‘ Tahn Buddhadasa and Photography (2) ’ Manit Sriwanichpoom in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly news magazine. Yr. 60, Vol. 27, Fri.22 – Thur.28 March, 2013.
This is an interview with Phra Maha Boonchu Jitboonyo, photographer and reverent student of Tahn Buddhadasa, continued from the 23rd volume, Fri.22 – Thurs 28 Feb., 2013.
Question: So, it means that Tahn Acharn Buddhadasa already had the idea first, and then took on Tahn Maha as his helper?
Answer: Yes. I took pictures as Tahn directed. But Tahn’s instructions were [that] the cameras we were using – one of them had a light meter, a selenium, i.e. depending on brightness of light for readings. There was no battery of any kind. Another one had no light meter. You had to estimate how far to open or close it: open the aperture this much, the shutter this much. Is it enough? Tahn seemed sure I would make errors, so I began to take pictures of Tahn that had some substance. But first, Tahn told me that we were going to make a book about Dharma, and he had me practice developing the film, practice taking pictures from that day forth.
Question: What year was that? And what kind of things did Tahn tell you?
Answer: In 1972 things began to take shape more seriously. Tahn said, “OK, we will sit here; you go stand over there; point the camera in this direction; take care for the background, you hear! Don’t include anything unsightly. Don’t set it up so that some random thing appears to pierce the top of someone’s head.” I always got scolded in that fashion.
Tahn and I didn’t look at things the same way. Tahn Acharn had a very high sense of art. All I saw was Tahn himself. But the background behind was a mystery to me. That’s why sometimes there’s a picture in which a branch seems to pierce someone’s head. Tahn said it looked frightfully ugly. Useless! After taking the pictures and developing them, corrections had to be made. Tahn always scolded. “These are nonsense. How many months have you been taking pictures? You haven’t made any progress at all!” He always grumbled. (heh, heh)
Oi! When Tahn Acharn gave instructions about what to do, “See here! When you look at a landscape to photograph it, squint one of your eyes,” he said. “When you squint, the picture will get clearer.” He told me to squint. Then he squinted to show me how to do it. Tahn wanted me to take pictures that way. He would stand there and squint like this. “Oi. You stand up straight over there. Set up the camera the point this way.”
Question: How did you get these double exposure pictures taken like this?
Answer: There is a picture called ‘Two People’. It shows Tahn Acharn Buddhadasa himself as both people in the picture. He chats (with himself) about Dharma. The real source was that one layman was a professional photographer. He made pictures for citizen’s ID cards at the Songkhla city hall. He was in fact a pious Buddhist and respected Tahn Acharn.
He came to Suan Moke and took the pictures of Tahn Acharn which we call ‘double exposures’. Perhaps he had seen such things before. They showed Tahn Acharn standing, chatting with himself and saying, “All day long I do nothing.” The pictures were the skill of this man. Tahn Acharn said, Oh, this is not bad! He used the pictures as Dharma puzzles – asking questions and seeking answers. But as it turns out, this layman had no time for these experiments.
There was another layman, the owner of a photo studio in Songkhla. He respected Tahn Acharn greatly and [visited Suan Moke] often. When he heard that Tahn Acharn was looking for ways to use double exposures, the man spoke to his brother-in-law, who was able to do such things. The brother-in-law came out and taught me, so that I could make this image. The original is gone now. There was only one original print. I used up a whole box of paper before I got a proper double-exposure print. (heh heh) It was very difficult. In one whole evening I might manage only one successful print. Sometimes after two evenings of work, I had no usable result at all because the parts did not fit together properly. It was very difficult to get a smooth overlap and fit. That’s why I don’t have the original for this. As soon as I finally got it right, I sent it to Tahn Acharn. When I remember how he had me do these images, I wouldn’t want to do it again.
Question: Here Tahn Acharn used himself as the model. What does that mean?
Answer: Well, you see, as Tahn Acharn saw it, I don’t really know what his feelings were, but this is my opinion. We knew that Tahn wanted more than anything to teach Dharma to the people. And he wanted to teach them the depths of it. Did you know that some people who respected Tahn Buddhadasa didn’t think about that? Instead, they revered Tahn Acharn as a sort of miracle worker. (heh heh) There were some air force pilots in those days who sent letters asking for a bit of Than’s hair when he shaved his head. They said they would wear it [in a locket] round their necks because they had to go on retaliatory missions during the wars on terrorism. They weren’t interested in what Tahn Acharn Buddahasa was teaching, but they felt that he had special powers. I’m saying this to show that when people came to see Tahn, almost every one of them would ask for a photo of him. So I thought maybe that was the reason that Tahn Acharn had to make pictures of himself as Dharma puzzles. That is, instead of giving them just pictures of himself for them to look at, he gave them Dharma riddles which held teachings for the recipients. That’s what I figured. What he actually personally had in mind, though, I really have no idea.
