Under siege
text size

Under siege

Italian photographer captures the struggle of a centuries-old Bangkok community as it tries to stave off its demolition

Under siege
Jan Daga's work captures different facets of Pom Mahakan resident life. Photos: Jan Daga

The Pom Mahakan community as seen through the lens of Bangkok-based Italian photographer Jan Daga is a village "under siege" where resilience meets heartbreak.

The time-honoured neighbourhood, tucked between Bangkok's ancient walls and a canal, which has been under threat for several decades is at the heart of an exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre which runs through Sunday.

Since 2016, Daga became a witness to the rounds of eviction and demolition that have been going on at Mahakan Fort. In accordance with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's plans, wooden houses built over 300 years ago and the families that inhabited them had to go to make way for a leisure park. Earlier this week, the BMA tore down one of the largest houses in the neighbourhood -- by consent of the owner who's willing to move to another area allocated by the authorities.

Daga's photographs capture the last two years of a decades-long struggle to fight the destruction of a model community in Bangkok, conveying both the violence with which the demolitions took place and the life of local residents as they attempt to lead a normal life under these conditions.

"Pom Mahakan is extraordinary and unique," says the photographer. In a city such as Bangkok, where the conservation of old communities has become a hot topic in recent years, the case of Pom Mahakan remains specific.

Some of the dozens of houses that were built there dated back to the Rama V era and were still inhabited by a thriving community of artisans and craftsmen. The area is akin to a village, with its central ground and surrounding houses, that belong to a different era, Daga notes. "It's not a slum, the houses were in perfect shape," he adds.

In order to fight the BMA's plans, residents have tried filing a complaint with the courts, to no avail. Left with little options, many moved out of the area while others organised themselves around the protection of their houses and thus, life behind the fort walls changed drastically.

There are locals who, however, are willing to move out according to the BMA's demand.

When Daga first entered the community in 2016, he was struck by the signs in Thai -- which he does not read -- placed along the walls and the barriers that closed the area off. With his camera, he looked like an ordinary tourist. But when he explained his project, to photograph the community's life and unusual situation, locals welcomed him -- a witness to testify and convey their story to foreign media outlets.

The photographer ended up staying eight days inside the community -- a practice that he deems important to his work, as it enabled him to see different facets of resident life. Parents working and raising their children, games played among the youths, are as much part of the narrative he built as the patrol rounds carried out at night to protect the fort from intruders.

When the first demolitions came, Daga was fully involved with the community's life. Thus, he felt particularly heartbroken to see several of the houses go.

"When you become part of a group, you care deeply for the group's well-being," he explained.

His photographs go back and forth between reporting -- showing municipality workers as they proceeded to tear down the houses -- and intimate portraits of the community members.

The community itself was most touching, he adds, as locals simply aspired to live a normal life. "Instead, they live under siege behind these walls, using the fort as a shield. But still, it's not enough."

Aside from the makeshift security barriers -- pieces of wood and tin sheets assembled by locals -- and nightly watch rounds, residents of Mahakan Fort lived as though in wartime, Daga says, conducting their daily business -- selling and buying food or items through openings in the wall.

"The feeling was that of a community surrounded by enemies. Or rather than enemies, locals found that they were living within a city that didn't care about them."

While Pom Mahakan is a treasure for conservationists, many of whom suggested that the area be turned into a "living museum" where locals and visitors coexist and interact, it is symptomatic of a rapidly disappearing way of life. As the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority moves to revamp large parts of the city's old town, entire communities are wiped off the map and gentrification can thrive.

While the black and white photographs of Jan Daga could reduce the living community to actors of a bygone era, he explains his choice as deriving from his state of mind when he captured demolition scenes.

"That day was dark. In my mind, there were no colours," he says, even as community members, stoic in the face of destruction, helped municipality workers clean the grounds.

When he last returned to Pom Mahakan, shortly before the cremation of King Bhumibol took place in Sanam Luang, the area was near empty.

"The Kingdom of Siam and Thailand has a rich history. But communities such as the one at Pom Mahakan are part of this history too," adds the Italian, used to the conservation and restoration of buildings in his native country.

Jan Daga's work captures different facets of Pom Mahakan resident life. Photos: Jan Daga

Do you like the content of this article?