Have camera, will travel

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Foto United are millionaires

To photographers, a picture means more than a thousand words. For some of them, especially high-profile cameramen, every picture they shoot represents their idea of reality and maybe of life.

One of the highlighted photographs from the exhibition ‘Miracle Nong Khai’ hosted by Foto United in Nong Khai is an image captured during the rite of bathing the Buddha statue during Songkran Festival at Wat Po Chai, taken by photogrpaher Chatchawan Dachan.

To harness the power of photography, a group of professional lensmen have teamed up to add social and cultural values to the simple act of closing the shutter. Under the banner Saha + Phab, or Foto United, the photographers ranging from those of international fame to young talents, have volunteered to take pictures of destinations of historical and archaeological significance in Thailand with the aim of documenting national heritage and through them convey the message of sustainable tourism.

Launched in 2008, Foto United is the initiative of SEA Write laureate Chiranan Pitpreecha, with writer-photographer Teeraparb Lohitkun, photographer Kriengkrai Waiyakij and Phuket-based businesswoman Phenpat Morakotwisit forming the core members.

"Not many people know that I once had a dream of becoming a photojournalist. I remember watching foreign journalists armed with cameras, and wanting to be like them," says the 57-year-old Chiranan.

"The one thing I love about photographers is they don't talk much. They let their pictures do the talking. I really appreciate that."

Chiranan recalls reading an article about an organisation called Doctors Without Borders. It is a network of doctors, nurses and medical professionals around the world, and when a catastrophe strikes, the group is there voluntarily to provide medical service.

The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge snapped by Lao photographer Pedsamai Pilawan.

"I find the idea fascinating," Chiranan says. "And I think about the photography scene in Thailand where we have many talented photographers. We could do something for our society as well."

The first meeting she called drew about 20 photographers, she says, at which they agreed to operate under the name Foto United.

The group's first assignment was to capture and show the century-old Samchuk riverside market in Suphan Buri province. In order to raise awareness about the importance of Samchuk community and its local heritage, Foto United organised an exhibition, "Samchuk: Old Markets Never Die", featuring pictures of markets around the world taken by Foto United photographers on their travels overseas.

Close on the heels of Samchuk followed other exhibitions, literally in all parts of the country: Phuket, Bangkok, Nan and Krabi to Sra Kaew.

"We work with the leaders of communities. They help us with the shooting. At the end of such exhibitions, we give them the copyrights to the photographs in return. However, the pictures must be used to promote communities culturally and not commercially. This is how artists can give back to society," she says.

The exhibition in Nan province, Chiranan says, was among the most successful.

"After the exhibition, Nan that year became one of the most visited provinces in Thailand during New Year holidays for the first time," Chiranan explains.

Foto United's most recent project was last September when it sent out photographers to explore the northeastern province of Nong Khai.

A beautiful pink lotus pond, shot by Damri Wongsuna.

"Nong Khai is generally overlooked. We told our team to take pictures of the town area from different angles, and we found that Nong Khai has a number of beautiful sights, natural and historical, and a host of local folklore. We are very happy to be able to capture the beauty of this city for the audiences," says Teeraparb Lohitkun.

Entitled "Miracle Nong Khai" and held at the OTOP Centre in the heart of the town, the exhibition was a tremendous success, well attended by local residents, dignitaries and Foto United volunteers.

''I think we, the photographers, gain more than we give,'' says Teeraparb. ''We get to go to beautiful places that we could never do ourselves without the help of the local authorities, and have a chance to take pictures of amazing subjects. The experience is priceless.''

For Miracle Nong Khai, Foto United invited photographers from our neighbouring country _ Laos _ to work on the exhibition. The inclusion of a close neighbour's's perspective was a form of exchange and recognition that was made tangible through photography.

''I am happy to be a part of this project,'' says 32-year-old Lao photographer Vilasak Sengphetmany. ''I got to meet professional photographers and learn from them. It's a great opportunity.''

With the growing popularity of Foto United, more and more photographers are showing interest in joining the team of these philanthropic shutterbugs.

''After our group became well known, we received requests from photographers who wanted to join our team. And we are very happy to have more people volunteer for us,'' says Teeraparb.

''We are open to photographers with different styles ranging from documentary to artistic. More diverse photographers mean more interesting works.''

The Miracle Nong Khai exhibition runs until the end of the year. In the meantime Foto United is working on yet another project _ this time it is going to unveil the wondrous beauty of Lub Lae, a small, quiet town held in the embrace of the mountains in the country's northern Uttaradit province.

About the author

Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer