Adam Birkan, a freelance editorial photographer currently based in Cincinnati, recently returned after a one-year stint in Southeast Asia. Shortly after graduating college, he moved to Bangkok with few resources, motivated by the desire to build a portfolio abroad. Birkan, a Magnum 30 Under 30, has had recent assignments with Bloomberg Businessweek and The New York Times, among others. His personal work often takes a macro view of social and economic issues, finding the subtle moments that, collected together, paint a broader picture of accelerated industries and economic disparity in cities like Bangkok, Hanoi, Hong Kong and Singapore.
His body of work in Pattaya, Thailand, uses a quiet approach to explore the travel destination. While Birkan says Pattaya is known for its reputation for sex tourism and child sex trafficking, he presents the “surface tension” of the duality of Pattaya, exploring unassuming locations in a town that shifts as the sun sets. We recently asked him more about this body of work.
Photo District News: When did you visit Pattaya? Did you go with an idea of what you wanted to photograph?
Adam Birkan: I lived in Bangkok during 2014 and early 2015; during that time I made four trips there. Pattaya is about two hours southeast of Bangkok on the coast. A friend and fellow photographer suggested that I go check out the town. I didn’t go there with very many preconceptions about the place, which helped me stay flexible while I developed the project.
PDN: How did the beaches of Pattaya become the focal point for larger implications of the town’s history of sex tourism and sex trafficking?
AB: I became interested in approaching the town and that particular issue in a more subtle way—not the traditional hard-hitting photojournalism way. Besides the nightlife, Pattaya has beaches. During the day the beaches become a sort of transitory space for some tourists who are just waiting for the sun to go down. The beaches there gave me a distinct sense of tension that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I like to think that by choosing to show this side of life there, I’m forcing the viewer to fill in the blank spaces where the sex tourism would be.
PDN: How did the beaches change from day to night?
AB: As the sun goes down the beaches clear as people move into town. All that’s left are a few locals fishing by the powerful spotlights that illuminate the beach sporadically, and prostitutes every few yards along the main beach road.
PDN: You often choose quiet, subtle moments to point to larger social issues. What do you look for when you are photographing?
AB: When I photograph a place, I often try to find moments that defy my own, and others’, preconceptions. I focus a lot of my attention on juxtapositions that are sometimes metaphorical and oftentimes literal. In a project like this, there is a lot of dark humor because of that approach. A lot of my work tends to lean towards the concept of loneliness, and the unfortunate things loneliness leads too. Pattaya is no exception.
PDN: Does the theme or tone of the story change much during the edit?
AB: For me, 50 percent of the story comes from making pictures, and the other 50 percent comes from editing. Since I work on personal projects in a “shoot first, ask questions later” way, the editing is very important. I notice themes while I edit that I am naturally drawn to, but unaware of at the time of photographing. I like to keep the framework of a story flexible, so that when I edit, the story has room to evolve.
PDN: Do you intend to return to Pattaya?
AB: I hope I’ll have the opportunity to continue working on it. There is a lot more of that town to explore and I would like to have the time to get much more intimate with the story. There’s a whole side of the story I didn’t touch because I felt I couldn’t do it justice with the time I had.
Related: How Photographers Meet the Demands of the Travel Editorial Market (for PDN Subscribers only; login required)