Photography / The photographer capturing the eerie illustrations of Thai legend Hem Vejakorn

By: Lesly Lotha - Posted on: August 31, 2018 | Culture & Life

Photographer Pattana Chuenmana has reimagined the illustrations of Hem Vejakorn, a well-known Thai artist and writer, in moving black-and-white still images. Chuenmana talks with Southeast Asia Globe about his latest project

'After Hem Vejakorn', an exhibition by photographer Pattana Chuenmana Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art
‘After Hem Vejakorn’, an exhibition by photographer Pattana Chuenmana Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

After Hem Vejakorn pays homage to the revered illustrator who was famed for his ghost stories. Chuenmana stresses the importance of the era Vejakorn lived in, when lamps and torches were the only sources of light to repel the pitch black of night and fear of the dark was closely linked with superstitious beliefs and urban legends. Vejakorn’s works are poignant and sometimes eerie, and Chuenmana brings them to life with the greatest of care.

What was it about Hem Vejakorn that inspired you?
I was first introduced to Master Hem Vejakorn’s work when I got to read his book of ghost stories. I don’t remember whose house or when exactly I read them, but I remember the stories being really scary and the illustrations really gave me the creeps.

But in those scary illustrations, there is also this enigmatic atmosphere that kept me on the edge. It reminds me of childlike curiosity and childhood adventures

I think it is this kind of impression that got me interested in appropriating his works.

"Visitor." Hem Vejakorn's original illustration as depicted by Pattana Chuenmana Photo: Pattana Chuenmana/Richard Koh Fine Art
“Visitor” Vejakorn’s original illustration as depicted by Chuenmana Photo: Pattana Chuenmana/Richard koh Fine Art

Do you have a favourite Vejakron work?
Every photograph is equally important to me, but there are a couple of them that I particularly like. “Visitor” is one of my favorites.

The original work is about the story of a man asking a ghost for a lotto number and you can see from the photograph this ghost-like creature climbing from the pole to eat the offerings. It’s one of the scariest stories of Master Hem, but what impresses me the most is the process we had to go through to get this picture.

I had to take a team and all the equipment with me to Ayutthaya. We set up the location, which is this pavilion by the road. It’s always exciting to shoot outside of the studio and it’s even more exciting when the location is somewhere outside of Bangkok. We started setting up at 3pm and had to wait for the time when the sun was about to set.

It was almost 7pm when we began the shoot, and it took less than 10 minutes to finish, but I remember feeling that the atmosphere was just like what I had imagined when I was looking at Master Hem’s work. The whole ambience when the light was disappearing from the sky was very impressive, and it’s the last photo of the series that I took.

Original illustrations by Hem Vejakorn depicted in photograph by Chuenmana Photo: Pattana Chuenmana/Richard Koh Fine Art
“Late Night Scamper” (top) and “Awaken” (botom). Original illustration by Hem Vejakorn as depicted by Chuenmana Photo: Pattana Chuenmana/Richard Koh Fine Art

Sometimes photographing subjects, places, topics and themes that you’re familiar with or have grown up with can be harder. Can you tell us about the creative process that went into the project?
It’s pretty hard to reinterpret masterworks because everyone already has this specific image or memory about them.

I tend to think about a scenario in a specific photograph and what type of situation it will fit into based on my own personal experiences. There are many times when my ideas are conceived from travelling to a certain place or the things or feelings I come across during a journey. I find myself constantly coming across the kind of atmosphere I see in Master Hem Vejakorn’s works in the contemporary time that we’re living today.

Once I have the story and the setting, which become the raw materials of my work, then I begin to look for actors. There are several concepts when it comes to finding the people who would be in my photographs, but mainly I wanted to use people who are not familiar with Master Hem Vejakorn’s works, because I didn’t want them to imitate the characters in his works but rather to concentrate on what I was directing them.

It was almost 7pm when we began the shoot, and it took less than 10 minutes to finish, but I remember feeling that the atmosphere was just like what I had imagined when I was looking at Master Hem’s work. The whole ambiance when the light was disappearing from the sky was very impressive, and it’s the last photo of the series that I took.

Basing your photography on illustrations is a very interesting concept. Can you tell us a little bit about your previous works, interests and how you got into photography?
I became seriously interested in photography when I saw Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work for the first time. His works are so visually appealing that they captivate my attention and I just want to keep looking at them. There are so many levels of interpretation to his works, too.

“View from my vintage car” by Chuenmana Photo: Pattana Chuenmana/Richard Koh Fine Art

I was also very drawn to old street-photography artists like Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Elliot Erwitt. They are intense and fall more into the photojournalism genre. To me, street photography creates the kind of impact on viewers pretty much the same way live concerts do. It’s spontaneous and responsive. When you look at the works of these masters, you can feel the rhythms and movements even though they’re still images.

Then my interest moved on to other genres of fine art photography, such as the works of Stephen Shore, Thomas Demand, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jeff Wall – all the way to the master of black-and-white photography, [Hiroshi] Sugimoto. These works are mostly categorised as conceptual photography because there’s a carefully curated conceptual framework from which the works and creative process are conceived.

My previous work is essentially the interpretation of the beauty of distorted surfaces and shapes of crashed cars.

I saw the beauty from the tragedy caused by these violent accidents because I experienced a car accident myself

That experience was used as an artistic stimulus for my work, and I presented it in the form of abstract photography so that viewers were able to fully use their imagination without any interference.

Everything is created to support and enable ideas an artist has for a story he or she wishes to convey. Photography is used as the medium that will deliver the intended message to the viewers. What’s interesting is how to get the message across and get people to interpret the work in the aesthetic direction you intend, which can be quite challenging at times.

“After Hem Vejakorn” runs from the 25 August – 22 September, 2018 at Richard Koh Projects, Bangkok, Thailand