Theerachat "Tom" Potisit is a freelance photographer who's behind many iconic images that went viral in recent years. On top of countless fashion shoots, you may have already seen his work, which stimulates conversation on relevant social issues without knowing the man. In 2014, he saw an opportunity to raise awareness on marine life conservation when a Bryde's whale beached in Samut Prakarn and staged a fashion shoot there. Remember the "Anatomy 101" exhibition at Chulalongkorn Hospital in 2015? It was a photo exhibition where Tom and Surachai "Pui" Saengsuwan, a noted fashion photographer, took beautiful, haunting pictures of models and celebs in a hospital setting to raise awareness on organ donation. Most recently, he organised "Know-R", a photography exhibition to highlight livelihood of communities along the Chao Phraya River. It was staged on an old rice barge in February. Tom has also earned a reputation as a photographer/conservationist for his contribution to raising awareness on endangered species over the years. Guru spoke with this fascinating photographer whose works combine art, fashion and raising awareness.
When did your love for photography begin?
We all take photos for our memories and as proof of our emotions. I used to take photos to keep track of my travels. When I volunteered taking photos for the Phuket Marine Biology Center to study the population of dugongs, I learned that photography also has other functions. It made me start experimenting on what else I could do with photography. I often see things differently and sometimes it is not easy to explain feelings and I want to tell stories that can only be effectively conveyed through pictures. Because there are power in images. Power to move hearts, to sway emotions, to educate people and to make changes.
What was the turning point to go beyond commercial/fashion photography to photography that addresses social issues?
I believe everyone is born with at least one gift. It's up to us to use that gift for good or bad. When I started doing fashion and commercial photography it was great for me as a photographer but it doesn't fulfil me as a human being. I feel a little bit guilty that in every fashion spread, people all look beautiful and happy, but in the real world we are facing lots of important social and environmental issues. While I create beautiful photos, people are bombing each other or wild animals facing extinction. I just could no longer sit in front of the screen and convince myself that I couldn't do anything to change things.
Why did you choose photography to capture serious issues?
They say that the most powerful weapon in the world is a camera. It is probably true, one single image can cause peace or an international crisis. I often get emotional when I watch the news and see how many problems we are facing in the world, on a daily basis. I want to help simplify these serious issues -- be it politics or environment -- and make them easy to understand without saying a word. When I realised I have such a tool in my hand, that was when I wanted to address and spark people's interest in the problems floating around us. And hopefully inspire them to help solve these problems, too.
What inspired 'Anatomy 101'?
I was born with a duplex kidney condition and I had to remove one of them as it was failing and causing me a lot of health problem for a few years. I was in so much pain for a few months from this condition and could barely move. I thought that my life was pretty much over, staying in bed and praying for the pain to go away. I went to Chulalongkorn Hospital for the operation and I came across people who were living as walking corpses waiting for an organ donor. That was when I wanted to do something to help them and, during my recovery, I learned that there are so many parts of our body we can donate even when we are still alive. In 2012, a report from Thai Red Cross showed that there were 3,516 people waiting for organ transplants, but there were only 136 organ donors, which could only help 334 people. Thais like to make merit and I think donating your body parts for other people to live is probably the greatest merit you can make. Trying to convince the century-old government hospital to give me permission to work on this project was almost mission impossible. They didn't know how fashion, art and medical science would merge. I chose to have these images exhibited at the hospital to bring home the message.
You've done a lot of thought-provoking photo campaigns. Which is your favourite and why?
There are a lot of research before I started taking the photos for each campaign, knowledge and information on the issue help me to shape the elements and direction on the campaign, and also help me to protect the works and people who I work with. My favourite is probably the 'Last Farewhale Series', that was a very silly idea to shoot a fashion model with the dead whale. Everyone told me I was crazy. At the time I already started volunteering for the Marine and Coastal Department to study the population and behaviour of the Bryde's whale in the upper Gulf of Thailand. At the time, most Thais didn't even know we have whales in Thailand. I wanted people to realise that we have these amazing marine mammals and help push Bryde's whale's status as a protected species, as its population was declining significantly.
The KNOW-R Project is another favourite of mine. I invited 13 other photographers based in Thailand to capture 14 communities along the Chao Phraya River who were going to be affected by the 14-km River Promenade Project. I displayed the images on an old rice barge to highlight the value and importance of these communities, which will be heavily affected by this project along with the environmental concerns that will come with it.
How strongly do you believe that your photography campaigns can bring about real change?
What I do is just a small part of making change, the real challenge is to educate people, make an impact on them with the images and make sure they can make their own decisions of what to do or how to feel. When people come across the information and message from my images, I hope this will lead to action and change. I did an experiment at 'Anatomy 101' by placing an organ donation booth and in eight days we received 545 organ donors. Change takes time but it is doable.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned from doing these campaigns?
The challenge is probably how to balance the elements from different fields into one body of work. You need to remember the reason why you are doing it, it is for others not for my own benefits. When I shared my ideas with organisations, they didn't understand what I wanted to achieve. Most people perceived fashion photography as an extravagant medium and they don't see how it will fit with communicating a serious issue. I see it differently. I think there is a fashion sense in everyone regardless of gender, race, age or season. Fashion is a trait that we all have in common and communicating an issue through fashion photography will grab people's attention more and, in my experience, it has.
Can you tell us more about Qrated Collections?
Qrated Collections (www.qratedcollections.com) is an online platform that enables people anywhere in the world to purchase an original print from Thailand-based photographers. There are a lot of amazing and talented photographers in Thailand and I want Qrated to be a bridge between collectors, curators, interior design companies and artists. I have worked on this project for two years, going through thousands of images and hand-picked unique ones that will look beautiful in someone's house or be presented as a gift on any special occasions. We focus on the quality of the aesthetic of the image, it doesn't matter if you're a budding or an established photographer. I want to open doors for the young and new blood photographers whose work is beautiful and everybody should see it. There are a lot of programmes in the pipeline I want to do with Qrated Collections from supporting young photographers, helping them put together photo exhibitions to having more exposure on the international level.
What topic do you next want to highlight through your photography?
Oh, where do I start? My ideas sometimes flow non-stop. Some projects will take a few weeks to ripen, some might take a few years. I just lost a close friend to depression. He took his own life. I also lost my relationship with my ex because he was suffering from depression. I have a few close friends who are suffering from it, as well. So that is something I am working on at the moment, as well as something regarding LGBTQI. I want to help people to be more accepting when they find out that their close friends or loved ones are members of LGBTQI communities.
The other project that I have been trying to make it happen is to create an underwater art museum by using art installations to grow corals in the area that the marine biologists have approved. It will help educate people about marine life and the environment, create a new tourist attraction and create jobs for the locals. I hope we will get the support we need to make this project happen soon.
Any other future plans?
I want to use my creativity and photography to help making sustainable changes with international non-profit organisations or private sectors. I started working as a consultant for the International Organization for Migration (IOMX) to help stop human trafficking and exploitation. I have set my goal to work with the United Nations one day, hopefully highlighting the global campaigns from climate change to violence against women. My focus is always to use my photography to help change the world, one image at a time.
Follow Tom and check out his photography at fb.com/tompotisitphotography, IG @TomOfThailand or http://www.tompotisit.com.