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Genuine Thai by Sophirat Muangkum
Reading time: about 6 minutes
About this series
Photographer Sophirat Muangkum is interested in how humans think. She is often inspired by stories of people in their environment, subculture and the situation of Thai society. Muangkum started to join ‘artist-in-residence’ programs, because she wanted to have the opportunity to research and collaborate with local people about what they experience about their own body and their circumstances. She does this by asking them to use their body to talk about memories at that time such as nature, pollution and beauty standards. Genuine Thai is a very personal series, where the photographer is exploring questions of identity within (Thai) society.
First, what drew you to become a nude photographer, and why did you decide to go the route you’ve taken thus far? And what did you want to be when you were growing up?
I started nude photography as a hobby in 2005 and never thought that it would be my career at the present, because I‘d like to enjoy the moment without being depressed. But then there was a job offer in Germany, where I started working as a photographer. I love photography and the human skin, nude photography is the answer. I guess. Being a programmer was my dream job when I was a child, because I only wanted to be naked and work at home, but I never worked as a programmer. I worked as a sales and marketing manager for a decade. I have worked multi-careers for years now and Nude photography makes me the happiest. It will be something I will do until my last breath. So I said to myself ‘why don’t you do the thing that you love the most and do it great?’
Most people ask 'What is real Thai’ the same way they probably ask ‘What is typical German or Australian.’ Identity is something that helps us in everyday life to classify and assess ourselves and our environment. Did you have a hard time to find your identity as a photographer in Thailand?
It’s a hard time and it still is. As I’m based and work in a conservative country. I can’t deny that culture, myth and feminine affect my work and my identity. Most of conservative people have no idea of ‘what is the difference between taste and behavior?’. I think we are all global citizens, it’s impossible to know or judge people only by where they come from. However I don’t rush anything, let time do its duty. I only work and keep doing what I'm doing, because I believe that work is a trustworthy thing.
What’s your interpretation of Genuine Thai? What is the story behind the concept?
This photoset comes from questions from the others which I’ve heard.
’How does your work look like Thai when it seems like international artwork?’ someone said that.
In the world where everything is almost blended which can be accessed easily, even a cultural divide is a translucent line. I can’t believe that I still have to answer the question. ‘What is a real Thai?’
But above all, being annoyed or being offended about these questions that people keep asking me frequently, when they think that I go against tradition, does not go anywhere.
I felt like ‘at least, they decided to ask because a questioning attitude is the beginning point of finding the answer. And if the questioning person is not prejudiced and takes their own opinions at first, then we probably can sit and talk and exchange the attitudes together.
I grew up from a very conservative family and was a Thai folk dancer since I was in kindergarten till university. I was called a neat girl and lady by people who knew me as a child, but when the time came that I stood in the spotlight of society, I was completely nude and dared to bare myself.
Being raised and taught in a family that needed to be in the frame I was not allowed to swear or clump when I was a child and now I am judged as not being Thai. Just because of what I do and I’m different. Therefore it made me realize that ‘Thai or authentic Thai’, sometimes is used as a measure of judgment.
We can not know on which ground we stand if there is no one else, no symbol or no building. Freedom of humanity, sometimes we just have to let go of our rulers that measure other people first.
What do you think makes each of us who we are? And what parts of your identity are determined for you by other people or by society?
I think family and society can build individual behavior, but to become who we are we need to be more brave, questioning and open-minded to learn new experiences. I never label myself, because people always change. I love to see myself growing and developing mentally and a physically.
Why did you choose the woman you chose for that series? Is it because she does not look Thai and at the same time is wearing a traditional Khon dance headdress – you're playing with identity role models?
I chose a female model because my series also talks about femininity in Thailand as I was raised up by a conservative family. The model’s face looks like the model in the 18th century painting. I combined her looks and Thai headdress in the 18th century. Because I’ve got those questions by my looks or what I've done. My artwork is like to question them back as ‘Are you sure about what you see or what you think?’. People don’t question it if it seems logical already. I’m interested in how people think or ask questions. My work might convince people to see it from a new perspective.
Please tell us more about your process developing a nude concept and photo session in general.
Most of my process starts with questions, even though sometimes it is driven by feeling. Take for example my photo series ‘Finding Oxygen’ (2016-2017). The idea popped up while I traveled in the north of Thailand and I saw the laborers' street running through the big old trees, which were more than hundreds years old. My question was, ‘if there were no trees to give us oxygen to breathe, would we be able to live?’. This photo set was released before the ‘PM 2.5 issue happened these days.’ (Editorial note: PM2.5 = Particular matter, fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller). My final images usually come across my head as a ‘flash back’ and I try to catch them as much as I can–I mostly write down my ideas. I will then plan a photo shoot when I find the right place, right model and every subject I need. I don’t do much retouching, however a good lighting, beautiful location and nice talk always inspired me to make photographs. I think every input in my life can turn into nude photographs somehow.
What are one or several challenges you face when creating nude works?
Belief, cultural diversity, understanding, stereotypes of females (because I'm a female photographer in a conservative country. I can’t run away from that mindset). I think to be a nude photographer in Thailand doesn’t mean that you can’t have a career, but the basic foundation to success is to build trust. This is the most important thing ever. I usually work with non-model or local people where I attend artist-in-residence.
If you could go back to a certain time in your life, what would it be?
If I could go back to a certain time in my life I would stop my ex-boyfriend from destroying my hard disk, which was full of my nude self-portraits. As I am not very good at remembering, images are the only things that verify to me that these situations exist or occurred. When I lost some of my images, I felt like I also lost some of my memories.
What is the one photo series you dream of doing?
Take nude portraits of all members of my family because I normally don't get close with them. If we are all naked, we might truly see each other in person. In my opinion, being naked together is ice-breaking.
Sophirat Muangkum is a self-taught artist and currently one of Thailand’s leading nude photographers. She had spent 3 years working as a photographer in Germany prior to moving back home in 2013 where she started to exhibit her works and established herself in the Thailand art scene.
Her works have been exhibited at Bangkok Art & Cultural Center (BACC), Photo Fair Thailand at BITEC (Bangkok), Midnice Gallery (Bangkok), Radisson Blu (Bangkok), Objectifs-Centre for Photography and Film (Singapore), Rebel Art Space (Bangkok), Innerspace (LA,USA).
Sophirat Muangkum also published photo books like ‘Live Life In Your Own Skin’. Her latest one has been released 2021 at her solo exhibition in Khonkaen ,Thailand.
Photos copyright Sophirat Muangkum
DRAWLIGHTS | 1/1 – one post/one photographer, weekly. Off-chain and on-chain. By Peter Nitsch, lens-based artist, a member of NFT Now 🌐, Jenny Metaverse and lifetime Member of the Royal Photographic Society of Thailand.