Because many times, the descriptions under his pictures are passages of Dharma. And even laymen heard him say often, ‘ [If you are not doing] what the teaching teaches, don’t call me teacher.’ It seemed to be his aim for people who believed in him. This may have been the reason. In any case, there was no escaping that they liked to see him in pictures, so they might have gotten some benefit as well from the Dharma puzzles. The pictures also had some teaching, so there were more than just pictures to be set up as objects for worship. Because later, people who were vainly devoted to Than Acharn took pictures of him and printed them up and gave them to people, wanting to make merit. They could take the picture and get Tahn Acharn to give them answers so they didn’t have to struggle so hard. And they wouldn’t bother the Acharn so much.
Question: In fact, if you look at pictures of Thai monks as we usually see them, they are usually pictures of monks sitting in meditation with their face-screen, which they use to shield their faces when they chant. But Tahn Acharn doesn’t have such pictures?
Answer: He has, sir. He has such a face screen. There is one in here as well. That day Tahn had me clear it out, during the time I was still with him. His priestly rank was Phra Theweesoothie methee, Chao Khun Chan Thep. He told me to take out one of his face screens of less exalted priestly rank to use in his photos. Tahn used to make a poem: ‘To be an illusory priest is better than being a priest of exalted rank.’ (heh heh) Tahn Acharn reminded me, for example, that His Majesty the King didn’t like to see monks carrying around cameras and taking pictures. It wasn’t seemly. We were aware of that. But it was necessary to be careful. Tahn kept mindful about this. His Majesty the King had mentioned not wanting to see monks tripping about with cameras taking shots of picturesque views. Tahn often cautioned us about this.
In 1977 or 1978, if I remember correctly, the Supreme Patriarch from Wat Rachaborpitr made a visit to Suan Moke. His Holiness was to arrive at 1:00 pm. I went to prepare the camera. On that day, Tahn Acharn had put the camera into the cupboard. I said to Tahn Acharn, I asked please for the camera, Than, to take a photo of His Holiness, the Patriarch. Tahn Acharn said it could not be done. His Holiness was of the Thammayudt sect of Buddhism and was very strict about photos of clergy. Hence, I should put it off for a day; no need to do it today. I should wait and let someone else do it, because it was quite difficult to have the Supreme Patriarch visit Suan Moke. When it got to be 1:00 pm, the car of His Holiness was parked in front of Tahn Acharn’s cell. I was standing unobtrusively behind Than’s cell. Then I saw the secretaries of His Holiness with Nikon cameras in hand. They each had one. (heh heh) It was quite embarrassing! It wasn’t actually a problem after all. The secretaries of the Supreme Patriarch had cameras! But it was too late for me to go back to retrieve ours. Tahn Acharn had already come out to receive His Holiness. It was a funny story. Not at all what we expected.
But one think I accept: a picture of a monk is a good old model. I mean, strict and serious. For many things are really not suitable for monks. We may be used to monks wearing wristwatches, but it’s good that it’s not really acceptable in Thailand. If it were acceptable, it would be very common. But as for cameras, it’s the same. Even though I myself like to take photos, I don’t agree with it because I used to see it, too, at tourist spots. There you see monks avidly taking photos. It doesn’t look right. One has to be very careful. I won’t use a camera when I go outside the monastery.
Question: This is very interesting. Because, when working, the Master became the model in the pictures, and the novice assistant who took the pictures was worrying that someone might see this taking place?
Answer: I took some care a bit, but another deeper thing. It was inside the monastery, so it wasn’t so bad, because it was inside the temple compound. It was some personal activity. If we had cone outside, we would have taken the utmost precaution. In any case, without dire necessity, we wouldn’t have used the camera.
Question: About the symbolic riddles that Tahn Acharn used. In addition to getting your assistance, what about the environment, the context [for picture taking].
Answer: Oh, yes. That, too. For example, one time at the Mahorosop Hall at Suan Moke there was พุ่ม ไผ่ There was a pious young man who, excuse me, was not really ‘all there’. He was a bit crazy. But he was a Dharma scholar. He took the big shears for cutting the grass and cut three eyes, three holes. The Master came and saw them and said, ‘Oh, that’s right! You have helped us by making these spaces. This was the environment which the Master took hold of and brought in.
