Interview: Harit Srikhao

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

I had the pleasure of being a juror for the Gomma Photography Grant 2016. I reviewed 400 portfolios and few - if any - left more of an impression on me than Harit Srikhao's "Whitewash." Srikhao was ultimately given Second Prize by the jury. I subsequently had the chance to ask Srikhao about the project.

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

fototazo: Tell us a little about your background and how you got into photography.

Harit Srikhao: I have been taking pictures since I was in grade school. Most of my photos were about people and my surroundings back then. At that time, I used a camera as my excuse to wander around outside.

In 2011, I had a chance to attend a workshop by Antoine d'Agata that made me become interested in the photo essay which mainly focuses on a narrative style.

Currently, I am a final year student in the Faculty of Architecture with a major in photography at KMITL [King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang] which mostly aims at commercial photography, however, I keep trying to make time for my personal work which is mostly a collaboration between fiction and nonfiction. I always use a documentary method to collect raw material. Then I create a fiction from those materials. I seldom tell reality, but rather a fantasy and an imagination.

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

f: Can you tell us about the social and political context of Thailand in 2010 to which the images from "Whitewash" refer?

HS: It was the period of my secondary school, I can remember there were several protests by different interest groups taking place in Bangkok. My friends and I felt really bored with the protest back then as we thought it was none of our business. Nevertheless, we liked the coup d'etat because it shut everything down, especially our school.

The "Red Shirt" protesters said their demonstration aimed to call for fairness from the Abhisit's government which was supported by the army and the royal institution. In addition, most of them were laborers from the countryside who were oppressed by high society.

On the evening of the 28th of April, there was a clash between protesters and troops that prevented me from going back home, thus I had to stay at my friend's house. Meanwhile, we could only get information about the event from the army's broadcast which repeatedly showed images of the savage protesters attacking the officers. That made us really mad at the protesters, and we cursed insanely at them through the television. To be honest, I didn't even care what was happening outside, just staying with friends in the house without parents and school was a wonderful vacation for me.

Finally, the demonstration ended the following month. The fourth day after the military crackdown, my family and I joined a "Big Cleaning Day" activity arranged by the government that had simply ordered the riot to cease. The purpose of this activity was gathering people and letting them clean the area. I still remember the atmosphere of that day clearly when the street was full of celebrities, singers and pressmen, none of them really focused on cleaning. They were having fun and laughing like they were at a celebration.

Thus "whitewash" means to suppress all guilt from the past and from history, it is a rite of exoneration.

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

f: How did you begin to develop this series of images? How did the project get to where it is today?

HS: Actually at the beginning of this project was a private exploration. I wanted to tell a lie through a photograph by composing a sense of affection from my school memories. I started with taking my friends back to the sea we used to go together, which was the same period of time as the political events in Thailand I just mentioned.

However, this project did not initially focus on the political event at all. I just took photos of my friends and edited them. For example I cut out a person I did not like and replaced it with my favorite one in order to create my own utopia and to overcome my dejection. When the 13th coup d'etat of Thailand happened in 2014, I posed questions to myself and became more curious about politics. I researched information about the country's histories and found out that all the stories I used to know and believe were one-sided. They were all propaganda, including the event on May 19th, 2010. To acknowledge the adversity the "Red Shirt" protesters faced on that day when they were disbanded really shocked me and made me feel truly guilty. More than 100 were executed, the highest number in the history of Thailand; those victims still do not get any fairness including now; they were vanished from history.

I asked myself, "Where have I been for four years that I know nothing about those protesters?" I began going back to the places I used to visit when I was in high school whether it be a heaven and hell reproduction in a temple, military camp, the Grand Palace or the National History Museum. All of them were places where every school in Thailand would take their students for moral instruction and to forcefully implant children with concepts of nationalism and royalism. I can say most Thai children were brainwashed there.

Therefore this work is an investigation of my own memories in which personal memory and public memory are told alongside one another and overlap with each other under a core concept of "images control history."

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

f: Talk us through the methods and the process that you go through with your negatives and photographs to produce the images that you eventually show.

 HS: "Cut and paste" was initially selected as the method of the project because its main theme was a type of surgery; meanwhile, I also tried other techniques in terms of papers. At the beginning, I experimented with the basis of deconstruction, revision and forgery, then I chose the technique which was compatible with what I wanted to convey in an image.

As the result, "Whitewash" contains visual elements created by the various techniques that you can see from time to time in the work. In addition, all of the images were presented in relation to a thematic motif, whether it be flare, blue blaze or paper pulp, or even atmosphere and dreamy color in the work, all of which were made by printing on paper and scanning back and forth. In other words, my working process was about switching between digital and analog.              

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

f: Do you have a vision of your images that you work towards from the beginning, or do the images emerge from the processes of collage and manipulation?

HS: I started with going out to take photos at the specific places I mentioned above. After collecting those environments in a documentary style, I brought all the photos to my studio in order to see how I could develop them with the techniques I previously experimented with. I worked like this from 2015 to 2016; however, the whole work became really clear early in 2016.

f: What kinds of Thai visual histories and traditions are you working from, if any? And - same question, but looking outwards – what kinds of international visual histories and traditions do you work from, if any?

HS: I think the most obvious visual reference of this project is The Commissar Vanishes, a book by David King, it is a splendid book which talks about photography and arts as a tool for social domination as used by Stalin.

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

f: f: Do you consider the work to be overtly political, as well as personal? If so, while I don’t want to ask you to "explain" your work, I also wonder if some of its political ideas and themes might be lost on someone not familiar with the situation and the subjects depicted in your images. Can you give us an overview of your critique?

HS: I think a vital issue of my work is an idea of goodness and evil. The Thai government uses a similar concept that includes merit and sin or heaven and hell as an important political weapon to debase the value of the people and convince them to agree with the unfairness in society. This way of thinking is aggressively taught in the schools. I think it is not only about extreme nationalism and royalism, but also about creating a mindset with which the government cages the people of the nation. That propaganda provides the way we see ourselves, the way we see others and the way we see the world. To sum up, if the government can domineer the thoughts of the people in the country, that means it can also control the way citizens will react to a person who thinks differently than them or that it can even control their behavior in daily life.

f: What are conditions like currently in Thailand for showing this type of work? Are you able to present it publicly there?

HS: There is a lot of censorship in Thailand especially in academic matters, and news and information which leads people astray with one-sided messages from the government. In terms of artwork, there is seldom a place in the country for those criticizing the nation, religion and royalty. However, this work is going to be exhibited at Bangkok in June of this year, and I can't predict what will happen after that. 

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao

f: Is there anything else that you'd like to add, Harit?

HS: I would like to talk a little more about "private matter" and "politics." Personally, they are the same thing. "Whitewash" is not a sharp or complicated work. In fact, I made this work in order to apologize and show a responsibility towards those protesters of the past because of how my narrow mind used to react heartlessly to them. Lastly, I'm not an activist artist and this work is only the empathy that people should have for each other as human beings.

From the series "Whitewash" © Harit Srikhao