Photography That Matters: Thai photographers step into the light

Most people view photography as an act of taking. For renowned Thai photographer and teacher Tul Hirunyalawan, it has become an act of giving.

Tul Hirunyalawan’s journey started in darkness — a student at Bangkok University tinkering with film in a darkroom, tapping into talents he was only just discovering. Today, Tul no longer labours alone, and whilst he still works in the darkroom, most of his time is spent showing others the light. 

“I believe that photography can have an impact. Not just in terms of eliciting happiness or memories, but rather it can create impact that benefits society,” he says.

Photographer Tul Hirunyalawan. Image: Supplied/Tul Hirunyalawan

Now 41, Tul has exhibited widely and led workshops and activities across the country. He is a Leica brand ambassador known best for his black-and-white shots and president of the Royal Photographic Society.

His greatest impact on Thai society, however, goes beyond awards and honours. He has become a sought-after instructor, teaching aspiring photographers at five universities in Bangkok, as well as a mostly adult, mostly retiree clientele at Sungkrohsang, a photography school he founded in 2017.

Through education, he has made photography a tool of higher purpose, a way to bridge differences, give back to local communities and inspire others to see Thailand — and themselves — in a new light.

Tul became well-known for his black and white photographs, such as this one taken of Chaopraya River. Image: Tul Hirunyalawan

“I am a person who views the world super positively. I want to inspire my students to look at the world positively. I want them to find new sources of inspiration, see new angles and values and the beauty of the world,” he explains.

Through Sungkrohsang, he has been able to chip away at some of the fears and defences that hold emerging photographers back whilst encouraging them develop their own styles. In other words, Tul teaches students to think for themselves — a push for individualism in a collectivist society.

“We are not creating a bible that tells [students] what is and is not a good photo,” he says. “A good photo must answer only one question: ‘Does this photo make me happy?’”

An image taken by Tul of Songkhla. Image: Tul Hirunyalawan

When Sungkrohsang opened five years ago, it was based in Jatujak Market, Bangkok’s weekends-only beehive of shopping, food, music and activity. Here, students learned the mores of street photography. Specifically, how to shoot impromptu images without disturbing their subjects or feeling uncertain.

“For most people, it’s not that they don’t take good photos or don’t have skills, but rather they don’t have confidence in what they’re doing,” he says.

His empathy-fuelled courses sold out quickly. As the school outgrew its closet-sized space at the market, Tul was joined by three other top-level photographers who came on as co-founders and Sungkrohsang moved to a larger space on the other side of Bangkok. Together they embarked on projects that would test the limits of Tul’s own comfort levels and open his eyes to the diversity of his homeland.

Tul's work celebrates the diversity of Thailand. Image: Tul Hirunyalawan

In 2020, Sungkrohsang was commissioned by the Creative Economy Agency, a public organisation based in the up-and-coming Charoenkrung district, to spearhead a photography activity for the annual Bangkok Design Week.

Known for its old shophouses, historic temples, Thai-Chinese street food and generations-old auto parts businesses, which often spill out into the street, Talad Noi is photogenic. It is also well-trodden. Whilst countless photos have been taken in the district, Tul found that few residents had photos of themselves or their families. Even fewer felt as if the frequent outside visitors cared to learn about the community.

As part of a Portrait of Charoenkrung project, Tul and other photographers got to know the Talad Noi community. Image: Supplied

With “Portrait of Charoenkrung,” Tul and seven other Sungkrohsang photographers set out to provide portraits for people who had called Talad Noi home all their lives.

Over two months, he and his team had several conversations with respected community members and slowly gained their trust. Then they hauled around a trolley full of equipment and took shots of 36 families. In the process, they became part of the community, beloved figures who breathed new life into Talad Noi.

“People from the community told me that now they welcome outside visitors; locals start conversions with them, suggest places to go. They realise that photography will draw people into the community to learn about what makes it special,” he says.

Throughout the Portrait of Charoenkrung project, Tul discovered how photography connected people and started conversations. Image: Supplied

“Photos connect people. Not just family, but others from outside the community as well.”

Later the same year, Sungkrohsang was invited to create a similar project in Songkhla, an historic southern trading hub relatively unknown to many in Bangkok. Aptly called “Portrait of Songkhla,” the project expanded on the work he produced in Talad Noi. Rather than flying Sungkrohsang staff to and from Songkhla, however, Tul sought out 40 local photographers and taught them how to shoot portraits for the series. 

“It became a phenomenon. Everyone happily opened their homes to us,” says Tul. “One person told me: ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years and never really spoke to my neighbour. But since you took our portraits, I need to spare an hour before I leave my house to chitchat with them.’ Many people asked us to come back and do it again, because now the economy is doing better, they have more travellers, people are using old spaces [to create new businesses] and they know more about the local businesses, too.”

Following the Portrait of Charoenkrung project, Tul worked on a similar project in Songkhla and found much of the same connections. Image: Supplied

Thailand is an aging society, and many young workers have left secondary destinations like Songkhla in search of work in the capital. This project, like “Portrait of Songkhla,” addressed some of the friction being felt in a society in transition. It encouraged younger, digital-savvy crowds to go south and bring fresh energy to the city. It also taught Tul more about his home country.

“If you ask me to pin down one location in Thailand where you will truly experience Thainess, it’s Songkhla,” he explains. “The city has preserved its [Thai, Thai-Chinese and Thai-Malay] heritage. There’s everything here. The food, the culture, the friendliness of people, the landscape — it has it all.”

Now he hopes to use his platform to continue giving back — to Songkhla, to small businesses, to local creators looking to put Thailand on the map.

Portraits of Songkhla on display. Image: Supplied

In the coming years, Tul says Sungkrohsang plans to host an international photo festival, complete with a residency, in Songkhla to showcase its culture as well as its local talent. And Tul intends to keep using the skills he first developed in the university darkroom to change the way Thai citizens and outsiders alike see and talk about Thainess. 

“Thainess is more than just visuals like khon [traditional Ayutthaya-era] costumes, elephant-riding and floating markets,” he says. “But hearing [about how Thailand is changing] is not like seeing it. Photography is an important tool to show what we have here.”

- Asia Media Centre