Working on 'Bangkok Dawan Dok'

Arthur Daley the sports writer once quipped that ‘Golf is like a love affair. If you don't take it seriously, it's no fun; if you do take it seriously, it breaks your heart.’ He might just as well have been talking about shooting street photography. I feel it’s probably the hardest photographic genre; you are essentially dealing in ninety something percent failure. Like a gold rush prospector panning your way through the dirt and hoping for an occasional nugget of visual gold. For added masochism, simply do it all on a film camera and home develop a roll every 36 frames. Rinse and repeat, quite literally.


My thinking behind this project was to try and portray a very real and honest view of a mundane, humdrum Bangkok suburb. I really didn’t want to take pictures of temples, tuk-tuks, brightly robed Buddhist monks and all the other trite clichés that often seem to pervade such work. I didn’t even want to shoot anywhere that you might easily see Westerners walking around in tourist mode. In fact, and just as pertinent, I sure as hell didn’t want frames that looked like they were made by a random white man wandering the back alleys of Bangkok drinking shots of rice whiskey with complete strangers just to get a few shots in.  


I had been going through a stage of looking back over my collection of Winogrand photos (again) and appreciating the added drama that a 28mm lens can bring to the table when compared to the usual 35 or 50mm lenses that are often considered the preserve of such work. I only found out last year that all his great shots were actually on a 28mm. I had been a massive fan of the man’s work for a long time but only later discovered that in addition to his immense skill, experience and prolific output, the drama in his work also perhaps owes something to this preferred wider focal length. I decided that I would like to shoot some street work with a wider lens than normal and 28mm was definitely the ticket. I had never owned a prime lens in this length and was surprised at how little I knew about them in terms of models, even in systems that I have had a lot of experience with, such as Leica M mount or Nikon F. I could tell you all about the nuances of different 35mm’s from several manufacturers in my sleep, like any true anorak, but this was new ground. I spent a while doing some homework on the issue and then got distracted as I often do, letting it slip from memory in due course. Then one day, I stumbled over a mint condition Nikkor 28mm f2 Ais at a fair price and I snapped it up.


I normally know everything about lenses before I buy them due to losing whole chunks of my time on earth geeking out doing my research. You’ll notice that I use the word ‘research’ as a pronoun for wasting time stuck in vicious ADD circles debating things that I know full well I’ll probably purchase anyway. Yet this was a rare impulse buy of glass for me. I was of course pleased to later learn that this lens indeed has a truly stellar reputation, five star legacy glass in fact, and its great depth of field (and the nice markings to measure it with on Ais glass) was just begging me to put it to use in public. The only curveball at this point was that I although I learnt photography on Nikon SLR’s, I learnt how to shoot what I might refer to as ‘deep in the street’ work on rangefinders and had never really shot much street styled work with SLR’s before. I decided that I would be up for the challenge, if only just because of this new lens. Around this time I stumbled upon some truly great street work by an eccentric but excellent American photographer called John Free (Google him). I saw what he has been doing with small Nikon film SLR’s in the world of street photography for decades and I decided that I wasn’t going to have a problem, and one really doesn’t need a rangefinder for shooting street well despite what the internet says…. but I saw that I might have needed to adjust my thinking. Truth is that whilst Nikon lenses are large in comparison to their rangefinder equivalents, when attached to FM/FE semi pro Nikon bodies, the complete package is nearly as compact as a hooded lens set up on any Leica M. It’s still just about as discreet and eminently useable in such a role.


So with a Nikon FE2 and the venerable 28 f2, the project began. I shot it over a couple of months on Kodak’s legendary Tri X 400 and souped it all with Ilfotec HC (dilution B) at around 7 mins/20 deg c. Lab scans were later performed on a trusty old Fuji Frontier. I shot  the project in manual mode and went for feeling and emotion and forced myself away from being too obsessed with the more technical aspects of photography just for the sake of it. I did however apply some of my existing technique from rangefinder street shooting such as scale focusing the lens and being prepared to shoot quickly. I found that the shutter speeds you can hand hold an SLR to in lower light are a little less due to the flapping mirror box but in the style of work that was looking to achieve here, it mattered a lot less than I thought. I think a bigger deal is made of this than there needs to be. One issue that I did notice though was that a Nikon FE2 (or FM I would imagine) was quite a bit louder when it went off than that of a Leica M with it’s rubbery curtain swiping away. In practice though, this also mattered a bit less than I thought as by the time it gives you away, you have hopefully already got the shot anyway. Of course, the Leica would still have you covered to take a few follow up shots in stealth mode before the cat were out the bag, to use an archaic and rather cruel sounding metaphor. Also I realized that the ‘being able to see outside of the frame for what might be coming into it’ advantage that I thought I had previously wielded with a rangefinder was also overrated. I had overlooked the fact that using a 35mm lens on a .72 finder in a Leica had pushed the framelines so far to the edges that I hadn’t been seeing much outside of the frame anyway, looking ‘down the tunnel’ in an SLR shooting street was actually no problem at all.


So, I found a plain, boring, normal and very Thai neighbourhood in Bangkok and just shot a lot of rolls with one camera and lens in a very simple fashion over a couple of months. I found it quite different to be making shots that I consider interesting out of what Thai people would consider very mundane. A good approach seems to be not shooting much until your initial presence in an area has been noted and discussed by the locals a bit. Then after ten minutes or more, when the novelty of the foreigner in their vicinity starts to feign and you are perceived as less of a threat, you can get some shots that look less like you were a part of the equation. I soon felt like I was getting into my stride with the new set up. I felt that the project was successful and in keeping with my initial intentions. I also found that the 28mm wasn’t just good for squeezing more into a frame but it also did indeed exaggerate in such a way that can add a nice touch of drama. If you are already a 35mm shooter, it’s not that big a step to take but I imagine it would be harder for a normal 50mm kind of person to get used to. The lens is definitely a keeper for me. I really enjoyed the putting together of this body of work but it remains as hard as ever to find those elusive nuggets of gold out there. Sometimes that’s the way I like it, other times it drives me insane.


Still, the definition of anything good is always that it’s hard work to achieve it and there’s something to be said for the pursuit itself. Street photography can be addictive as there’s nothing quite like it when you make a frame that comes out well. Often it seems the stuff that you were sure you got, you didn’t and the stuff that you didn’t even know you got, is great. The trick might be to try and find a happy medium between the two but it is just so hard to do. I found that, like the man said, if you take this affair seriously, it could break your heart… but hopefully not enough to stop you from trying again.