Monday, 4 November 2013

Shooting Chinatown: the Worldwide Photo Walk

On Sunday 5 October, nearly 30,000 photographers – myself included – went on over 1,200 photo walks around the world. This is the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photo Walk, and it’s the largest social photography event in the world. After the walk, every photographer is asked to submit one photo for the award. Choosing a single photo was in itself a challenge, and I recruited my Facebook friends to help me decide.

I signed up for the walk via my local photography group, Bangkok Photographers, without really realising what it was. I enjoy doing photography for work and when I travel, but I haven’t done any formal training for years. The group seemed like a good way to hone my skills and learn from other photographers.

On the day of the walk, we met at Saphan Taksin, where the skytrain crosses the Chao Praya river. I recognised walk leader Dennie Cody, his wife DK, and photographers from previous walks, including Madhu and Linda, who I also know socially. Together, we took a ferry up the river to Rajawongse pier, the dropping off point for Bangkok’s Chinatown. We were lucky with the weather – it’s rainy season in Thailand but on this day it was pleasantly cool and dry.

I took my first photos at the pier, where Buddhists were ‘making merit’ (earning good karma) by feeding the fish. Chao Praya fish are used to being fed and are always plentiful near temple piers where they can expect a free meal. But this weekend was a Buddhist festival and there were even more fish than usual. They were literally climbing on top of each other to get to the food at the surface. I set a fast shutter speed and snapped away. One photo (above) turned out perfectly, with a single fish coming straight out of the water at the camera.

Outside the pier entrance is a busy stall area, where street vendors sell food and souvenirs to people getting on and off the river boat. I took several photos of stall holders but this is my favourite. Stall holders often bring their children or grandchildren to work. They sometimes help out at the stall. Otherwise they have to entertain themselves as this young boy is doing.

From here, we set off into the heart of Chinatown. Like most South East Asian countries, Thailand has a substantial ethnic Chinese population, particularly in Bangkok. The difference here is that most Chinese have taken Thai names and adopted the Thai language. What survives are the traditions and religion. Chinatown is always busy, but this weekend it was the vegetarian ‘jay’ festival, when people give up eating meat for ten days. Yellow flags were strung across the streets and outside shops and food stalls providing jay menus.

This was the first of several elaborate windows in Chinatown, where former colonial-style buildings exist in varying states of decay. I like the effect of the criss-crossing electric wires in front of the wooden lattice. This photo was a popular choice among my Facebook friends, but for me it was a bit too easy.

At this point, we turned down a side street that followed the river downstream. Here, men were loading and unloading trucks. I like the interaction between these three workers, and the large, elaborate tattoo on one’s back. In Thailand, tattoos of temple buildings or buddhas, are among the most popular designs.

Most temples in Thailand are Buddhist, but you can also find Chinese temples as well. This is Chinatown, of course, so there are more than usual. Chinese religion is an interesting fusion of traditional beliefs. It incorporates Taoism, ancestor worship and a multitude of gods, historical warriors and mythical beasts. Although around a third of Chinese people follow this religion, which has existed for thousands of years, it has no official name or organisation.

Often the rooftops of Chinese temples are the most interesting. Here, two warriors stand ready for battle, while a dragon looks on from behind. The lantern picture at the top of this post is also from the same temple. I tried to take it from an unusual angle (underneath), with the pattern of the roof behind. However, it was less original than I thought – afterwards, I saw that several other people had taken the same shot.

A policeman directing traffic at an intersection. It really shouldn’t be necessary to do this as there are traffic lights and clear road signs, but many Bangkok drivers consider such things optional. For some reason, Thai police officers always wear very tight uniforms – perhaps as an incentive to stay in shape. I like his expression, and the action shot with the radio.

I was taking a photo down a side alley, when this boy saw me from a distance and waved. I gestured for him to come over, and he patiently posed for several photos. Thai children are extremely well behaved, particularly compared to their British counterparts.

Other photographers, with walk leader Dennie (right) dispensing advice – probably about ISO, shutter speed and/or aperture. Dennie runs the Bangkok Photographers group and conducts regular training sessions, as well as photo walks like this. His wife Dk is Thai and knows all the backstreets of Bangkok. Dennie’s guidance is invaluable, although he’s something of a professional purist and I sometimes have to be secretive about my amateur techniques, like shooting in jpeg or using aperture priority mode.

And this is what the group above were photographing. I waited until there was someone behind the gate, in order to add a bit of depth to the photo.

A fruit stall holder pushing his trolley down the street. He saw me setting up the shot and held up an orange – either to help with the photo or in the hope of making a sale.

I saw this hat at the entrance to a warehouse and waited for someone to walk into the shot. These hats are commonly worn by Thai workers to provide shade from the sun – a bit like the famous conical hats used in Vietnam. This was another popular image on Facebook, I think something sombre and enigmatic about it.

This picture just amused me, with its Bangkok-centric view of the world. Both the sentiment and the red colour reminded me of London, where ‘the North’ refers to Hampstead rather than Yorkshire.

Motorbikes are often the cheapest and most efficient way to travel around South East Asia, particularly in congested cities. In Bangkok, you can often see them weaving in between cars, along pavements, and down the wrong side of the road. I have a motorbike helmet inherited from my friend Qimti, who is now in Burma, and I occasionally get a motorbike taxi to work when I’m running late. Motorbikes are also used for delivering goods, as in this photo. People can strap a surprising amount to the back seat. In Vietnam, I’ve even seen medium-sized trees transported this way. I like this picture, but there’s a bit too much going on in the background and the wheel is almost out of shot.

