Tuesday, February 12, 2013

‘Imagining Flood’, Manit Sriwanichpoom in Siamrath Weekly News magazine, Yr.60, Vol.19, 25 – 31 January, 2013.

           ‘Imagining Flood’, Manit Sriwanichpoom.

             I have to admit that the ‘Big Flood,’ or the ‘Super-storm’ at the end of 2011 had no little impact on my attitude toward ‘floods’, even though I have lived near water all my life.  I was swimming in the Prawate Buriram canal in the vast green rice fields of the city’s outskirts until, when I was 10 years old, we moved house to live along a road.   After that, we moved quite a number of times until we came to a two-story wooden house on the banks of a canal that branched off (once again) the Prawate canal.

            I remember the rainy season arriving and the floods inundating the roads and walkways leading in and out from our house.  When the rains were really heavy, the bottom floor of the house would be flooded up to our knees.  However, no one in the family was particularly put out by that.  We just stored things upstairs away from the water and made wooden walkways for getting about.  Nobody complained; everybody adapted.  When it was time for school, my younger brother was already wearing short trousers, so he just carried his shoes and climbed onto a pickup truck that was fitted out for public transport in the flooded lanes.  Both my younger and elder sisters had some problems because they had to put on shorts first and then, discretely using their sarongs, change into their school skirts.  As for myself, I would be in my underwear, decently covered by my shirt (in order not to offend the neighbors) before putting on my jeans when I reached high ground near the road.  Then, off I would go to study at university.

            When I think back on it, I remember liking the rainy season floods because the water in the canal was cleaner.  At first the canals would be muddy, but after a bit, the water would slow and the sediment would settle to the bottom.  Then the water would be so clear you could see the little schools of fish swimming happily in the depths.

            I never thought of flooding as a problem.  Even when Bangkok had that ‘1,000 year rain’ when Uncle Chamlong Srimuang was governor, no one considered the rising water as a serious problem.  Water flooded in and then left : it didn’t stand.  But in 2011, I think the attitude of Thai people – especially Bangkok people – about the floods changed a lot. 

            In the past 30 years, Bangkok – especially in the inner districts – has been shielded like a cradled infant by means of dams, flood-gates and huge pumps in order to support modern ways of life which separate people from nature.  Rain or shine, this way of life goes its own way, independent of the laws of nature.  Every day we climb aboard our transportation, heading to work in modern, air-conditioned, high-rise office buildings.  There’s no need to know what the weather tomorrow will be, because if the weatherman says it’s going to rain, it only means that traffic conditions will be worse than usual.


            In this modern way of life, people (I include myself) collect ever more ‘stuff.’  When I was a kid and when I was a university student, I didn’t have a great pile and stash to worry about and sweat over, unlike today (although there’s not so very much).  Even so, it’s quite an undertaking to evacuate this stuff to the second floor to escape flooding.  It’s inconvenient.  I don’t really have room for it all, but I can’t bear to see it submerged in a flood.  The more stuff you have, the harder it is to get any rest.  When the news comes that Bangkok is going to be flooded, valuables will get first choice of the [dry] spaces. 

            When it flooded, factories and automobile assembly plants were inundated up to their roofs.  It was a tragedy for the economy. It was like seeing the body of someone killed by terrorists or madmen.  The flood was so terrible a danger to the security of the national economy that the government has been obliged to shell out a budget of more than 300,000 million baht to prevent such dangers in the future. 

            Mithi Ruangkritya, age 32, is a young photographer of the new generation.  He seems to be the only photographer who is trying to reflect in an interesting way Thai society’s view of those floods, as opposed as most photographers do to presenting photos of the [economic, social etc.] losses from the great floods of 2011.  For example [he presents] submerged homes, cars flooded with people in them, or pictures of people cheerfully working together to help each other, encouraged by the songs of Ad Carabao.  No matter how much it floods, the good hearted Thai people step up to meet the challenge.  

            Mithi has looked deeper, beyond any crude phenomena.  He has made it his business to make contact with and follow these situations very closely, reporting the news of events.  He has confronted things both as a Bangkokian  and as a news photographer trained at Westminster University in London.  He has taken note of the state of plummeting fear – you could call it ‘spiritual anxiety’ – with the bad news reported on the mass media each day, by the hour, minute by minute.

            Instead of choosing to take pictures in the midday like other photographers, when you could actually see things clearly in the flooding situation, he has chosen to take pictures under the dark cover of night…the deep and airless gloom with no people present, only neon lights from houses, shops and the scanty illumination of the electric lights along the road.

            In his pictures Mithi has used depth of field technique. It takes a long time to record such images, catching as many details as possible.   The surface of the fast-moving water softly reflects buildings and locations.  The atmosphere is peaceful, still and deep.  This is the distinctive character of ‘Imagining Flood,' because these natural dangers are presented as frightening, and lead us to imagine all kinds of bad outcomes – as if one were called upon to overcome demons. 

            There are only 20 pieces in this show – not very many, in fact.  You might say that’s actually too few.   Furthermore, many of the pictorial elements are awkwardly composed – but these are not important points.  The point of view is more important, as are the ideas behind the show, and the attempt to communicate the feelings of fear, quailing, and apprehensiveness which people feel about ‘floods’.  Mithi does it very well, especially his close-up images of water. You see the surface of the water, reflecting the moving neon light as in some sort of science fiction.  The pictures bring the viewer, cringing fearfully, to the rising water.


  One picture shows lights glaring along the road, reflecting off the surface of the floodwaters.  The lights look like spirits floating in the middle of the night.  The glare obscures the road and three or four shadowy human figures.  Another picture shows the Pitak-Ratta-Thamanoon monument, hemmed in by the floodwater at the Laksi traffic circle.  Lights – white, stark, and glaring – shine on the monument.  The stark whiteness floats out of the darkness, contrasting sharply with the clear black, metallic figures of a man and woman holding their child and waiting in front of the monument.  The glaring light on the left side of the image certainly makes the work look lonely and dreary.  Especially if one considers the political situation today, this picture seems very appropriate.

   Another picture that takes a ghostly approach shows a large shrine which has been surrounded and isolated by the flood.  It’s very dark, but the middle is bright with the shrine’s neon lights. There are umbrellas of many colors, like those used ceremonially in ordination processions.  to protect the shrine that you can hardly see the site itself.  The umbrellas are quite old and tattered, like the shabby and sad little statuettes of children with topknots, elephants and zebras.  Even the proprietor of this shrine is struggling, unable to escape the floodwater.

                One image is taken from a high vantage point, a picture of a great many cars parked on an overpass out of reach of the inundation.  From the angle selected for the photo, it is made to look like the cars are still moving along, heading down into the black darkness that stretches below and before them.  They seem to be under a spell which commands them to ever so casually destroy themselves.

               Many of Mithi's pictures show houses tightly sealed up like jails with householders imprisoned inside.  These photos are Mithi's psychological puzzles  inviting us to ask ourselves about our attitudes toward 'floods', quite unlike news photos of flood damages and losses, pictures of the injured and sick, and pictures of other sufferings and trials resulting from natural disasters

             Besides all those economic losses to be seen stretching across the whole surface of things, this is what the floods left behind for us to deal with.


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