe waits for the lion dance parade to start. 

Lion dance troupes go through Chinatown performing in shops to bring good luck and a prosperous new year. The owners present cash offerings to the dancers. 

I never tire of the excitement of Lunar New Year in Bangkok. If you look, you can see much of the Thai-Chinese experience in a few city blocks. There's the touristy experience on Yaowarat Road, the spiritual experience in the temples and shrines and Chinese opera (which I didn't photograph this year). 
A woman prays for a prosperous New Year at the lions that guard Wat Mangon Kamlawat, the largest Mahayana Buddhist temple in Chinatown. 

People hold lit incense sticks over their heads while they wait to go into the prayer hall at Wat Mangon Kamlawat to pray. 

This year I ended up spending four days in Chinatown photographing preparations for Lunar New Year and the actual New Year's Day. I've had the privilege of photographing Lunar New Year festivities in a lot of places - New York City's is fun but February in New York is seldom pleasant. (Sorry New Yorkers.) Lunar New Year in Phoenix is mostly a chance to go to a Chinese restaurant and have Americanized Chinese food. But Lunar New Year in Bangkok is as close to the authentic experience as I've come yet. Maybe next year I'll go to Hong Kong. 
A member of a dance troupe performs in an alley in Chinatown. 

Thailand celebrates New Year's three times. January 1 is the official Thai New Year and has been since the 1930s. Lunar New Year is widely celebrated in the Thai-Chinese community and Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year is celebrated in April (it's also celebrated, albeit with a different name, in Theravada Buddhist countries bordering Thailand, like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar). 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Not The Sweet Life

A sugar worker in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok, cuts sugar cane. 

Thailand is one of the world's leading sugar exporters and sugar is one of the world's most traded commodities. It goes into almost everything we eat (which has creates a whole new set of health issues) and, increasingly, it's used to fuel our cars and trucks

Thailand's sugar yield per acre is expected to go down a little this year because the 2015 rainy season was well below normal and Thailand is in the midst of what could be a crippling drought. The total harvest is expected to increase however because farmers who couldn't plant rice because of the drought instead planted sugar, which was still impacted by drought but not as significantly. 
A worker in the cane fields. The fields are burned out at night with low slow flames that consume some of the chaff and weeds and chase out the snakes. 

Harvesting sugar is backbreaking work. Workers walk through the fields with long knives chopping the plants at ground level then stacking the stalks in rows so tractors with claws can pick up the stalks and put them in trucks. At ground level, this is how sugar has been harvested for centuries. 
A worker atop a truck that hauls sugarcane to a mill. Trucks like this one jam the rural roads of Kanchanaburi province during the sugarcane season. The trucks are more unstable and unsafe than they look. 

Workers start just after dawn and work through the day until late afternoon. Most of the workers are migrants from Isan (northeastern Thailand) and, to a lesser degree, Myanmar and Cambodia. The workers I photographed, all from Isan, took my presence in stride. In fact they were welcoming. They shared their breakfast with me (sticky rice and grilled fish) and asked me what I was doing. I used the translate app in my phone to explain that I was a journalist working on a story about climate change and the Thai drought. When I started photographing, some of the workers joked with my subjects while others asked me to photograph them. Some turned it into a contest to see who could cut the most cane while I was with them. A few gave me their knives and let me try my hand at cutting sugar cane. One swing of the knife was enough to convince me that I couldn't cut cane for a living. 
A woman and her son finish their breakfast. The boy was not working. There is no day care for Thai farm workers and husbands work alongside their wives, so day care is letting the kids play in the fields. 

The El Niño caused drought is being felt throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand, it's contributing to lower yields on important crops like rice and sugar. Farmers, and government leaders, are hoping that rains come in abundance this year after the El Niño fades. 
Workers buy lunch and snacks from a vendor who motors the roads that run between the fields. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Opera in the Afternoon

Likay performers on stage during a performance at a temple in Nonthaburi, a little bit north of Bangkok.

I photographed a "Likay" performance today. Likay is a traditional Thai popular art that blends music, song, and exposition into a live show. Likay's roots are not very well documented but it's thought that Likay originated in either what is modern Malaysia or India and came to Thailand with traders and itinerant performers in the 1700s and 1800s, so it's not really an ancient art form. 

