Station Master controlling the train, Hua Lamphong, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 90mm @ F2)
We recently had school holidays in Western Australia so my wife and I escaped our claustrophobic, desert, gold-mining town and headed to Thailand for two weeks. My highlight was the final five or six days in Bangkok, because my wife had a business course to attend that would keep her office-bound from 8am till 5pm (he he), and I could escape and pursue my passion of photographing people totally unimpeded!
I hired a fixer for a day and got him to take me deep into Khlong Toei – Bangkok’s biggest slum. My goodness - what a marvelous experience and the images were just as striking. I will be writing a separate blog on that in the future. However, today I want to talk about my time at Bangkok’s main Railway Station. This wonderful place and its resilient people stole my heart - it was that fantastic. Over the period of that final week I went there 4 times. Hua Lamphong is well over 100 years old and its main structure is an Italian Neo-Renaissance-style building. The trains terminate and start their journeys here to go all over rural Thailand.
The part that really made it special - it was like going back in time 50yrs. In Australia, if I walk onto a railway track at the train station I will be arrested. In Hua Lamphong, I was able to amble among the trains and cross from platform to platform between the trains. As each train arrived from its long country journey, sleepy-eyed passengers disembarked and hastily made their way onto their desired destination. People were waving goodbye, hugging, weeping or just sleepily relaxing on the hard wooden benches. It is a street photographers dream. The place is covered in by this huge structure that is the Neo-Renaissance roof – this makes for perfect filtered light any time of the day.
The 'Stowaway' - Hua Lamphong , Bangkok, Thailand 2018 (Fuji X-T2 and XF16-55 mm @ F2.8)
Some will know from my other blogs that my speciality is brick factories. Whether I am in Myanmar, Vietnam, Loas or wherever, I always head for the nearest brick factory. I have been kicked out of every brick factory within hundreds of miles from where I live in Australia, but in Asia I can usually always get access. The orange light reflecting off the brick ochres, the workers covered in soot from the kiln, the shafts of light filtering through distant cracks – these places are a photographer’s dream. However, I think that Hua Lamphong has just become one of my favourite Asian destinations.
On Fridays they give free haircuts, so they bring out the plastic chairs and line them along the platform. Folk line up for their free cut and amidst much giggling and mirth, they emerge looking more trimmed and swish than when they arrived. I just loved the way that life flowed so naturally and the people were free to wander about, not shackled by all the sanctions, rules and regulations that we have in the West. I was able to wander about and photograph to my heart’s content, and all I saw were smiles and giggles and no objections. I have just about completely given up pointing my camera at anybody in my country. The first time you get a black look, the second time you get yelled at, and the third time (if there are kids about), you will get confronted by police or security (I am only talking about photographing in public places). I have had too many confrontations here at home - you can see why I travel so much to destinations where I am able to pursue my passion with relative ease and safety.
Bathed in Blue - Construction site on the way to Hua Lamphong, Bangkok, Thailand (Fuji X-T2 and XF 16-55mm @ F2.8)
I have written at great length about my long journey with Fuji, so you can catch up with all of the details on my other blogs. Suffice to say that nothing has changed here and will not for a long time. As far as I am concerned when the Fuji X-T2 came out, I knew I had a camera that was good enough to be future-proof. All this mumbo-jumbo of late about the new cameras coming out is very distracting. I played with a X-T3 and yes it was faster, but I see no reason at all for me to waste 5K (I have two bodies and they are over $2K each in Australia) on new gear. I have already booked 5 weeks at Xmas/NewYear around Indonesia and Malaysia – a much better investment for my money and I have full confidence that my two X-T2’s will match the latest models any day, particularly for the kind of photography that I do (not sports photography where milliseconds matter). Also, the beautiful images I took on this trip with my X-T2, I seriously doubt they would have looked any better or different had they been taken on a X-T3 or the X-H1!
Track-side Barber - Free Haircut Friday, Hua Lamphong, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018 (Fuji XT-2 and XF 16-55 @ F2.8)
My gear is very minimalistic and simple. I carry no tripod and never have, because I have zero interest in scenery or landscapes. I don’t even care that my lenses or cameras have no stabilisation – have never used that and have no need for it. I have two small bags attached to the Think Tank strap, they each contain one of my X-T2’s. One has the magical 16-55 glued on and the other has the beautiful 90mm permanently attached. My only small liberty is a tiny Godox flash that is HSS and TTL. I occasionally use this for daylight fill flash. The camera with the 16-55 hangs around my neck and the other over my shoulder on a Black Rapid strap. I can literally walk all day and never tire with this setup – much different to the huge Nikon ‘bricks’ that I used to lug around.
I am happy to say that the images from my Fuji FX16-55 zoom are more sharp and crisp than from my prime FX23mm F2 lens. I never thought I would ever say that a zoom was sharper and nicer than a prime, but in this case very much so!
Mr Smooth - Free Haircut Friday, Hua Lamphong, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 90mm @ F2)
My Modus Operandi
Just like my equipment, nothing has changed here. I wrote a very long blog this year talking about the new method I have developed for photographing people (except in my own country). I will not labour it here much more because you can read about it on my blog. However, I will touch very briefly on it again. It was the same deal as always and nothing was different for me photographing at the train station than anywhere else. I always adhered to my second most important precept – no eye contact. I never looked at anybody. I just kind of shuffled along looking like somebody who was totally disinterested in my surroundings. That way you do not draw attention to yourself or make people suspicious because you are looking at them. I wore my usual strange attire. I had my bandana around my face, my black leather gloves, my black cap on and a face with no smile on it. I am a very happy personable fellow normally, but when I am photographing I am on a serious mission. If you look too friendly people will want to interact with you – and that is the last thing you need.
