Tag Archives: Bangkok


Change the Way You See

This will be the first in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

The approach on each photo assignment is different. Even travel photo assignments differ even though they are on the same general topic. Shooting dance on four separate occasions, I learned about how I had to change the way I looked at the subject, so I could tell the story of each performance from a different perspective.

The eyes of a tourist


I love the way the dancer kicks the bottom of the dress to create movement. Burma, 2010. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

When I shot this set in Burma, the assignment was to show Burmese dance as a traveler would see it: in a staged performance, from a distance. I had little background in the dance forms and the stories behind each one. That limited knowledge produced shots from a spectator’s point of view. Luckily I had brought along a long lens, suitable for isolating the dancers and capturing uncluttered portraits showing off the costume and motion against a simple background.

The eyes of a storyteller

Dance acrobatics are important parts of a dance story. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

I love Hanuman, the character in the Ramayana epic. When I shot this assignment at the Chalermkrung National Theatre in Bangkok, it was a behind the scenes story of the dancers who made Hanuman come alive every night at a national theatre in Thailand. I had to shoot the story as I saw it unfold, embracing its unpredictability, paying attention to detail. So I did a little abstraction and a little action. Framing the story with images of detail helped to give the necessary background for the actual dance shots, and the action shots gave me the necessary storyline. Hanuman is a singularly amazing character, but he’s actually several guys in a specially made papier mache mask, whose acrobatics on stage are remarkably demanding.

Symbol in dance can make for some great surprises. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

The eyes of surprise

No one knew that rain was going to come from the umbrella. The dancer at Patravadi Theatre in Bangkok in a free-form modern dance gave us a few surprises. First, he wore an expressionless mask which contrasted with the bright costume and the even brighter umbrella. His movements were quick and energetic. And when he sprung the confetti on us, streaming from the umbrella, it was the biggest surprise of all. Less than a minute of white confetti catching the dim light in the dinner theatre, plus not being able to move because there was simply no time, gave me a limited window for a shot. I put the camera on burst mode and tried to anticipate the next twirl.

The challenges for photo assignments make for fantastic learning. Whether your goal is to get a travel story or capture how an event makes you feel, it helps to look at each assignment with different eyes. Changing the way you see can change the story.

A floor to ceiling window camera left created this creamy lighting on model Chloe.

All You Need is a Window

As well as an inspiration on photo walks, light is easy to find at home. All you really need is a window. At any time of day when there is light coming through a window, you can use it to create a beautiful side-lit portrait. To make a portrait with side light, position the subject parallel to the window, like in the diagram below.

A lot of painters use window light.

Beautiful side light creates classic lighting for a portrait. The shadows created on the side away from the window make for dynamic lighting because the shadows actually show the contours of the subject—essential for a three-dimensional effect.

A floor to ceiling window camera left created this creamy lighting on model Chloe.

My friend DJ posed beside a window and his long hair made a 'rim light' effect with shadow, too.

If you’re looking for inspiration this week, try some photography at home! All you really need is a window.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Let the Light Inspire You
Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
The Man at the Window
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How to Stay Creative

Scale and Isolation. 1/800s @ f/5.6, 28mm, ISO 200.

Taking Home the Intangibles

My friends from faraway have exactly 36 hours before they have to go back home, and they know it. In the department store tonight, they race through their shopping —buying a camera, two mobile phones, a wristwatch and a year’s supply of eyeliner and mascara in the space of an hour, and they still need to get the LCD TV and the extra suitcase. The shops are about to close; it’s almost 10 pm. We get back to my place where they’re staying, we cook a meal, and by midnight, the day has finally ended. At home, they sit on the floor discussing how to pack, surrounded by stuff.

I used to buy souvenirs from places I’d been. I have photo frames from Sydney, a “Yak Yak Yak” t-shirt from Nepal, a capiz shell fruit plate from Cebu. Scarves from Bali, a couple of Burmese lungi, a kameez salwar from Rajasthan, the kind with mirrors on the hem. In my closet there are three umbrellas from Chiang Mai, a tie-dye shirt that says “Koh Samui” in fading letters, and fisherman pants from Had Yai. The list goes on of items that I grow tired of keeping. They sit in my closets, unused.

I don’t buy souvenirs any more. But I still have the memories.

There is nothing else like the tinkle of those old tokens we used in New Zealand to buy fresh milk. It was my job every evening to drop a token into each empty glass bottle and place the bottles beside our mailbox in Island Bay, so in the morning the milkman could come by and replace them with bottles full of fresh milk, the kind that leaves froth on your upper lip after a long cold sip.