The lotus we certainly have here. We know its meaning already, that it is a symbol of one who knows, who is awakened, who has fully opened. Tahn Acharn often asked us questions. He asked himself, too, and found it useful. He taught me how to make pictures with depth of meaning. For example, he once asked me to photograph a fully flowering lotus with Tahn in the background. He told me to focus on the lotus; he told me to take no interest in him. I wondered about that: it couldn’t be right. When Tahn was the model, I should focus on him. Oh, I realized afterward that Tahn wanted it to mean something like someone preparing to find enlightenment like this. But at the same time, according to the principle, Tahn wanted to teach the photography method we call ‘depth of field’ for that picture, because with that camera, whenever you focused it, the background would be blurred. Tahn taught us to see the differences. I took two pictures, one focused on the lotus, one focused on Than. Focusing on Tahn Acharn, the lotus was blurred. He was teaching depth of field technique.
Question: As far as I can see, I would suppose that Than Buddhadasa was looking at these pictures as he composed the Dharma poems?
Answer: Ah…no. There are two ways. Some Tahn seems to have made a draft of a script already and then taken the pictures. But some were like this: many times I took the pictures for Tahn first. Then Tahn would take them and put them away because he wanted to write something to go with the photos. After a long time, the photos would deteriorate, because Suan Moke was a very damp place. Some were color pictures which we had gotten nicely developed and printed in Bangkok, though there were few in color, but there were some. Well, as it happened, they had been printed up in 5 x 7 size and kept for a year or so. Then they would begin to go bad in one part or another, like this. Tahn Acharn had us take them all out and clean them up. Put them in the sun for a time to dry them out. I said, ‘Tahn Acharn krup, I think we have to throw these pictures away. They are ruined. They are spoiled here and there.’ But Tahn said never mind. Don’t throw them away; use them. We can make captions that fit the pictures. Many photos I would have thrown out, but he said we could use them. There are the pictures which Tahn captioned later, for those pictures which he wanted to use. There were, as I said, two ways.
Question: An Tahn Acharn – did he seem to make sketches in his head?
Answer: Tahn Acharn explained to the monks in many ways. He would tell us not to leave all our memories in our head. They would fade away, he said. So, write some of them down in notebooks.
Question: At last did you know what Tahn Acharn would write?
Answer: We didn’t know. We would find out when the books were finally printed up.
Question: At first, Tahn took black and white photos. These color photos, how were they done?
Answer: Color. Mostly Tahn Acharn didn’t want to use color. It was my intense desire for the work of photography that I wanted to use color, though it was extremely expensive. (heh heh) For 99% of Tahn Acharn’s pictures, he provided money for the film. For the color film, I found the money myself. Tahn Acharn paid some small part of the cost for that. He said it was extravagant and unnecessary. (heh heh) Black and white. He wanted mostly black and white.
Question: In part, maybe because you couldn’t develop the pictures yourselves? You had to have someone else do it?
Answer: Yes. It was expensive, too, because we had to send them to be developed in Bangkok. In those days, we sent them to the Charn Silpa shop and to Capital Photo, Charoenkrung. It took 15 days.
Question: When working with Tahn Acharn, you took the photos and developed them the same day?
Answer: Mostly, we would start taking pictures about 9.00 in the morning. We’d look around for a place to shoot. And we would finish about 4.00 in afternoon. Then I would wait till nightfall. You see, I was in charge of the electrical generator, too. So I would start about 6.00 in the evening. When it got dark, I would go into the room, a room in which Tahn kept his books. We made a space there for developing photos. I would work till about 10.00 pm. I would finish, but Tahn would not come in to see. He would look at the work in the morning. ‘Here, sir, Tahn Acharn. Last night’s work.’ And he would look at the photos and say, ‘Ah! Good, good. But this one doesn’t make sense.’ (heh heh)
We took pictures for many years, I’ll tell you. About 60% of the pictures survived. That’s all. The rest were all spoiled. Went bad or got lost. And people borrowed them and didn’t return them.
Question: So you were very serious about the work you did together?
Answer: Oh, to be sure! We really worked hard!
Question: At that time, Phra Acharn was fairly old, about 60, isn’t that right?
Answer: He was still very energetic. Even after I went up to Chiengmai, I didn’t give up the work. I would still come down by that time. We were using color film by then.
(…to be continued…)