Dan Depew: Fundamentals of Learning Style

November 23rd, 2008

Dan Depew is one of the younger photographers who have interned with me. He is an American attending university in Bangkok. He called awhile ago, very late as I recall, to ask for advice on the recent anti-government protests. I gave him what I could, wished him luck and safety, and asked him to recount the experience for the blog. Most interesting, for me, was how he chose to edit the images in-camera and how he took this news-coverage photographic style and used it to spur himself into one of the personal projects he and I discussed this summer. These are his words and images:

Most of the action happened within the first few days. The Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) broke into the government-controlled National Broadcasting of Thailand and several government offices. They rallied at the parliament building, demanding the Prime Minister address claims of corruption.

I was in Southern Thailand on an assignment at the time, planning on returing to Bangkok two days later. Coverage of the protesters battling police was being broadcast as though it were a major sports event. As soon as police managed to force protesters outside the government house gates, the protesters would return minutes later with even larger numbers, pushing police out another gate. A few nights later, allegedly hired supporters of PM Samak’s People’s Power Party joined the protests, leaving hundreds injured and one person dead. Samak called a state of emergency bringing martial law, military troops, no public gatherings, and censorship of the media. I returned to Bangkok with to these conditions.

PAD’s “Final War” wasn’t affecting daily life for most people and few went near the PAD protests. Some schools were closed, along with government offices, but most Thais were still comfortable leaving the house; a noticeable difference from the martial law under former Prime Minister Thaksin.

Still, Thais aren’t keen on protests because the grim history of protesting against the corruption of government or military officials in Thailand. Events of Black May 1992 and October 1973 have associated an image of violence with large protests. However, most Thai journalists didn’t seem to have any problems reporting from around the PAD-controlled area of Bangkok, so I decided I wanted to explore a bit and document the events taking place.

I’m not a photojournalist by trade; I’m a Communication Arts student and photographer. My photography background is in editorial, commercial, and portrait photographer. Covering news events isn’t something I do very often. The only protest I had ever photographed was a PAD anti-Thaksin protest in 2006.

So, I called a photojournalist for advice. Tim Matsui advised me on strategy: have a plan but be flexible and know what I was going to do if the internet went out, as it did during the 2006 coup. With a list of contacts from Tim, I hooked up with a university friend who was planning on photographing the PAD camps as well. We met after class and found a taxi willing to take us to the government house.

Lackadaisical police in riot gear had set-up a barbed wire barricade about 200 meters down the street from the protester’s own barricade; they didn’t seem to care who walked past the ends of their barbed wire fence. Later in the day the fence and police unit disappeared.

The area occupied by the PAD itself is several blocks large, defined by commandeered police barriers piled with truck tires. I found security checkpoints, some with metal-detecting wands and pat-downs, that were staffed by self-appointed guards armed with homemade clubs. This militarization was something I found very important, one of many elements I felt made the PAD protests unique.

Thousands of people from across Thailand had come to the government house and surrounding buildings. Protesters from Southern, Northern, and even Eastern provinces had erected tents on the lawns and courtyards of government offices. PAD had it’s own hospitals, food and water distribution system, several large stages, clothing and souvenir vendors.

Inside, I found there were who types of people.

The majority were men, women, and students who came to peacefully show their support for the PAD. They camped for days in the hot, rainy weather listening to speeches on the main stage or smaller stages relaying the television broadcasts to overflow areas.

The other type never wandered far from their motorcycle helmet and club. These were the protective bid-brothers of the peaceful protesters. Many saw it as their duty to protect the PAD from police or DAAD bullies, or much worse: military attacks. Most people I talked to said they needed weapons to protect their right to peaceful protest.

When he saw some of the images, Tim asked me if I intentionally edited while shooting. I did. I found myself intentionally cropping the heads off some of the people carrying weapons to avoid revealing their identities. I felt that if the images were ever published I didn’t want the faces to become the story. To me, how and why the protests happened was much more important.

The PAD protests were moved to a new location after a new prime minister was appointed; only a few protesters remain. Since then, I’ve started one of the personal projects Tim and I scribbled on a napkin a few months ago; sitting in a Seattle bar, we had brainstormed social documentary topics to explore in Thailand. This personal project will use environmental portraiture to address the discrimination between social and ethnic classes in Thai society

Over the summer I had worked with Tim on several of his “Mr. Miyagi” projects. It was grunt work; post-processing a few hundred digital files is a mind-numbing chore. But going through the photos taught me so much. Sorting through every frame (thousands) Tim shot in Kivalina and Cambodia, made me feel as thought I’d been standing next to him the whole time. I was beginning to see the photographer’s thoughts through a timeline of photographs, showing me how Tim turned events and stories into unique and powerful images. Even following Tim through Cambodia wouldn’t have taught me more than my sifting through two thousand computer files in his office.

I didn’t sit in front of the computer all the time. My “Andrew moment,” described in a previous blog post, was over beers, burgers, and notes on napkins. And when the conversation turned to editorial photography and my style, Tim had me walk through the bar as if it were an editorial shoot. How would I would light, compose, and place subjects? The night’s discussion helped me realize parts of my style and thinking process I’d never grasped before. It is with this new realization I hope to use my remaining time in Thailand, and to take the experience of the protests, to produce my personal project on discrimination in Thailand.

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