British photographer and writer Ben Davies has spent 5 years capturing the fragile beauty of the old city for his latest book ‘Vanishing Bangkok’. Here’s why.
It takes an unusual photographer to rouse himself before dawn, load up a large format film camera and a hefty tripod and then prowl Bangkok’s forgotten neighborhoods in search of crumbling old buildings and sleepy communities to document for posterity.
But for British photographer and writer Ben Davies, it’s just a normal day’s work.
Over the past five years, the long time Bangkok resident has trawled the narrow streets and inky canals of the Thai capital to record what’s left of its architectural heritage.
“I wanted to capture something of the magic of the old city which is vanishing fast,” says the 59 year old Londoner who has worked on half-a-dozen book projects all over Asia.
Davies’ striking black and white images are as unusual as his film camera: an old-fashioned Linhof with bellows and a blanket which he pulls over his head to focus.
From photographs of dilapidated wooden houses on stilts clinging to the banks of the Krung Kasem Canal to glorious faded Sino-Portuguese shophouses in Chinatown or the Old Customs House built in 1888, his work evokes an era that will soon be lost in time.
For much of his early photographic career, Davies preferred to turn his camera on people and natural landscapes. His previous books focus on journeys through remote regions of Laos, Thailand and the Philippines as well as the hidden worlds of spirit doctors and trance.
‘Vanishing Bangkok: The Changing Face of the City’ marks a new direction, although he believes, a perfectly logical one. “In some ways it was a natural progression to move from disappearing cultures to the loss of architectural heritage,” he says.
So why does he care?
Davies argues these charming old buildings and communities tell stories about the past. They are part of Bangkok’s visual landscape and they contribute to the city’s extraordinary energy and diversity.
There is one aspect of the Thai capital that he is particularly enamoured with: the twisted cables that hang down from virtually every sidewalk or street market. “They are almost a defining feature of Bangkok,” he says. “They remind me of a giant spider’s web holding the city to ransom, but one day they will be gone.”
Other aspects of the city’s life that will gradually disappear are the vibrant street markets, breezy riverside communities and traditional pharmacies with jars of sweet-smelling herbs.
But it’s not just the loss of old buildings that saddens Davies. It is the uprooting of traditional communities some of whom have been there for generations.
“These pictures represent the end of an era. Ten years from now, most of the subjects that I documented in this book will have vanished,” he says.
‘Vanishing Bangkok: The Changing Face of the City’ by Ben Davies is distributed by River Books https://www.riverbooksbk.com
Davies’ photographs are being exhibited at River City Bangkok Gallery until 26 July 2020 https://rivercitybangkok.com/