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Spirit in the soul

Photographer Chamni Thipmanee explores northern Thailand and documents Lanna customs and traditions before they disappear for good.

Publication Date : 10-09-2012


In his latest exhibition, veteran lensman Chamni Thipmanee invites us to join him on a journey across Thailand's north to explore and remember an everyday way of life that is rapidly but surely disappearing.

"The Travelling Souls: In Search of Northern Thai Spirit" at Tamarind Village Chiang Mai through December 9 showcases his unusual yet emotional angles, rich play of texture and light and attention to small, seemingly unimportant details.

On display is a collection of 53 photographs taken over the past decade during his journey throughout the north. They include striking portraits, architectural and landscape images as well as scenes of everyday life.

Chamni's philosophy is, in his words, "expect but not expect", meaning he doesn't set his subjects in position for proper compositions or sensitive story telling. Spontaneity, instinct and a deep respect for his subjects make up his approach towards photography.

"It's not reason but feeling that pushes me to capture pictures. If something touches my heart, I won't hesitate to record it. Capturing a given moment is an instantaneous reaction. Every picture has its own nature and charm. When I'm travelling, I never anticipate what I'll get, it just happens naturally. If the goal is set in advance, it's as if you have already taken the picture in your mind. It's useless.

"I don't follow rules or set schedules. Travelling with information can be a barrier. I set myself to zero when I start a journey, I'm a wanderer who can be slightly crazy," says the Songkhla native.

Referring to himself as an observer, Chamni often roams the street with his manual camera taking portraits and candid shots.

"I'm interested in the slowness of the north, which is in direct contrast to the south where I grew up. While the Southern dialect is short and sharp, the north's is slow and monotonous. What is unique about the north is the strong spirituality and sense of culture that permeates so many parts of society. You find this throughout the country, but it is very strong in this region.

"It's a part of the country that impresses me. The culture is still vibrant and unique and the people are friendly and kind. I like the simple way of living. While materialism has taken over to a certain extent in the city, in the countryside, people still maintain their traditional ways."

Most of Chamni's pictures are black and white and taken with a film camera, not a digital one.

"We have countless shades of colour, but the black-and-white picture, to me, contains a mass of grey that engages beauty and attractiveness."

The pictures are displayed along the hotel's roofed walkway. Rather than titles, they each come with an excerpt from interviews with Chiang Mai natives and long-term residents of the city whose personal reflections add another perspective and meaning to the image.

In one picture, Chamni has captured an elderly hilltribe woman from the back. She's looking at a mountain where the trees have been cut down to clear land for agriculture.

"I came across this woman in Chiang Mai's Fang district. She was travelling on foot to visit her relatives in a neighbouring village and I asked her if she would mind if I took her photo standing with her back to me, looking out into the distance.

"It is not necessary to always take a photo from the front and I thought the scene would be more powerful this way. The mountain without trees makes me realise how much havoc the modern world and economic needs have caused, as well as the environment they have destroyed," he says.

Another touching image shows a farmer leading his two buffaloes in a rice field.

"Someone asked me why the buffalo in this photo looks so much like its owner! If you look closely, it's actually quite true. He could communicate with his buffaloes in a language I didn't understand, but they really obeyed him.

"It made me wonder how it is that man can communicate with a buffalo but struggles to get his message across to his fellow men. I was so sad to hear that the farmer has now sold his buffaloes because his son wanted a motorcycle. Life changes so fast," Chamni says softly.

The simplicity of life is portrayed in the portraits of monks standing in front of a temple in Chiang Mai's Mae Gum Pong Village.

"When I asked these monks where they were going, they told me the villagers had invited them to say a prayer. I asked them to stand at the entrance of the temple so I could take a photo and the dog just walked into the frame."

While many pictures are delightful, some tear at the heart, like the photo showing the remains of a mural painting of bodhi trees and the ruins of headless Buddhist images.

"It made me think about the loss of religion in general. Sometimes all that is left is memory. Nowadays, people live at an ever-increasing speed. We've forgotten the things that are important. In today’s world, there is too much negligence and a lack of focus on what really matters. The world around us is growing and changing all the time. We forget to tend to our souls in the process," he says.

One highlight of the exhibition is a set of photographs depicting the colourful and elaborate Poy Sang Long Buddhist ordination festival. This ceremony takes place each year in Shan or Tai Yai communities throughout the north and is a milestone in a young Shan boy's life, bringing great honour and merit to his family.

"I was walking around a market when a sam-lor driver suggested I take a photo of this colourful ceremony at a nearby temple. It happened so spontaneously, so naturally. This ritual helps slow down the world and keeps our heritage from disappearing," says Chamni.

His emotional pictures act as a form of therapy to balance his career in commercial advertising. Interested in photography since he was a young boy, Chamni attended the Instituto Europeo de Design in Rome and founded the still-photography studio Chamni's Eye in 1992. He has now expanded the business to Vietnam, establishing Professional Image Co in Ho Chi Minh City four years ago.

"If taking pictures brings you happiness, that's wonderful. Shoot whatever attracts your interest, but don't stick to any rules. Just let it flow and be crazy sometimes," says Chamni.

The exhibition continues until December 9 at Tamarind Village on Rajdamnoen Road in Chiang Mai.


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