Snapper's saga: A life spent caught up in the frame game
Vinai Dithajohn worked his way up from the bottom, going from bus attendant to leading photojournalist in a life of adventure just as captivating as the multiple award-winning images he has created
'My life is like The Adventures of Tintin," says photojournalist Vinai Dithajohn. "My own version has been quite a ride. If I passed away tomorrow, I'd know that I had lived."
PHOTO: PATIPAT JANTHONG
And indeed Vinai's adventures rival any of those of the Belgian comic character. At 48 he's been lauded with awards, arrested, attacked, rescued and shot _ all in the line of duty.
Vinai met Brunch in May just as a retrospective of nine years of his photography in the deep South in the Thai edition of National Geographic was hitting the stands.
In the editor's note of that issue, Kowit Padungruangkit noted Vinai's steadfast dedication to his craft _ how he is the type of photographer who would be willing to die in the line of duty because of his love for what he does.
"I've known Vinai for 12 years, ever since he won our best feature photo prize. When we decided to do this cover package, he only sent us a few photos, as if he already knew which would be the best ones to depict the unceasing violence in the South."
The cover photo, taken earlier this year, is of a Muslim girl in a physical education class school uniform wearing a hijab and holding a page of photos of famous Thai actors while a soldier stands guard in Pattani.
For Vinai the photo symbolises the complexity of the conflict in the South.
"It's a photo of a sad looking, innocent girl and a solemn soldier with a gun. The short-sleeved uniform that she has to wear because of government regulations and the photos of the movie stars in her hands are against Islamic rules. It's the culture clash behind the bombs."
CRYING GAME IN THE SOUTH
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: Vinai’s photo of a Thai-Muslim girl in the deep South that was featured on the cover of May’s ‘National Geographic’.
Vinai made several visits over nine years to some of the most violence-plagued regions of the deep South to compile the photos featured in the National Geographic retrospective. His first trip was precipitated by one of the most violent incidents in the history of the recent insurgency, the army's raid on the Krue Se Mosque in 2004. Vinai was working for the European Pressphoto Agency at the time and rushed to Pattani to capture the aftermath.
"It was unsafe and I had a bad feeling about the incident when I got there," he says, recalling the dark atmosphere in the aftermath of the massacre and the cold rains that chilled him to the bone.
He returned to the deep South in 2007, this time as a freelance photographer, when 6,000 students protested in front of Pattani's Central Mosque, calling for the military to withdraw from the region following a breakdown in negotiations.
"It was excruciating. No bombs. No deaths. But the rage was unfathomable. The soldiers were prepared to break up the rally if necessary," he says. "Reporters and photographers pulled out to the safety zone. I was the last one remaining with the protesters. They were not aggressive with me but extremely angry about the unresolved conflict."
The National Geographic spread also featured other photos Vinai took in Narathiwat taken earlier this year.
One of them shows a teacher driving to school through her car's rear-view mirror, capturing the strength and fear in her eyes. "It could be her last day at work, you know," he says.
On a separate occasion, he returned to Tak Bai and after several unsuccessful requests was finally allowed to photograph female Muslim prisoners. He found his shot when they gathered to pray. "My message is that people of any religions, under any circumstances, should have the freedom to express their faith and beliefs."
Vinai says that despite the dangers he faced and the obvious tension of working in such a strife-torn part of the country, locals didn't seem to mind him walking around with a camera.
''Honesty and friendliness were key in earning their trust,'' Vinai says. ''I'm a freelance photographer, so that helps me maintain neutrality. I wasn't there to promote military security, or to justify acts of terrorism. I wanted to depict the trauma and the repercussions of violence on local people and how they pick up the pieces on a daily basis.
''Has this gone past the point of resolution? Are the wounds too deep to heal? I don't know who is fit to answer such questions. I guess we just send questions like these into a void. That's sad.''
Vinai's journey to becoming an established photojournalist is as dramatic as the stories he captures through his lens.
a teacher in the deep South.
