PROLOGUE | A WAY OF SEEING: READING SEA THROUGH PHOTOBOOK AND SELF-PUBLISHING

SEEING IS BEING: “I BELIEVE IN PHOTOGRAPHY” — AN INTERVIEW WITH KORNKRIT JIANPINIDNAN (13 September 2020)

RELEASED ON 13 September 2020

Written by Liu Chao-tze
Photography by Lin Junye
Translated by Joanna Lee

The first time we met Kornkrit was actually at the third Bangkok Artbook Fair back in 2019. As fellow exhibitors, we often wanted to chat with him at his table, but it was hard to catch him in person. Obviously not at ease with the exhibition crowds, he was usually smoking and chatting with friends at the parking lot, instead of being at his seat.

He’s a coy person who speaks quietly and slowly, with slender fingers and neatly trimmed nails. “My photography is visual poetry,” he said, when we met up again for this interview. Kornkrit Jianpinidnan is one of the few photographers in the Thai art scene who insists on using photobooks as his main art practice. He has been self-publishing photobooks since 2006, now with over 20 books under his belt. If poems are poems because of how precisely a poet uses words, then Kornkrit’s visual poetry demonstrates his perfectionism regarding photography printing.

In college, Kornkrit’s major was printmaking, and he experimented and color corrected constantly, holding printing quality to high standards. His grasp of the medium, as well as the presentation of his books, are equally thorough. His works consist of not only photography and photobooks, but also installation art, video and writing. He also cares about a work’s sense of space, so much so that he will make dummies or space mock-ups in the early stages of his work, in order to visualize his concepts. The exact placement of photos on the wall and the ways in which displayed works interact with the space all need to be backed by reason. For him, books are not only objects but also spaces. Just as curators would consider how a work would respond accordingly to the space, as well as what kinds of stories they wish to present to the viewers, Kornkrit will consider how a reader feels when looking through his books. The order of the photos, and the narrative it creates, is in itself a focal point, demanding a page-by-page read.

A travel photographer’s poetics of space

Of his self-published photobooks, the Poem series (2016-), an ongoing project, is one of the most significant. Since 2016, there have been 13 volumes published to date. The theme of each volume varies, and is not consistent with one another. Often, the photos consist of the people, objects and scenery encountered during his travels, or of the connections between a certain time and person. The photos are arranged chronologically, the order determined as soon as the photos are shot. Reading Poem, then, is like experiencing a journey with him.

On his own website, Kornkrit describes himself as a travel photographer. We asked him, half-jokingly, if he prefers the label of artist or photographer, given that people often associate ‘travel photographers’ with geography magazines. He answered nonchalantly: “It depends on the situation. Both are fine, I guess. You can even call me a fashion photographer, as long as you don’t call me something I haven’t been before.”

As someone who doesn’t care too much for the labels people put on him, he doesn’t see a line between commercial work and art. He once put magazine rejections in his own artist’s book, while Poem 1 (2016) was originally a commercial image for a fashion brand. “I just like to take photos, so when magazines approach me, I think it’s a good opportunity,” he said. “I just have a conversation with them about what is possible and what is not. We can discuss.”

Doesn’t this kind of back-and-forth often require a compromise? “No compromise,” he said, assuredly. “I think to make a decision in anything, you need a reason. We can make a decision together with a reason.”

Poem 12: Thinking of D (2018) is a collection of 144 photographs from Chanthaburi, a province on the southeast coast of Thailand. Despite the work being commissioned by French luxury brand Dior, Kornkrit headed to the area to look at the colonial traces left by France. After the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, the kingdom of Siam had ceded the land to France. According to Kornkrit, when he found out he would be collaborating with Dior, he began looking into the early development of the brand, which led him to the history of French colonization in Indochina in the 19th century. He discovered that the exhibition venue for ‘Lady Dior As Seen By’ just so happened to be along the Chao Phraya River, a place that bore witness to the ebb and flow of colonial power. So, he went to Chanthaburi, taking photographs along the river.

The first page of the book features the silhouette of a woman carrying the Lady Dior bag. Flipping through the pages, it’s as though one is walking with the Dior woman along the streets of Chanthaburi and past the heritage buildings of colonial bygones: the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Catholic church, Chanthaburi’s National Archives, the Old Town Chanthaboon Waterfront, the Kasemsarn Hotel, the National Maritime Museum and so on. At first glance, it is a simple journey; in reality, it is a poem that records the burdens of history.

Coinciding with the first wave of Thai self-publishing

Not long after Kornkrit arrived in Bangkok in 1999, he and several friends established the artist collective ‘As yet unnamed’. The 14 members included artists, photographers, designers, curators, writers, and so on. Prominent figures like Arin Rungjang¹, who once represented Thailand for the Venice Biennale, as well as Pratchaya Phinthong², who was exhibited at documenta 13, were members. The year that they all exhibited together in Project 304³, an art space founded by the group leader Gridthiya Gaweewong4, was the same year that they formed the collective. Soon after, in about studio/ about cafe5, an artist squat in Bangkok’s Chinatown, they began holding all kinds of exhibitions and experimenting with various art forms, including painting, installation, performance art, experimental photography and others. Combined with film screenings, workshops, seminars and lectures, the program lasted a total of nine months.