When we travel we are perpetual strangers, and maybe experiences in a place compel us to buy those souvenirs, little bits of an experience, tangible things we can take back with us and maybe use to recreate what we felt.

Maybe I just like taking home the intangibles.

Scale. 1/800s @f/8, 17mm, ISO 125.

Like values humans share. The photo of a Muslim girl learning about the intricate relationship between monarchy, religion, and nation at the Thai Grand Palace is precious to me. It speaks about scale—the comparison between two things of different sizes. The size of the idea of culture, and the size of the idea of one person’s joy.

Scale and Isolation. 1/800s @ f/5.6, 28mm, ISO 200.

From Burma I take back contrasts. A worker hard at his carpentry repairs the wooden beams at a temple: a man laboring in the heat for a few kyats amidst a glittery splendor.

In another town, I sip the bland loneliness of a tree, flanked by chedi containing stones proclaiming the secret to life.

Perspective. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 17mm, ISO 200.

On a boat in the Shan State, with no stores for hundreds of miles, I float past the isolation of a humble house in the middle of water and storm clouds, summoning a forgotten but beautiful sentimentality.

Isolation. 1/2500s @ f/5.6, 19mm, ISO 200.

Some moments are like gems in a secret pocket, worn close to the heart.

I sit with my friend Ye Myint. We’ve been telling each other stories all day, for several days. On this day before I fly to another city, we sit on the roof of an abandoned temple in Bagan. Silently we watch the sky release its chorus of light above the pagodas lining the landscape. All I have from that moment is the song the sky sang, for a few minutes uninterrupted, shared, frozen in a photograph.

1/160s @f/6.3, 70mm, ISO 200.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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How to Stay Creative

A suggestion of spring at the Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

Lessons from Dance

They shuffle through, blind.
Bending slowly from the waist, their arms held in front like floppy fish dripping water, they stoop low to the floor, then slowly raise their torsos again.
When they straighten up, their eyes are white, rolled back into their heads, their mouths contorted in a silent scream. We can hear their ragged breaths, like the mute tolling of ruined bells.
There are only two of us in the audience, but both of us are crying.
“Butoh challenges the idea of beauty,” their teacher whispers. In the two hours as he works with the students through butoh masks—the facial grimaces that signify emotion in the dance theatre—and butoh walks—the ways the dancers move forward, we are transported into Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. We are at ground zero, watching the survivors, their flesh burnt and peeling off, shuffling through the destruction, gasping for life and meaning.

Theatre students at a butoh workshop, Bangkok.

The art form makes me uncomfortable, raises questions.
Last summer, another dancer poses a question to me at his studio near the Chao Phraya River in old Bangkok. He gives me two sets of cymbals, the small ones we call “Ching” in Thai, its onomatopoeic name. He tells me to clang each together and tell him which one I liked.
I try one, then the other. The second one, more battered-looking, a little heavier in the hands, resonates more. The sound it makes lasts some moment longer, and I tell the dancer, “This is the one I like.”

Manop makes the fabric dance, Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

He smiles, takes out a couple of candles from his pocket. He lights them and drips the wax of each on the table where we sit.
Blowing the candles, he takes one puddle of wax off the table. “Look at this one,” he says, holding the sliver of wax between finger and thumb, then breaking it with a fingernail. “It’s brittle. Poor quality paraffin.” The bits of hardened paraffin sprinkle the table like cheap yellow confetti.
Slapping his hands to get rid of the crumbled wax, he takes the beeswax puddle into his hand and begins to roll it between his thumb and forefinger. He kneads it, tells me, “This one I can mold into whatever shape I want.” He smiles, looks away, then seriously pronounces, “Dance is like this candle, and like the cymbals that resonate. The one made of quality matter is the one we like, the one we can mold into something.”
He dances now, at the table, and his eyes hold no emotion. “If I go through the motions of a

A suggestion of spring at the Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

dance, but I bring no quality into the motion, the dance fails. But—“ and here I see his face change, he is flirting with his audience and I cough and laugh at the same time, “—if you intend to bring inner quality into the dance, something happens.
“I can tell you something, and you don’t have to know any thing about dance, but you’ll understand.”
See Khun Manop and Patravadi dancers at the Fringe Festival 2011, held both in Hua Hin and Bangkok from January 29th to March 17th, 2011. Tickets range from 300 Baht for students to 800 Baht for adults.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
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One of the photos from the shoot on a "movie poster."

