Ten years ago, photographer Jatenipat Ketpradit, also known as JKBoy, embarked on a journey to Mongolia to capture portraits of the Eagle Hunters Tribe. Accompanied by a local guide, Jatenipat had to go door to door to search for members of the clan as only a few still make a living from the profession these days.
Last year, Jatenipat held his debut solo exhibition "People And Their World" which showcased portraits of ethnic groups at River City Bangkok. He also released photographs through social media. After that, the location of the eagle hunters became a tourist attraction for both Thai and foreign visitors. As a result, their number has increased as many young people returned to their home village to become hunters. Jatenipat said that from a few eagle hunters 10 years ago, there are now about 20 to 30.
This was the result of Jatenipat's stunning photographs with their flawless composition, lighting and expressive facial representations of indigenous people. Due to the outstanding quality and perfect capture of these moments, the portraits from "People And Their World" won several awards -- overall winner at the 2022 International Portrait Photographer of the Year; platinum award at the 2022 European Photography Awards; and three golds at the 2022 One Eyeland Photography Awards.
Because of his positive impact on the country, Jatenipat has been appointed by Mongolia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a cultural envoy.
"My photographs of Mongolia have been shared internationally and recognised by international portrait awards. Mongolia's ambassador to Thailand, Tumur Amarsanaa, told me that my work has helped to build a reputation for Mongolians worldwide," he said.
"I am honoured that my work has been recognised for its contributions to Mongolians. After I was appointed as a cultural envoy for Mongolia, I was able to access more locations and work more in-depth than before in the country."
With support from the Mongolian government, during the midsummers of 2022 and 2023, Jatenipat captured the visual narrative of the Tsam mask dance in the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, the Mask Museum of Mongolia and several important cultural sites in Mongolia. The Tsam mask dance is regarded as one of the most significant rituals in Vajrayana Buddhism. The ritual, which is held once a year, aims to banish all evil forces from existence.
Jatenipat's photographs bring to life the enchanting sacred masked dance, which is presented at the photography exhibition "People And Their World: Tsam – The Dance Of Gods", at River City Bangkok. The exhibition showcases the preservation of masks and costumes and the creative process of crafting, as well as the ceremonial costumes of high-level Lamas (Tibetan Buddhist monks) in the ancient monastery.
The Lamas Of Amarbayasgalant.
The award-winning photographer came across a Tsam mask when he visited Mongolia seven years ago. During a heavy snowstorm, he stopped in a tent for shelter. The next morning, he discovered that the Amarbayasgalant Monastery was actually located next to the tent. He visited the monastery, which was covered in snow, and saw a Tsam mask left on the floor.
Ever since that day, Jatenipat has been inspired to photograph Tsam masks, but did not have any contacts until he met Mongolia's minister of Education and Science, who is a patron of the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, at his debut exhibition.
"I immediately flew to Mongolia after the exhibition. I introduced myself to the abbot who gave me permission to photograph monks for the first set of the collection. Those monks had never been photographed before. Afterwards, my local guide inadvertently connected with his colleague, Gankhuyag Natsag [GanNa], who happened to be a national artist and mask artisan. We later agreed to collaborate on projects. Tsam masks were destroyed when the Soviet Union invaded Mongolia. Mongolian monks were executed and many temples were burned down. The artisan hopes to have Tsam masks registered as a Unesco world heritage artefact," said Jatenipat.
A Mongolian yurt showcases Tsam masks and other artefacts related to Mongolian culture.
Since the photographer wanted viewers to have similar experiences to those he had when he entered the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, there is a replica of a monastery gate that visitors can walk through. In addition to photographs, there is a Mongolian yurt (tent) to showcase Tsam masks and other artefacts related to the nation's rich cultural history. To help visitors experience the rhythmic verses and dance movements of the Tsam mask dance, there is a video of this sacred ritual. Next to the video, there are life-size models wearing costumes and masks, some of which are antique artefacts.
Jatenipat explained that Mongolian masks are made primarily from paper adorned with silver or jewellery. The costume along with the heavily decorated masks weighs around 25-30kg. Monks who perform this religious ritual must meet certain requirements including passing an examination on the rules of Tsam. These monks are typically young as they have to perform the ritual for eight hours a day over three consecutive days.
"In the Tsam dance, the Chanban is a representative of high-level monks. He does not wear a mask but instead wears a wide-brimmed black hat adorned with skulls. The Chanban leads the others in a ritual dance that is designed to gather all the evil in the world and destroy it. The most important god is Yama, god of death. I was filming at the ritual and learned that there was a 'no entry zone' where a black box was located for gathering all the evil. I was warned to not enter that space. I could feel the sacredness of the ritual when hearing the chanting," said Jatenipat.
Jatenipat's photographs not only promote the Mongolian people to the world and advocate for a tribe in Ethiopia who call for the protection of their water resources, they also inspire other groups to take pride in their heritage.
The Sacred Ritual Of Chanban III.
"A tribe living along the Omo River in Ethiopia faced difficulties when a dam was built, altering the river's high and low tides. Consequently, their livestock and crops perished. They wanted me to share their story with others, so I posted it on my social media and will include it in my upcoming book," he said.
"When I photographed the Karen and Lu Mien tribes, some of them said they felt their traditional costumes were old fashioned. However, the photographs of a Lu Mien traditional wedding ceremony in Chiang Rai impressed other tribes in Nan, as all participants wore costumes adorned with a complete set of silver jewellery. The images presented them elegantly. Members of the Karen and Lu Mien tribes sent me messages after receiving positive feedback on the photographs that they felt proud of their cultures."
While holding his debut exhibition, Jatenipat met many viewers who told him that they were impressed with his work. One of them even cried because she felt moved by his powerful images.
"I presented photographs regarding beauty standards in a tribe. While some people consider piercing scary, some tribes believe that it is beautiful. A viewer wrote a message expressing his appreciation for the exhibition, which he said had been eye-opening. Elsewhere, a woman had tears in her eyes because she felt touched by the humanity of a piece. In my younger days, many books inspired me to visit tribes. Now it is my turn to pass on my work so that other people can view it or be inspired by it," concluded Jatenipat.
Gankhuyag Natsag, a mask artisan, features in the photo The Old Time In A Ger.
"People And Their World: Tsam – The Dance Of Gods" runs at RCB Artery, 1st floor of River City Bangkok, Charoen Krung 24, until Dec 5. Admission is free. For more information, visit facebook.com/RiverCityBangkok.