Harit Srikhao’s construction of truth
USING PHOTO COLLAGE AND DOCUMENTARY STYLE, THE THAI PHOTOGRAPHER EXAMINES OBJECTIVITY IN MEMORY AND EMOTION.
In May 2010, Bangkok’s streets erupted into chaos during a deadly political crackdown pitting the military against thousands of protesters known as the Red Shirts.
Navigating a terrain of smoldering shopping malls and charging armed soldiers, a 15-year-old student, Harit Srikhao, cursed the Red Shirts' hostility as he attempted to get home from school.
“I walked four or five hours in the dark, dead-locked traffic, passing prostitutes, gangsters and aggressive street dogs,” remembers Harit, now a photographer and a rising star in Thailand’s arts scene. “I was nearly home, but I couldn’t get through because of fighting. It sounded like gunshots and there was smoke in the air. I think it was burning car rubber.”
Years later, the traumatic experience inspired 2012's Red Dream, the now 23-year-old’s first photo series. He retraced his route on that fateful night, snapping pictures in blurry low light and roughly editing with a paper cutter to convey the fear he felt.
“It was therapy,” he explains. “But when I started to research what was happening on the political landscape of my country, the truth was completely different from what I used to believe.”
Harit’s surrealist work blends documentary style with the abstractness of human emotion. He won the 2018 Young Portfolio Award in the Invisible Photographer Asia Awards, and was runner-up in the British Journal of Photography’s Breakthrough Awards for his 2016 series Whitewash, which has been exhibited around Europe and at the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia.
In Whitewash, Harit returns to the impactful 2010 demonstrations by editing the images to “create a portrait of how propaganda works, and how the state can control citizen knowledge,” he says.
In one photo, "Illuminator," a young cadet with sunken holes where his mouth and eyes should be grasps a candle.
“I met that boy scout at a Royal Palace celebration. The wax was dropping on his hand, and it was very painful, but he kept holding still, proud of being a Thai boy scout,” Harit explains. “For me it represents the way old people in my country steal young people’s power.”
In contrast, another photo, the “Deluminator,” depicts an old man with his street cart, covered in superimposed Christmas lights to compensate for an absence of inner radiance.
“I call [my medium] post-production because I try to show how our memory can be subjective and sensory," he says. "It can tell us lies because we want it to. We cannot remember time very well, so it’s like a collage.”
The exhibition’s name was inspired by the “Big Cleaning Day” activity on May 23, 2010, when the streets were flooded with a white cleaning agent and thousands of volunteers – including Harit and his family – were encouraged to help rejuvenate Bangkok after the discord.
What troubled Harit - and what now informs his art - is how back then he never questioned the media’s portrayal of how the events ultimately culminated in violence, and particularly the implications of thought control by authorities.
Censorship has a long history in Thailand, where lèse-majesté laws imposed in 1908 that make it illegal to criticize the country’s rulers are still heavily enforced today. Since the Thai military took over in a 2014 coup d'état, free speech has been even further quashed. Film screenings and gallery exhibitions, as well as academic discussions, are routinely banned.
Harit’s understanding on censorship came full circle when soldiers and police entered a Bangkok gallery exhibiting Whitewash and ordered several works be taken down.
Through the incident, his work has become a symbol of anti-oppression and freedom of expression – a phenomenon the photographer did not necessarily intend.
“I don’t want my work to be directly political,” he says. “For me it’s important to avoid that because if there is any political agenda the work becomes propaganda, whether it’s pro-democracy or pro-dictatorship. There must be enough space for different interpretations.”
Instead of crossing the political divide, Harit insists his photography explores other themes, such as “sexual exploration, friendship, desire, and coming of age.”
His latest series, Mt. Meru (2017) highlights contradictions between deeply religious Thai society and everyday life in Thailand, and the non-secularism that underpins the constitutional monarchy. Divine rule is bestowed according to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.
Harit’s refusal to be boxed into political activism has taken him to Milan, where he’s currently studying fashion photography. Becoming well-versed in the commercial field is Harit’s masterplan for remaining independent and unfettered in his craft – a state of being that's of utmost importance to him.
“If you don’t have money, you have to walk into galleries, and it’s hard to submit to festivals,” he says. “Doing commercial work I can support myself and use that money to make my art.”
A selection of Harit Srikhao’s work is below, but you can also see more on his website.