He says he was nine years old when his life took a drastic turn that changed his destiny and ignited his imagination. Vinai and his family were living in Bangkok's Klong Toey district when his dad uprooted his family. ''My father moved all of us to Chaiyaphum to chase his dream of being a farmer. He bought a plot of land to grow corn in a secluded valley surrounded by mountains in Nong Bua Noi district. I was too young to understand the hardships of rural life. Everything seemed exciting to a city boy like me,'' says Vinai, laughing.
''I still remember the first day we arrived. I went up a hill shouting my name and hearing the echo again and again.''
Vinai says his childhood was a real-life version of the SEA-Write award winning novel Luk Isan (A Child of the Northeast) by Kampoon Boontawee, a tale of the hardships, love of nature and deep family bonds forged in the rural Northeast.
''I made friends with local children who took me into the woods to catch lizards and grill them for lunch. We climbed trees to pick fruits. We swam in the clear brook and caught fish for dinner,'' he recalls. ''At night the sky was so dark and clear that I could see the stars twinkling at me. It was serene but my imagination went wild.
''I started dreaming of my adventures then.''
One book in particular had a hold on the young Vinai.
''I always imagined myself as Tintin travelling everywhere to see the world,'' he says with a wink. ''It's the only book I brought with me there.''
His youthful exuberance would soon fall victim to the practical realities of the hard-scrabble existence of Isan farmers. His father's dreams of being a farmer failed. After four unsuccessful harvests, the Dithajohns went bankrupt, lost their plantation and returned to Bangkok.
His life was turned upside-down and the next chapter in his adventure would be a tough one.
''We were poor. I was in secondary school but after school I tried to make money by selling everything from joss sticks [they lived near a Chinese temple in Klong Toey] to newspapers and pirated cassettes. I was chased away, rejected and ignored by people I approached for all the time,'' he says. ''It's good in a way, though. It taught me to accept rejection. Disappointment has become my best friend.''
Bad went to worse when his father injured his fingers, forcing him to quit his job at a factory and preventing him from putting food on the table. Then 15, Vinai decided to quit school and started working as a fare collector on buses.
''I was too short even to reach the straps that passengers hang on to,'' he recalls. ''But the welfare benefits covered my father's hospital bills and I earned enough for my family.''
Vinai stayed in that job for seven years and experienced life at what is typically seen as the bottom end of society. Run-ins with gangsters were not uncommon and he met many troubled people who lived hand to mouth _ drunkards, drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless people were regular on his route.
Their faces became ingrained in his mind and he harboured a desire to tell their stories, not knowing when or how he would get the opportunity to do so.
''They say life is full of colour. If that's true, my life then ran the extreme spectrum,'' Vinai says, beaming at the memory.
FROM POOR TO PRO
His family didn't rely on him as much after his younger sister graduated from a polytechnic school, so Vinai decided to apply for the military. His reason? ''I wanted to skydive. Parachuting was included as part of the training at the base in Kanchanaburi. The uniform was like a free pass for a penniless man like me. I got to do adventurous things, see the countryside and slept in the temple.''
His experience in Kanchanaburi also brought him a step closer to his future in photojournalism. The 23-year-old foot soldier enrolled in a photography distance-learning course at Sukothai Thammathirat University. The bachelor's degree programme was open for those who had not graduated high school but had at least six years of work experience.
Vinai didn't even own a camera at the time. ''I didn't have money and lacked an education. Being a photographer seemed like an impossible dream job but I was curious about it. I also enrolled in an English course because I knew it would help me when reading photo-graphy textbooks.''
After being discharged from military, Vinai struggled to find a job. ''Ice and liquor factories passed on me because I didn't look tough enough to be a labourer,'' says Vinai, laughing. He finally got a job cleaning machines at a pharmaceutical factory near his family home and worked extra shifts whenever he could to save up to purchase his first camera.
He was 26 when he had enough money to buy a second-hand Pentax K1000 camera. ''It took me five months to be able to buy this camera, another month to afford my first roll of film and another month on top of that to be able to pay to have it developed,'' Vinai says and laughs when recalling that first roll of film. ''I sucked. My first set of photos came out terrible.''