Shooting a Graphic Novel

When Bangkok based Actor Chris Wegoda sent me the script for “The Kill,” I got really excited. The story itself is simple: betrayal, friendship, conflict, murder, regret, mystery. What really got me excited was the chance to shoot with a still camera a series of emotive scenes that would normally require video to work. So my creative problem was, how do I light and direct a photoshoot so it looks like a movie?

We shot the scenes after three weeks of planning and preparation. The shoot itself was at just two locations, one a room with a shower, and another a parking lot with a grungy wall. The rest was portable flashes and the excellent work of three actors–Chris Wegoda, Stephen Thomas, and Faye Nightingale.

The whole shoot took about seven hours, from 5 pm indoor scenes to midnight for the dark scenes.

One of the photos from the shoot on a "movie poster."

Shooting this graphic novel taught me a lot about lighting. I used four SB-900s bare, to visually create the harsh feeling of the story. I used a lot of rim light when possible to outline the characters against the dark backgrounds, like a comic book would. In postproduction, I processed the RAW color file before converting to monochrome and adding a yellow filter to give it that motion picture film look.

And since it’s Christmas, go ahead and DOWNLOAD the graphic novel for FREE from this link.

The Kill A Graphic Novel

Peekaboo, Ubud, Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Is RTW right for you?

Sometimes when I completely fall in love with a place, I want to stay indefinitely.

Standing in the Sunday market in Bac Ha, Vietnam, my senses are overwhelmed by the colors.  My camera is on overdrive. I am in heaven.

But I spend exactly one day in Bac Ha, leave the North of Vietnam, fly back to Hanoi then Bangkok, bringing back some images and the intention of going back.

Black Hmong tribeswoman at Bac Ha. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

I’ve only been to Luang Prabang a total of five days. My first time in Bali, I spent five days there. First time in Myanmar, seven days. The Rajasthan in India, a week. But each time, I was able to bring back some wonderful images and a sense of the place. I didn’t have to stay indefinitely.

I know people who quit their jobs and became travelers full time. One of the most famous of these is Jodi, also known as Legalnomads. Another is Matt, known to everyone as NomadicMatt. They both quit corporate type jobs to do RTWs, or round-the-world trips. There are a lot of full-time RTW travelers: on Twitter alone, @solotraveler, @BKKMichael, and even an entire family, @GotPassport, who have sold everything they owned and relocated to Chiang Mai, Thailand just over three weeks ago.

Sometimes, when I completely fall in love with a place, which happened in Burma last month, I wish for a moment I too could just make like Gaugin and run back to the place I was from the place I am.

But is RTW the right answer for everyone? Does short travel make you less of a traveler? I’ve thought about these questions a lot lately. Here are some thoughts.

1. Short travel is OK if you are already an expat.

I’ve lived in Thailand and other countries. I haven’t been in what most people would consider “home,” really, since I was sixteen years old. Wherever I am at present is “home” to me. So I am a full-time expat. What I love about being an expat in Bangkok is that I am able to use all the conveniences I would have back home, and (seriously) there is a direct flight to five continents from this city. So when I have the time, I can fly somewhere with my camera and notebook, and then fly back home. In 2007, for instance, my busiest year thus far, I flew 47 different times to 17 different places and was back on Monday for my full time job.

Faceless portrait, Luang Prabang. Photo by Aloha Lavina

2. You have a job you love.

The people I know who quit their job to travel did not really enjoy what they did as much as they enjoyed travel. Shamelessly, I can talk about my profession for a whole day and never tire. I teach high school English and design curriculum, and I love it. I love the possibility that is in each life of each child I teach; I love the light that happens in their eyes when they understand something, when they learn. And I love that at the end of the school year, I am able to look back and appreciate that my hard work has made someone love learning.

I thought about quitting teaching to engage in my other job, freelance commercial photographer and journalist. But in all these years of being busy both Monday to Friday with school and Saturdays and evenings with photography and writing, I honestly cannot say I would be happy without either. So I am both.

Arm akimbo in Rajasthan. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

3. Your travel needs you to lug heavy equipment around.

I travel so I can create images. The lightest equipment I take somewhere includes a DSLR, at least two lenses, four camera batteries, a storage viewer which can hold up to 160 GB of photos, a notebook (paper based tool I can carry in my pocket to record snatches of thought).

Girl with offering, Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

I also budget my reading when I travel, because when it’s too dark to take photos, I usually don’t ‘go out’ in the conventional sense, so I read. On a recent eight-day trip to Bali, I read the three books I brought in five days, and I had to buy Eat Pray Love and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest for the three days left plus the plane ride.

And, sometimes I have to carry a tripod and a laptop.

If I had to lug this equipment around on my back for a whole year on an RTW, I think one of a few things would happen:

3a. I will run out of storage space for new photos. On an average day on a photo trip, from pre-sunrise to sundown, I take around 24 GB of photos. Do the math—even if I delete the mediocre ones nightly, I would still end up with at least some 12 GB of photos a day. That makes 160 GB last for an average of 13.33 days, nowhere close to a year. Of course, I could bring more than one storage device, thereby sentencing myself to a lifetime of back problems. (All this equipment on my back every day weighs 16 kilograms which I carry while chasing images.) 3b. I will spend lots of money on books. 3c. All of the above.

4. Budgets are easier to handle.

I generally like nicer hotels. And because I often travel more than 200 kilometers a day from the sunrise location to the sunset, I have to hire a car. When traveling, a nice room and a reliable car often are my two biggest expenses.

5. Every day is full of action.

Tom Swick of World Hum wrote that traveling is “creative hanging around.” For me, that doesn’t mean sitting. As a rule, I am constantly in motion when I travel. On my feet at a location, I can explore ways to make better images than if I sit somewhere and wait for a shot to walk by.

Of course, I also do hang around. I have to make friends before I make photos—that’s another of my rules. So a lot of time is spent socializing with the

Peekaboo, Ubud, Bali. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

locals, eating with them, visiting their families, and a lot of time is spent working with the camera. The rest of the time is slow eating and sipping good coffee while writing down my thoughts. Days and days of this, then I go home and process both the photos and my thoughts.

I like being able to live episodically when I travel. It demands that I pay attention to the present, every single minute of every single day.

And it works for me. How about you? Is RTW right for you?


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing
What’s in a Name?

Anomie on a Bus. (c) Aloha Lavina

S Words from Bangkok

Anomie on a Bus. (c) Aloha Lavina

“Why go to Onnut Road?” the taxi driver asks me, “when you can go to the airport and take the BTS from there?”

“Is it open?” I ask him about the Bangkok Transit System (BTS) airport link, connecting downtown to the airport some 40 kilometers away.

He nods. “Saduak maak gua,” he adds. It’s more convenient.

But taped over the sign for the monorail station is a sign saying it’s closed. Too panicked to get angry at the cab driver or myself, I run to another taxi. The second cab takes me from the airport through the arterial roads that pour thousands of cars into the heart of Bangkok each day. A problem solver, the driver decides to take me to a metro station instead of the BTS, so I don’t have to change trains.

Tuktuks line the exit at the Hualamphong metro station, but I head for the motorbikes. Faster. Cheaper.  Right now I am looking for saduak, a convenient way to get to the theatre as quickly as possible. It is a good choice, for Chinatown traffic is tight.

Once my kneecap almost brushes a rusty bus fender. My breathing grows shallow and quick. Inside the helmet, I sound like Darth Vader.  We arrive at the Theatre with time to spare, and I finally exhale. I rush into the air-conditioned room where rehearsals are about to begin, grateful for the cold air.

The long sleeved shirt sticks to my back. Thai summer temperatures can reach over 40 Celsius, but I want to be suphaap, or polite. To suffer through discomfort is to be polite; to suffer inconvenience is to be courteous. Still sweating, I greet the performers, bringing my hands together in front of my face. Suphaap.

Rehearsals over, I flag a tuktuk. Evening traffic is thick and so are the diesel fumes. A motorbike stops beside us, and the woman riding it twirls a white frangipani to her nose. I envy her fragrant little world.

We lunge our way to the Express Boat Service. For 14 Baht I cross the river to Wang Lang Pier 10. Boat passengers spill into a market. People swarm the food stalls hunting for dinner. Dinner comes in little bags or boxes, cheap, easy to take home. Saduak and also sabay, relaxed. Market dinners don’t involve pots and pans and dishwashing.

In another theatre by the river, other diners eat in regulated dim light, waiting for the evening’s promised dances. A lithe man dances solo with cloth he makes billow over precise dance postures as a Thai flute wrings out a plea. The dancer smiles, and so does the audience. They are feeling it: fun, or sanuk, the Thai reason for doing just about anything. Anything not sanuk is not worth doing. The dancer ends his set with a red paper umbrella spewing out confetti as he twirls it, whirling in a skirt and mask, feet thumping the floor.

Across the tables, I glance at the audience. A man smiles into his camcorder and speaks to his wife. The young blonde couple forget to sip their beers. I put my camera down on my lap, and clap, clap with the rest.