Photography, for me, is a way of seeing things differently; not only does it enable me to capture the precious and fleeting moments in my kids childhood, it also encourages me to see the beauty where others cannot. Living in Bangkok, Thailand, I have had the opportunity to photograph some of the most beautiful temples, beaches and scenery you could imagine; but my favourite photography spot is Nakhon Khlong Toey, more commonly referred to as the Khlong Toey slums. This area is one of the largest low income family communities in Bangkok and home to approximately 100,000 people. It is about 1.5 square kilometers in size, and the land is relatively low and swamp-like. Many of the tin-roofed homes are on stilts over stagnant, polluted water, and the area is prone to flooding during the monsoon season.
Khlong Toey’s fate is currently uncertain as the land is prime real estate and is planned for major developments in the upcoming years, leaving the residents with an uncertain future. Many of the locals have resided in Khlong Toey since the 1950’s when the land was rented to people who came to the city looking for work. Cheap labour was needed in the capital at the time and through a land rental system, people could rent for a very low rate. Over time, this settlement grew and is now one of the largest slums in Bangkok. I decided to capture this community as I have volunteered in several of its kindergartens teaching English and was always so surprised by the world I was transported to as I walked through the narrow lanes. A world filled with women happily gossiping and washing their clothes surrounded by mucky faced children running around happily, usually accompanied by soi dogs or cats.
Khlong Toey has a bad reputation , which despite a huge reduction in crime and violence over the last decade, remains. It is not somewhere that is recommended for outsiders to roam. When friends learned I was spending time there myself taking photographs, everyone told me I was crazy and that I should never go down there. It is definitely not somewhere I would go at night but I felt safe going there in the early morning when children were preparing for school and the local cockrills were making their calls for the day to begin.
What I saw in the area was extreme poverty, desperation and at time so much trash I could barely see the entrance to the homes. The narrow lanes wind into a labyrinth of tin-roofed shacks where holes in the walls are covered with old posters and beer advertisements. But beyond all of that, I saw the beauty. Through taking my camera to the “slums”, I was introduced to an incredible community of strong women, fun loving children and exceptionally proud men. Everyone I came in contact with greeted me and my camera with a smile and a genuine warmth that is rare in many other communities.
The warm welcomes of the people enabled me to get up close and capture the beauty and community spirit of this neighborhood. I don’t talk thai and the majority of people I was photographing couldn’t talk English but I learned very basic phrases so I could ask permission to capture them and to thank them. Strangely enough, hand gestures and a smile were all that was needed; everyone I approached was more than happy to be photographed and all enjoyed seeing themselves on my screen. At first, I went to capture the slums as I was just so stunned by the what I was witnessing and wanted to document this strange world I was seeing and knew they’d make great photographs. However, it became clear that what I was seeking was something different, I wanted to treat this community and it’s people with the respect they showed me and I wanted to not only capture the surroundings and living conditions , I wanted to share the deep connections and beauty that lay between the relationships of the neighbours and family members.
When I reflect on my time in the community, it’s no longer the “slums”, it’s a neighborhood rich in history, family bonds, and community spirit. A neighborhood where parents are working long hours to make little money to survive and provide for their children, elderly people struggling with illness and finding support in their neighbours and children finding the simplest of joys from items thrown away by others. It’s a hard place to live and I have so much respect for those who live there and make it a home.
I honestly believe if it wasn’t for my camera and this insatiable desire to capture this different perspective , I would have missed this side of Bangkok and what a shame that would have been. Through the medium of photography, we have the opportunity to not only open our eyes to new locations and people, but also our minds. As photographers, we have the ability to use our art to transport people and share the stories, lives and histories of others through our images. And as humans, we can use these moments with our camera to connect with people with respect and understanding, things we may have missed otherwise.