After a few years of trial and error, Vinai got his first job as a photographer for a magazine about dogs before joining a weekly travel publication. ''It was like a dream come true,'' he says of the travel magazine job. ''I wasn't good at all but they wanted to gamble on me. I could do two things I loved at the same time, taking photos and travelling. I travelled throughout Thailand _ to the far North and the deep South. My knowledge of maps from my time in the military helped. I also kept a journal in which I would note what inspired me and what I saw. For example, I jotted down when tidal currents would occur in Phuket to estimate the best time to shoot the sunrise to capture the best reflection on the water.''
In 1994, Vinai joined the Bangkok Post as a photographer for the original but now defunct Sunday Magazine. He says the job helped him expand his photographic skills and be more creative in his work.
The head of the magazine at the time, Prapai Kraisornkovit, now the editor of the ''Life'' section of the Bangkok Post, gave him his first opportunity in news photojournalism.
''I asked her to send me to Salween river in Myanmar. She [Prapai] said I must write a story,'' he says.
Prapai fondly remembers her time working with Vinai or ''Nai'' as he was commonly known. ''I had a young and dynamic team back then. His photos were artistic and sharp; we used them on the magazine's cover almost every week.
''Nai injected ideas and worked them out on his own. When necessary, he would use his own props and came up with photos that always drew readers' attention to stories. Sometimes he used things that we would have never thought of. I still remember him using the back of a wok as a prop to resemble the surface of Mars. The shot came out great; it really looked like the surface of Mars, and yes, it was one of the Sunday Magazine's most fascinating looking covers.''
After four years with the Sunday Magazine, Vinai decided to fly solo. As a freelance photographer, he worked for many magazines and agencies such as Elle, Cleo, Signature, the South China Morning Post and AP; in the meantime, he did a photo journalistic package about bird-nest collecting gypsies, which won himself the first prize and honourable mention award from Thailand's National Geographic . This opened doors for him at The Australian newspaper, the OnAsia photo agency and Greenpeace.
''You can barely get by on freelance rates in Thailand. That's the painful reality. You need to get your work out there for international recognition,'' says Vinai. He spent seven years as a freelancer before he was hired to set up the European Pressphoto Agency's (epa) office in Bangkok.
His boss at the time, Barbara Walton, said in an email to Brunch that Vinai succeeded in a very difficult task.
''It was a period of big challenges, and Vinai _ already a good photographer _ was faced with learning how to handle the many other pressures involved in daily news photography ... let alone all the myriad of tasks involved in setting up! This is not an easy profession!''
Ms Walton says Vinai was a pleasure to work with. ''He has a lovely eye as a photographer and always tried his very best to handle the pressures we faced.''
For his part Vinai found the transition from freelance independence to structured corporate lift a challenge. ''I had complete freedom for almost 10 years but then again I thought this would be another opportunity to learn. I had very little experience in news photography and my English was weak.''
Vinai figured he must try harder. ''I started to examine news photos and the captions that came with them from the Bangkok Post and The Nation, to keep myself updated on breaking news and the words used to help me when I was writing my own captions,'' says Vinai.
He stayed with epa for two and a half years, covering major incidents including the tsunami in 2004 and violence in the South.
Eventually though he became bored with the mostly routine nature of office work. ''The early deadlines and daily meetings were not exactly inspiring after a while. To be honest. I need adventures to keep going. So I became freelance again.''
BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED
Vinai found, however, that freedom can be a double-edged sword. In 2007 he won the photo of the year award for his bird's eye view of a scorched forest in Riau, Sumatra, in a competition held at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT). Only a year later, he was arrested after he tested positive for illegal substances in a police drug test.
Vinai was working on a story about drug abuse in Bangkok at the time and admits that he made a bad choice. ''It's not something I'm proud of. I screwed up. I was in a bad place and made the wrong decision. I went too deep with my work and couldn't withstand temptation. I tried it and got caught.''
Some good did come out of that ordeal as one of the photos from the package he produced on drug abuse in Bangkok claimed the FCCT's second place achievement.
Vinai won the award while he was in a rehabilitation centre, where he had been sent by police for 10 days.
''I had all my time to myself again to reflect on the situation. I went back to reading. which set my mind free. The Tintin inside of me couldn't wait for the next adventure,'' says Vinai.
