Almost all photographers document change. Many without that goal in mind. We can look at digital images from 20 years ago, or negatives from 50 or 100 years ago, and it’s easy to see the changes that have taken place. These historical records are a treasure.
I started out 10 years ago with documenting change in rural Thailand as one of my main goals. In the last ten years, I have produced over 90 thousand RAW images of life in rural Thailand. Documenting these changes became a goal in the first year after I moved to rural Thailand. As an outsider, it was easy for me to see the changes that were coming. Plowing the land with a water buffalo or hand tractor had to change, old ways could not continue for long. Modern farming with shiny red tractors and huge harvesting machines were on the horizon. I wish I had arrived a few years earlier, to capture plowing the fields with water buffalo, but when I arrived, the hand tractor was already in use. Farmers in my area continued to use a hand tractor for three seasons after I arrived. Then came the brand new modern tractors to plow the land.
It was logical for me to see this change coming. Modern machinery is efficient. It takes hours instead of days to plow 20 Rai of land. The cost of a man and tractor, at 300 baht ($10 U.S.) per field is well worth the expense.
The same thing happened with harvesting for the most part. Modern Thai harvesters are a sight to behold. They look like a scene from a Star Wars movie as they gobble up the grain and spit out the chaff.
So today machine harvesters do the larger fields, while some hand harvesting is still done on smaller family farms.
Farming is not the only area of change in rural Thailand. Shortly after I moved to rural Thailand several modern malls opened up in cities close by. Before the malls, local vegetable stands were everywhere you looked on the small rural roads. Open-air fresh food markets were where most people shopped for essentials. As malls have a tendency to do, they all but killed many of the local small roadside markets when they opened. Who can blame the people? The selection is fantastic at supermarkets and the prices are reasonable. The downside is – There was something about these small roadside mom and pop shops, a piece of Thai culture is diminishing.
To be fair there are still open-air markets in Thailand. The ones that survive and thrive, are in specialized areas or those that offer dining as well as products. Thai culture is still intact, it is just changing as the world changes.
Documenting change takes time and commitment. A worthwhile project also takes patience. Like watching children grow, some changes can take place relatively quickly but more often than not the change is gradual and constantly evolving.
It helps to be aware of the project you are working on. A random assortment of images can show change, but if the photographer has a goal of documenting change, the resulting images tell a better story. So I always keep my project in the back of my mind. What this does is inspire me to go out and make photos when I’m not in the mood, or working on something else. I say “oh yeah, I need to get out there and document this”, even though the light may not be ideal, or my energy level is low.
At 70 years old, my work continues. The last 10 years produced over 90 thousand RAW images. I don’t see myself slowing down. Today the challenge is finding new images in a now very familiar setting that has somewhat stabilized and adapted to modern globalization.
I hope you will join me in my second decade of documenting rural Thailand.