Manit Sriwanichpoom is a leading Thai photographer and contemporary artist whose work has been widely exhibited around the world. He is most well-known for his Pink Man series which exposes consumerism and the loss of values in modern Thai society. He also owns and operates Kathamandu Photo Gallery (Pan Rd, Bangkok) where he curates exhibitions, conducts research and showcases his own photographs.
Who is the Pink Man? And is he ever coming back?
He’s actually a writer named Somphong Thawee. When I saw him perform in the 1990s, I liked how he moved and I liked the anger one could feel buried eneath the surface. He seemed perfect to play a symbolic role representing today’s Thais, and the consumerist mentality that grew in the 80s and 90s. I put him in a pink suit because pink is a colour that’s usually considered quite tasteless.
I haven’t really thought much about the Pink Man since 2009 or so. He doesn’t look the same now; he has grey hair and has lost weight. But I’m considering translating the image into large 3D sculptures. Imagine a giant Pink Man standing somewhere in the middle of Bangkok. Quite a landmark. I’m looking for funding now.
How did you become an art photographer?
I originally wanted to study architecture, but my entrance exam scores weren’t high enough. So I started majoring visual arts at Srinakarinwirot University, thinking I might take the exams again later.
My instructor had just finished an MA in photography in the USA. His work was quite different from what I knew as normal photography. There was a lot of technique and a lot of thought behind it. I could see that it was something quite deep, so I decided to stick with the camera rather than work with brush or clay. At your gallery you have exhibited images by forgotten Thai photographers of the past.
How did you discover them?
When I was invited to teach photography at local universities, I wanted to include the history of photography in Thailand, but found there was very little information available. You can find photos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and from the mid 1950s till the present. But there is virtually nothing, for example, from the period between 1930 and 1940, when democracy was first developing. So I started asking around and going through old photo collections. Through that, and by word of mouth, I started finding Thai photos and photographers that were somehow lost in our history.
Your work is well-known for its political and social commentary. How did you come around to that way of approaching photography?
Many of the students I went to university with were from the ‘October generation’ [students who participated in the October 14,
1973 uprising against the Thanom government], and so there was always lots of political discussion. The ‘art for life’ movement was still strong and that influenced me a lot.
Is all art political, even when not intended to be?
Everything is political. Even one’s name is political, when you really examine it.
When you’re not working, where do you like to go in Bangkok to relax?
I don’t really separate leisure time and work life the way many people do. Everything I do involves my work in one way or another.
When I have time I like to visit old temples in Thonburi. I get ideas and inspiration from looking at the art and architecture. On the Bangkok side, I really like the original monks’ quarters at Wat Bowonniwet. They’re an interesting blend of Western and local motifs, adapted for the hot and humid climate without need for air conditioning. This represents a knowledge base we should be exploring more, but have forgot about.
I also like exploring the outskirts of the city to find what’s left of farming and natural area.