He tried to get his life back on track, but in 2010 he was shot in the leg while on the front line taking photos of the red shirt crackdown at Makkhawan Bridge. ''It felt like a near-death experience, though I wasn't seriously wounded. It was chaotic. I was taken to an emergency tent. I still remember holding a camera in one hand ready to take another photo with my other hand on my wound trying to staunch the bleeding,'' he says, laughing.
Over the past few years Vinai has held workshops for younger photographers, hoping to share his experience. And of course he is continuing to push himself as a photojournalist.
Even with as impressive a CV as he has, Vinai still has to compete with peers both foreign and local for special assignments, such as going on board Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior ship twice. ''You can never stop trying. Photography is not just a means of living for me, it's a part of my life I could never live without.
''Being a freelance photojournalist has pros and cons. I own the copyrights to my photos and choose what I want to do.
''On one hand, the income is uncertain but on the other the freedom allows me to be artistic and creative. The latter is very important to me,'' says Vinai.
''It means my adventures are not over yet,'' he says with a wink. ''And I can hardly wait for the next one.''
KEEPING FOCUS: VINAI'S VIEWS ON PHOTOJOURNALISM
HIS FAVOURITE CAMERAS AND LENS
Now I use the Canon 5D Mark II for my work; however, I dont stick to certain labels because I believe photography is more about the content and emotion. Technology is important but secondary. Before I used a Canon 20D, which was good enough for me to win several prizes using it. As for the lens, I normally use a 24-77mm and 70-200mm (zoom), single lens, 50mm and 35mm fixed lens. I use the latter two quite often because they are lightweight and small, so good for undercover jobs.
Personally I carry a digital Fuji X-100 compact camera. It's good for street photography. I like its vintage-looking body that surprisingly comes with ground-breaking technology. Its hybrid viewfinder combines the window-type bright frame optical viewfinder found in film cameras, such as 35mm ones. The reverse Galilean optical finder with a 0.5x magnification feaures all-glass elements made from a high-refractive index glass that offers low chromatic aberration and distortion. These features suit my photography very well as I like to photograph people.
TIPS FOR YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHERS
I think they should find out first what kind of photography they really like and work on that. If you know what you like but you're not good at it yet, you need to be patient, hard working and determined. It doesn't come easy. You also should be hungry for knowledge and challenges. As for me, I didn't have a proper education but I've never stopped learning. I would also suggest that they read English and practise speaking it as much as they can. Trust me, it opens many doors. With a good command of English, your chances improve of being hired by international organisations, news agencies, and foreign customers. It also helps when you travel and read photographic manuals.
Physical fitness is also important because you might have to travel for almost a day just to get one shot in a rural area that is full of obstacles. Being a photographer you can't afford to be high maintenance in the middle of an emergency. You should be bold and agile but still cautious, especially when you are taking photos in dangerous conditions, such as during aggressive protests, bomb scenes, war zones, or natural disasters. It's important to be well trained for those situations.
But by far the most important thing is objectivity. You must try your best to maintain objectivity, especially when it comes to armed conflicts or people involved in scandals. Being a photographer means being a story teller. Your job is to capture reality. The artistic side is to grab audiences attention. Remember you can't mislead the public use propaganda. Be an observer not a judge. Do your job honestly and let people make decision themselves.
CURRENT AND FUTURE PROJECTS
I conducted a street photography workshop last year at the Thailand Creative and Design Centre at Emporium and this group, called Sideways, just showcased their street photographs in April. I will run the workshop again to help interested photographers venture into this type of candid photography. The workshop is not about photographic technique, but about coming up with concepts that are straightforward, while also showing sophistication in terms of the message communicated.
In October, I will join photographers from the Street Photo Thailand group for an exhibition of street photography at the Bangkok and Culture Centre.
a student protest in Pattani in 2007.
jailed Muslim women pray. Both photos, taken in Narathiwat earlier this year, were published in ‘National Geographic’ in May.
CONSUMATE CRAFTSMAN: Above left and right, pages from his journal in which he sketched out plans for his photos. Right, a cover of the ‘Bangkok Post’ ‘Sunday Magazine’ in the mid-’90s featuring an image created by Vinai
About the author
- Writer: Kritini Upayokin
Position: Brunch Editor