By this point, I was at the back of the group with Linda. Some of the other photographers were treating the walk like a race but we wanted to take our time, exploring the back streets and talking to local people. Linda was great at charming locals and getting them to agree to be in photos, as she’s doing here. Her Thai is better than mine, although I’m taking lessons and slowly improving.

In Bangkok, people manage to squeeze street stalls into the most unlikely spaces. This woman’s stall is literally hung off the wire fence around a car park.

Another window shot. This old house was being used as a store room. As with the previous photo, I like the electric wires almost – but not quite – matching up with the wooden beams.

This is one of my favourite photos but requires some explanation. Most temples in Thailand have windows with metal ‘stencil’ pictures of seated buddhas, like the one in this picture. These are mass produced and sold directly to temples, so you often see the same designs. But this is not a temple: it’s a run-down shop house. I’m not quite sure what the window is doing here. Maybe the apartment is linked somehow to the nearby temple, or it just has a very pious tenant.

Yours truly, with crumbing plasterwork on the side of a house. This photo was taken by Linda, so I can’t take too much credit for it.

Another popular choice among my Facebook friends. This guy was chilling out on the back of his truck, either having made a delivery or waiting for a new one. He’s looking at another photographer in this shot, but I kind of like the effect.

A middle-aged Thai-Chinese man locking up his shop at the end of the day. I like his expression and unfashionable socks-and-sandals combination. The shopkeeper’s name (Lai Sin Lee) is above the shop in Chinese, but first and foremost in Thai.

Scrap metal and machine parts in a repair shop. I like the contrast between the spinning fan and the stationary junk.

A security guard poses for a photo outside Wat Pratum Khongkha temple. He was immaculately turned out and had created an area for himself on the roadside, with a chair, table and awning. He also had a nice, easy-going smile.

Another street vendor pushing his stall down the road. I crouched down in the street to get this shot. I like the way the smoke rises up from the pans, showing that they’re still hot. Look closely and you can see that he has exactly the same trolley as the fruit seller.

I took several window shots on this walk and often wished that someone would come and look out. At one dilapidated building I even asked locals if they knew who lived there, in the hope that I could persuade the tenant to stage a photo. Then, towards the end of the walk, I saw this shot. It’s not the best window but it captures the mood I was after.

Boxes of Yuasa batteries stacked from floor to ceiling in a store. These Japanese-made batteries are commonly used for motorbikes and tuk-tuks. What interests me is the contrast with the other things in the photo – the clock, the portrait of King Rama V (who ruled what was then Siam in the late 19th Century), and the Buddha statues and paintings. The shop keeper is partially obscured at the bottom of the picture. If he’d moved a little bit to the right, this would have been perfect.

A monk waits to cross the road to Wat Pratum Khongkha temple. I like the contrast between his orange robe and the blue shutters behind.

As well as all the food stalls in Bangkok, you also sometimes see street stalls like this. The woman on the left has a mechanical, foot-powered sewing machine. There’s an old man in Ari who has the same thing, and I use him to adjust the length of new trousers. The woman on the right was initially reluctant to be in the photo. “Suay mak,” Linda said (very pretty). “My suay,” (not pretty) she replied, laughing.

This was very nearly my entry for the award. We were in the grounds of the monastery attached to Wat Pratum Khon, and this monk was on his way to the shower block. He was surprisingly happy to pose for a photo. The cigarette and swagger suggest to me that he’s not a full-time monk. In Vietnam, being a monk is a lifelong commitment, but in Thailand anyone can be a monk for as little as a week. People do it to earn good karma, or to pay off bad karma. I like to imagine that this guy is a charming rogue with some dodgy deals to make up for.

Back at the Yuasa battery store, the owner takes the evening air outside his shop, while inside his wife does the accounts.

A dragon outside San Jao Sien Khong Chinese temple. The sun had just set and the lights were starting to come on against the dusky sky. I thought the position of this lantern gave the dragon a somewhat demonic look.

My last photo from the walk and another of my favourites. This woman was cooking burgers at a street stall, while her young daughter sold orange juice. She was happy for us to take photos but kept on working, shouting out to customers all the while. This allowed me to get a great action shot. I took it from a low angle to emphasise her strength. By this point Linda and I had well and truly lost the group, so we flagged down a couple of taxis and headed off for our respective evenings – in my case for a street food feast on Sukhumvit Soi 38.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Worldwide Photo Walk. It was exciting to be part of something so big and I was very happy with my photos. I also had fun afterwards choosing the best one to enter for the award, even though having seen last year’s winners I knew I had no realistic chance. But it did make me look more closely at the pictures. It was also interesting to get the views of my Facebook friends. My final choice was between the fish feeding frenzy and the monk with a cigarette. In the end I made the decision on technical grounds – I zoomed right in on the eyes of the fish and the monk to see which was in sharpest focus. The fish won.

(All photos © Andy Brown/2013/Thailand)


  1. Very nice collection of pictures Andy. It was a nice walk, and hopefully we will have more like this soon; Bangkok is so full of interesting neighborhoods!

    1. Thanks Gonzalo! I'm looking forward to the next walk too. We went to the Muslim/Chinese neighborhood near Surasak last weekend, which was really interesting.