It is not to be snobby or appear arrogant, it is solely for the reason that you do not want to interfere with what is going on around you and stop the ‘moment’. I only ever want to be a passer bye and not to ever get involved with what is happening. That way people will ignore you and life will carry on as usual and you will get the magical, spontaneous moments without interfering with them.
The Long Walk - Tunnel connecting Hua Lamphong to the underground train, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 16-55 @ F2.8)
As mentioned you can read all about this in detail on my other blogs, however, I want to touch on the most important detail of all. Never lift the camera up to your eye. I have written about this at length – people have a built-in radar, the second you lift a camera to your eye, whammo - everything changes. People stop what they are doing, they look at you, say no, any one of dozens of things. Whilst photographing Hua Lamphong nearly all of my photos were shot from the hip. I just shuffled along appearing to be totally disinterested in what was going on, and just looking like I was fiddling with my camera controls. All the while I was looking down into the flippy screen on the back of my Fuji X-T2. I viewed my whole world through my camera lens. I zoomed in and out and framed my world as I wished it to be recorded. In my peripheral vision I always looked for my subject or my next shot. Once I saw a possible image I shuffle over in that general direction – of course all along NEVER making any eye contact, never looking up and of course never smiling. As I shuffled past (with my shutter in silent mode), I rattled off as many images as I needed. Once I came out the other side, nobody was ever aware that I had taken any pictures and my special moment was usually in the bag.
This is a brilliant method of street photography that I have developed over 30 odd years of traveling and photographing this planet. No matter what anybody tells you, you will never be a success at this if you listen to what they say on many of the well-meaning YouTube channels. “Ask permission first”, they say, “smile and wave at people”, “appear friendly and interested in what they are doing”. This is very lovely if you want to make friends and get some snap-shots, but you will never make life- changing images this way. Why?? Why, because you have now become part of the scenery or the interactions and as an intruder you have changed everything. All of your images from now on will be ‘canned’ and contrived. People will be smiling or giving the happy finger up sign, or posing for you. If you are happy with that, then go for it. If you want real images that truly reflect what you witnessed, then try my method.
Z Man - Free Haircut Friday, Hua Lamphong, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 16-55 @ F5.6)
Oh my goodness, it is hard to say how much fun I had here - just the sheer joy of wandering around in a friendly environment, where I was not an intruder and I did not interfere with or change any of the human activities around me. The bonus of course was that I could fiddle with and use my lovely cameras. I left most days with beautiful images and I have shared just a few of them here today. Photography is a real joy to me and since I have developed my new method of street photography and honed my modus operandi down to a fine art, I no longer find it stressful like I used to. I used to wake up thinking that I had to face people, ask them for permission to photograph them and recall all of the negative experiences I had in the past. Everything changed a few years ago when I bought my first Fuji X-T1 camera and it had the flip-out screen. Out of frustration more than anything, I started experimenting with not looking at people and not lifting the camera to my eye – just shooting from waist level like many of the old-timers did with the Rolleiflex cameras (Vivian Maier etc). Hey Presto – I began to realise that my pictures had improved ten fold and my negative experiences and confrontations had totally disappeared. No wonder I eat, sleep and breath photography now because it has become such a joy.
Miss 'Fancy-pants' - passenger on the platform, Hua Lamphong, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018 (Fuji X-T2 and XF 90mm @ F2)
Where to from here?
I fully believe that we must have a focus, and a planned strategy and goals of operation in order to keep our passion for photography strong and alive. I fear today that many ‘photographers’ are just gear collectors. They often bounce from one new model of camera to the next, spending a fortune along the way and wondering why their photography never improves. Get one good camera that fulfils all of your needs (or two like me if need be), learn how to use it so well that you can adjust and take photos in your sleep. Then spend your time, money and effort planning exciting places to visit and other cultures to record. If you are not in a position yet to afford overseas travel, then plan some interesting events, happenings or seasonal activities in your own area. Usually I am fortunate enough to go on two major overseas trips a year (usually at least one with my wife and one alone), however, adding these together it only amounts to a couple of months a year at best. What do I do for the rest of the time?
I live in a very isolated gold-mining town in the middle of the West Australian desert. We are more that 600km drive from a major centre (Perth). This town is very small (only 30,00 inhabitants) and everything revolves around gold mining. We have the biggest open-cut gold mine in the world. However, after you have photographed that a couple of times there is really nothing else. I had to get creative so that I did not fall into a depressed photographic hole, whilst waiting for my next trip overseas.
The 'Big Kid' - passenger on the platform, Hua Lamphong, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018 - (Fuji X-T2 and XF 16-55 @ F2.8)
I decided to document and record the local Aboriginal people. One of my photos that I took this year ended up on the front cover of an online magazine where thousands of people were able to see it. If I had sat around complaining that there was nothing to photograph here then I would have never taken that photo. I also got permission to go to the local Men’s Shed. We have these in Australia where old retired guys donate their time to teach woodwork and mechanics to unemployed people, enhancing their skills to gain employment. I also go out to the Two-Up shed where they have gambling a few times a year. I encourage all of you to set goals, ask many questions and find places where you can get in to get unique photographs. I am planning to document the sheep shearers. We have many who travel the rural and remote places of Australia sheering sheep on isolated stations. The light and action will be magic and I can only image the beautiful images awaiting me there. I encourage you all to get out, get active with what gear you have and make images that will not only fascinate people, and inspire others, but your photographic journey will start to become a real joy!
Here is a quick snap-shot of my gear. Man I love working with this equipment, so light, fast and easy to use and producing incredible images. There's my goofy gloves, bandana and hat included!!