It's a little bit of an oversimplification to call it a Thai version of Chinese opera, because of the two are not related, but the concept is similar. Troupes put on shows for a night or two (or three or four or however long someone will pay them to). Shows are usually put on at temples, during temple fairs. There is very little staging - usually it's just a bare platorm, the audience is transported into the performers' world through ornate costumes and the performers' skill at improvisation. 
Male performers put on their makeup before the show. Technically, they're in the wings of the stage, but since there are no curtains and they're easily seen from the audience's perspective, they're sort of a part of the show.

Likay performers, like Chinese opera performers, wear elaborate eye makeup.

Likay is still popular in rural Thailand - you see posters for likay troupes whenever you go upcountry - but its fading in urban Thailand. I lucked out and found a performance in a province north of central Bangkok, but still in the Bangkok metroplex. I didn't go to Wat Bua Khwan (the link goes to their Thai website) looking for the Likay show. I was actually there researching another story, but that proved to be a dead end. I happened to be at the temple the weekend of their annual temple fair and stumbled into the Likay show before the performance started. 

Since the story I went to the temple to photograph wasn't happening, I stayed for the Likay show. It's typical of Thailand that the performers were completely open to my photography. I didn't just walk in - I walked up to the foot of the stage and a couple of actors called over to me and motioned that I should join them in the dressing rooms and photograph them. And who am I to turn down an invitation like that? 
In the wings, a woman gets ready to go onstage. Most of the hair is a wig. In the early days of Likay, all of the roles were played by men. Now the women's roles are played by women. 

I photographed for about an hour before the show started. A couple of the actors spoke a tiny amount of English and I speak a really, really tiny amount of Thai (my Thai consists almost entirely of the sentence "I don't speak Thai.") but my "universal translator" saved the day. I used to explain to the Likay cast that I had lived in Thailand for four years and that I was a journalist. They used it to offer me lunch (a variety of curries). 
There is no "orchestra pit." The band plays on the wings of the stage, where the audience can see it. The actors use the area behind the band, also in view of the audience, as a dressing room. 

In reality, my universal translator is the Google Translate app on my iPhone, which works pretty well if you use it properly and give it time to do its thing. Although I try to avoid using Google apps on my iPhone (DuckDuckGo is my preferred search engine), Google Translate is pretty much indispensable for what I do.  

The show started with the band, which is almost entirely percussion instruments, tuning and warming up. That transitioned seamlessly into performers, backstage, singing their lines. Which, moments later, leads to actors on stage and the opera starting. It was less than 10 minutes from the first drum beat to the lead being on stage. 
While some of the actors are on stage, others wait off stage for their cues. The whole thing is very relaxed. 
One of the actors uses a cracked mirror to adjust his hat. 

I've photographed a lot of Chinese opera in the last couple of years but this was my first Likay. I had a good time and thought it was very interesting. I hope to photograph more Likay in the next year. 
Actors on stage.

There are more photos from the Likay show (along with photos from Wat Bua Khwan) in my archive or available from ZUMA Press


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Making Chains

A worker bends a link into shape in a workshop/factory in the Talat Noi section of Bangkok. 

I went down to Talat Noi, a Chinese enclave on the Chao Phraya River south of Bangkok's main Chinatown district. I was looking for early signs of Chinese New Year, which starts February 8. It's a little early for signs of Chinese New Year but I stumbled upon a small one man workshop that makes heavy duty chains, like those used on large ocean going ships. 
Chain links straight out of the forge. 

These chains are made the really old fashioned way. The metal is heated to glowing in a charcoal fired forge then pounded into shape by hand on an anvil. One man does all the work. Watching him work, my thought was that this process probably hasn't changed in centuries. I think most heavy duty chains are now made in modern factories controlled by computer. 

But in this tiny corner of Bangkok, a thoroughly modern city that has embraced the 21st century, chains are being made the same way they were hundreds of years ago. 
Links stacked up in the workshop. 

Bangkok's financial district, a hyperwired collection of international banks and financial firms, is just a few kilometers away, within walking distance. But this workshop, and others like it, exist in a time warp. 
Links are pounded into shape on an anvil. 

Talat Noi is a self contained neighborhood in Bangkok and one of my favorite parts of town. While modernization and gentrification has gobbled up other parts of Bangkok, the people of Talat Noi cling to traditional life. 
Taking a break in his workshop with his work stacked around him. 

I photographed this in black and white because the gritty nature of the workshop struck me as a monochrome environment. (Actually I photographed it in black and white and color because I always work in RAW+JPEG. The raw files record the scene in color and the JPEGs in black and white.) The color photos of the chain workshop are in my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.