PDN Photo of the Day

Land of Smiles

Thailand is sometimes called the Land of Smiles by tourist agencies, and the phrase is the name of Chris Mottalini’s new self-published book of photographs of the country. But smiling people are conspicuously absent in Mottalini’s photographs, which instead show florescent streetlights, empty alleys and tropical plants at night. Mottalini calls the book “a surreal, color-soaked, obsessive trip through the built and natural landscapes of Thailand.” It’s also a meditative view of place that suggests something more than the sum of its parts.

The book includes three texts that correspond to the three sections, each a passage from Traibhumikatha, The Buddhist Cosmology, “the story of the three planes of existence,” written by a king of Thailand in the fourteenth century. One describes a time when people existed without need, and flew through the air. “In former times, even though we did not eat food, we felt full and satisfied….Our bodies gave off rays that shined brightly throughout the entire universe.” The passage suggests another reading of the long streetlights Mottalini photographs against purple skies and jungle leaves. Another passage reads, “If with the force of one’s determination and perseverance, the mind could be made to disappear, what would happen?” As if in response, Mottalini shows empty streets and alleys, overgrown and edged with telephone wires, with the occasional cat, dog or person visible at a distance, their intention obscure. The last section of the book consists of images of flowering and fruited plants, seen at night in a subtle light. The final text describes a place where “shining green creeping grass grows everywhere,” and “the green is as beautiful as a cat’s eye gem.” There are trees that “bear fruit and flowers and are a wonder and delight to behold,” and “tough mountain vines, some with red flowers, some with white flowers, some with yellow flowers. The whole place is a glorious spectacle, as if someone had carefully planned it.” Together, the texts aim to connect the images to a particularly Thai understanding of the landscape.

Land of Smiles started with a photograph of a streetlight. “My wife is from Bangkok and her aunt has a little beach cottage a few hours south of the city, right on the Gulf of Thailand,” Mottalini tells PDN by email. The light was “the first fluorescent streetlight I ever noticed, perched right outside of the cottage,” and it sparked the idea for the project. Mottalini made the rest of images in the book from 2013 to 2015, over the course of several visits. “I go to Thailand once each year to visit my wife’s family, so I ended up shooting each of the three parts in the book separately, one every year for three years.” That left long stretches of time between sections, “to think about how the next part was going to turn out, what I would focus on, etc. In a way it was pretty frustrating because all I wanted to do was get back to Thailand so I could keep the project going.” After shooting came “about a year’s worth of editing, sequencing, printing, re-editing, re-sequencing, etc.,” he says. “I photographed over a thousand streets for part two alone, which I ended up editing down to around fifty final images.” Mottalini says he wanted the second part of the book to allow “the viewer to stand directly in the middle of some of the thousands of ‘sois’ (narrow streets and alleys) that make up the enormous metropolis that is Bangkok,” and for this part to “be bookended by much calmer, darker images.” The result is a book that suggests the feeling of an outsider longing to connect to the spiritual heart of the place.

Printed Matter in New York City hosts a book launch on June 22.

Related Stories:
Waiting for the Sun to Set in Pattaya, Thailand
Night and Day in Bangkok
Documenting Indonesian Sea Nomads’ Shifting Role in the Global Economy (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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