Self-publishing may have grown out of punk music and subcultural fanzines on the other side of the globe, but it followed a wholly different path in Thailand. The end of the ‘90s to the early 2000s saw the golden era of Thai independent publishing and self-published zine culture, which sprouted from experimental independent art spaces and alternative spaces. Here, artists were beginning to experiment with all kinds of mediums, including self-published photobooks, monographs, catalogues and other publication forms.

Small independent book fairs and zine fairs began popping up from 2000 to 2004. But with the boom of internet culture and the bust of independent publishing from 2005 onwards, added with the effects of the 2006 military coup, independent publishing activities soon began to disappear. It was not until the Bangkok Artbook Fair in 2017 that self-publishing finally had its breakthrough. Practitioners, designers and students young and old, as well as art museums and galleries all rushed to attend, breathing new life into the independent publishing and self-publishing circle, and creating new genres and forms.

If images were not only evidence

It was at the 2019 Bangkok Artbook Fair that Kornkrit and art historian Thanavi Chotpradit6 debuted Prism of Photography: Dispersion of Knowledge and Memories of the 6th October Massacre, a book they cooperated on. They gave away 40 copies onsite every day, in exchange for audience remarks of 800 to 1000 words. The Thammasat University massacre occurred on October 6, 1976. Thai military forces cracked down on student protestors, opening fire on students and other civilians with weapons such as rockets and grenades. For the government, it’s a dark chapter of Thai history that has no place in public discourse; despite some chatter amongst the people, it’s something that’s briefly mentioned – if at all – in the classrooms. To this day, no official investigation has been launched, and the records have yet to be fully released to the public.

Kornkrit and Thanavi trawled through the archives of Thammasat University, the Thai Journalists Association, Documentation of Oct 6 Project and the website 2519. net, for photos of student protests – images of conflict, violence and misery – as well as the newspaper headlines at the time. They archived these materials, ordering them by chronology. But unlike traditional reports, where images support the narrative text, Kornkrit has chosen an index method, placing the images sources and dates on the very last page.

“Most of the documents are photographs. You can see some objects, but there are just a few of them. So the photographs are the evidence,” he said. “I hope to really focus on photography in this event.” The photos in the book are not pixelated or blurred. Aren’t they too direct to make people hardly bear to see? But Kornkrit believes that everything that happened is in these photos, since the photos are the only remaining evidence, why do we need to self-censor?

He continued: “At some point, maybe we have to leave the images to tell the story itself. If you’re curious to know about what has happened, you can start digging into it and understand it in your own way.”

As described towards the end of Prism of Photography: “In most history books, portrait and photojournalism act as illustrations to support the story, but what is ‘the image’ in itself? Does it have an ability to reveal or not reveal something? Does it bring about clarity or confusion, or both in a jumble? Can the image be more than a record of things past? When putting together the image and different forms of text in different media, how would the image operate?”

The image itself brings about all kinds of questions. Through the prism of photography, and the images that are refracted, can various forms of beautiful ‘light’ be dispersed, so as to allow this ‘light’ to be seen by more people?

Relating this to the 2019 Hong Kong protests, and the inability to differentiate between fake or real news and images, we asked him if he thought photography was a reliable material for truth. Moreover, even as images are widely disseminated on the internet, every photograph still maintains its own point of view – so, can photography still present the truth?

“Of course, I believe in photography.”

Afterword

Every person we met on this trip in Thailand had their own nicknames, ranging from English names to everyday items, food and other objects. You’ll be fascinated to know, if you ask, that the names are laden with meaning. Curious, we asked Kornkrit about his; did it have any special meanings? “I don’t have a specific nickname, but friends who know me well call me Krit. It’s ‘knife’ in Sanskrit, the same name as a Hindu god who wields a knife.”

Instead of a knife, he wields a camera, writing poems.

KORNKRIT JIANPINIDNAN

Born in Chiang Rai in 1975, Kornkrit Jianpinidnan is a graduate of Chiang Mai University’s art department, majoring in printmaking and minoring in photography. He left for Bangkok not long after graduating, becoming a photographer in the fashion industry, shooting for major international brands’ fashion shows and fashion magazines. Kornkrit is not only a fashion photographer, he is one of the few photographers in the Thai art scene who insists on using photobooks as his main art practice. Involved in various art communities, he is a practitioner with a versatile background. His self-published works include Worry and Love (2006), Tales of Praya Prab Mountain (2010), Ballad (2014) and Poem (2016).

1 — Arin Rungjang was born in 1975, a pioneer of installation art in Thailand. His works, based around Southeast Asian history, signs and memory, explore the ways in which society, economics and politics affect the individual life. He represented Thailand at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

2 — Pratchaya Phinthong was born in 1974. He often uses mixed media in installations, sculptures, objects and concepts, and his works usually derive from the dialogue between the artist and other people. His work was exhibited at the 13th Documenta.

3 — Project 304 was established in 1996, spearheading Bangkok’s independent art spaces. It was also an important hub for Thailand’s contemporary art in the ‘90s.

4 — Gridthiya Gaweewong is an internationally renowned curator, responsible for countless major art exhibitions. She has previously worked with Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, amongst others. She is the current director of the Jim Thompson Art Center.

5 — about studio/about cafe was one of the early alternative spaces for contemporary art in Bangkok. Aside from art exhibitions, contemporary theatre, performance art, video art, film screenings.

6 — Thanavi Chotpradit is an art historian, and a professor of archaeology and art history at Silpakorn University.

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