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A photographer in Thailand

By Jessica Lum

Dec. 3, 2008 10:45 p.m.

I awoke to the sound of the overnight train chugging and whistling along the creaky rails between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

When I finished washing up, none of the daytime seating had been set up yet, except for one empty seat facing a middle-aged Caucasian man.

“Sawatdee krap,” he said. He seemed to think I was Thai.

“Hello,” I responded in English. I felt a little uneasy after coming from Bangkok, as many of the Westerners in the Patpong area shamelessly ogle Asian women, including myself on occasion.

He invited me to sit down after a brief introduction. We ordered breakfast from the train attendant.

His name was Bill. He was from a small town in Northern California and was travelling for leisure.

“I’m in my early 50s, and I was looking for adventure, something that’s different,” he said.

When I told him about the HIV/AIDS story Robert Faturechi and I were working on, he paused and worked on cutting up his fried egg. He suddenly asked if I happened to know whether condoms were effective in preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

“I’ve never had to think about this until now,” he said. “I’ve never used one before. I did once, but I ripped the sucker off.”

Bill continued speaking candidly about his past relationships and asked if I was in a relationship. I grew increasingly uncomfortable, but decided that since he was being so open, I decided to ask if I could interview him.

He agreed if I use only his first name.

Bill said he had a lady friend, Patt, in Bangkok whom he met online through a Thai dating Web site. They met up and she showed him around the red-light district and even suggested that he hire a prostitute while he was in town.

“Patt told me, “˜this will be an experience that you can take back with you,'” he said.

“I didn’t want to have sex with professionals,” Bill said, adding that part of the reason he wanted to travel through Thailand was to experience the culture and the color the country. “I’m looking for locals, fun, someone to talk with and take out to dinner. At the same time … I do like sex.”

He eventually hired a prostitute, after Patt’s encouragement.

“I’m a former hippie from that generation, living free lifestyles … I just want to enjoy life,” Bill said.

He said he felt he was not harming anyone and that he might as well give the sex industry one try.

It was a bit jarring to meet someone on the consumer side of prostitution. I cannot say I quite understood where he was coming from, or that I ever will. Yet Bill’s story, and stories like his, are at the very backdrop of what feeds the sex trade, whether in Thailand or on a global scale.

* * *

In Thailand, I realized that the camera has a sort of mystique, a power that I did not want to be associated with. It bears the connotation of tourism, even voyeurism.On the streets, I was automatically flagged as a tourist, and people would try to sell me everything from fake Dolce & Gabbana to “Ping Pong shows,” illegal burlesque shows.

In the Patpong red light district, I was considered a threat to business, and workers would block my lens with their bodies or their hands. Even an attempted photo from the outside of the club, of bikini-clad girls peeping out from open doorways against a backdrop of 20 or so girls dancing around poles, would result in me being told to leave.

Simultaneously, I have an ethical responsibility as well to protect the identities of workers who might be harmed by my coverage of them. Though unlikely, their reputations could be ruined; they could lose their jobs or be arrested.

I decided one evening to go out and let my camera hang to my side. Somehow it seemed more casual and possibly less threatening.I ventured into the Patpong boy’s area, an area catering mostly to gay men.

It was a slow night; most of their potential customers clenched their jaws and evaded eye contact.

An advertising duo approached me with an alarming arm-squeezing technique that they would use while recommending the “shows,” technically illegal strip-performances behind locked doors, every hour, on the hour.

The older gentleman had approached me, but after I explained that I was working as a journalist, and I was not intending to spend money, he suggested I check out a club for free.

“Just looking, no photos, bad for business,” he said.

I was reluctant but decided it was better to know what was going on inside before I try to photograph the exterior of the clubs.

I walked up a tacky red-carpeted staircase of a place called XL Boys, expecting the worst, and bristling a bit whenever the older man smiled. The room was full of stale smoke and small tables surrounding a sort of oval catwalk. About 15 young men stood on the catwalk, facing outward into the room, muscles flexed, wearing nothing but white briefs and a little number tag on their waistbands.

I looked around, and realized that I was the only woman in the room. “No photos,” the man reminded, and suggested I buy a drink. I thanked him and retreated down the stairs.

I ran into a club solicitor who called himself “Night” on my way out, and he offered me the seat next to his shy friend.

“You can take photos from outside,” Night said.

I had taken a few frames already, but I welcomed the seat and struck up a conversation with Night. We were the same age.

He spent another few minutes debating with an older man over what ethnicity I was.

“How could you be Chinese if you have never been to China?” they asked.

“I’m from California,” I added.

I asked if he was originally from Bangkok, and whether he liked his job. He said no to both. His family lived several hours away by train.

He said he was working to support his single mother in the countryside, but work was tough because his boss was an impatient man.

He told me, in between dashes toward mobs of men in suits and lone tourists wandering down the alley, that work in Patpong was rough. Clubs were competitive; on this alley, Dream Boys was a popular place.

The other side of the street featured gentlemen clubs with women, with the exception of Kings, which showcased “ladyboys,” transvestite men with breast implants. Night’s job, in addition to attracting customers, was to make sure the cops were not around, lest the clubs get shut down for illegal shows. If this were to happen, he and his colleagues would lose their main source of income, he said.

I could take photos of his back, but not his face. He did not want to get into any potential trouble with the law after all he had told me.


We might often think that photography conveys so much more than words can describe.

We often assume that a single photograph can encapsulate an entire life, a whole idea, or a whole person. And yet, as iconic as photographs can be, they often fail, just as words fail, to achieve such lofty goals. Standalone, both modes of storytelling can be weak. Words and images must work together in order to tell a whole story.

As a photojournalist, I find that it is all too easy to fall into the role of the observer.

Photojournalists cannot ethically take an active part in stories that are unfolding, though our presence is nevertheless a part of that story.

We are observers, and yet, we too are observed.

Yet at the same time, to truly understand a story we need a deeper level of interaction. If we desire to truly grasp the full significance of an image that we capture, we need to step out from behind that camera, gain a level of trust and converse with the human people to whom we wish to give voice to.

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Jessica Lum
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