I don't shoot monks

He is a seer,
Strong, resolute, heroic,
Beyond conflict, cleansed, enlightened.
Him do I call a Noble One
— The Dhammapada
In a portrait, I’m looking for the silence in somebody.
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

I went on a reccy with Jack Kurtz yesterday. We were scouting out new workshop locations in Bangkok, looking for places off the beaten path where we can introduce photographers to some of the things we both admire and enjoy about the city.

We strolled; we engaged in high-minded philosophical debate (we gossiped like two old women); we giggled with a girl selling fresh pineapple beside the railway line who, upon spying our cameras, insisted "the train is not beautiful enough to photograph"; we meandered; chatted with people we met; paused for tea; lost our bearings and didn't really care that much.

We weren't taking a lot of photos, that wasn't really the point, it was an opportunity to find some interesting locations, catch up and explore - but old photographers never really switch off, we just go into standby mode. As we passed a side-street, something caught my eye, I like to think it was the splash of colour, a green wall and the orange robes of a Buddhist monk.

I don't usually photograph monks in the street in Bangkok. I've photographed a lot of Buddhist ceremonies and goodness knows, my portfolio has more than its fair share of orange and saffron robes but monks on the street are such a familiar part of daily life in Bangkok that I usually resist the temptation to photograph them. Plus, if I'm honest, it's a bit of a "touristy" thing to do and whilst monks are, perhaps predictably, always patient and tolerant of tourists with cameras, I do feel that being a constant target for camera-toting farangs might be something of a nuisance, so I don't shoot monks.

However, sometimes I feel like it would be even ruder to pass up an opportunity that Karma has dropped in my path and if I'd carried on walking without asking to take a photo of that wonderful colour combination then it would have bugged me all day, probably longer. So I'm pleased that I stopped.

It would take longer to read about our brief meeting than it took in reality. After a greeting and having asked if it would be OK to take a photo, explaining that the green wall made for a perfect backdrop, the friendly monk stood, straightened his robes and waited. I made 12 frames, shared the results by showing him the LCD screen in the camera, which seemed to meet with his approval. I gave my sincere thanks and we went on our way.


Looking at the images last night, I took a couple of colour measurements and realised that the green and orange are almost perfect complements on a colour wheel. I suspect the monk knows this and positions himself in front of the wall, waiting for passing photographers. Although in that part of town, he might have been waiting a long time.

I was also relieved to see that the images are sharp, pleased that I'd bothered to carry a decent camera on our reccy, and was reminded of the benefits of being adequately prepared. One of the things we teach on workshops is how to set up a camera in readiness for different situations, so that it's ready to go to work, switched on, with appropriate settings already dialled-in. Those Custom settings on Canon (and other) cameras are invaluable for this. Knowing that the camera is in a default state leaves us free to concentrate on our environment and maintain contact with our subject without having to break our concentration to fiddle around with buttons and dials.

I was also pleased that I've learned how to frame a composition, focus and then look around the side of the camera to re-establish eye-contact. Cameras can be such an intrusion. When you raise a camera to your eye, you place a physical barrier between you and your subject and there's a danger of any rapport being lost. People stiffen their pose, "Here comes my portrait moment!" and any intimacy disappears. Being able to re-establish eye-contact and break out a smile reminds people that you're still there and restores balance to the act of taking a portrait.

It might be stretching things to claim that all this happens in the space of 20 seconds but the 12 frames I made took a total of 1/10th of a second, which means that 99.5% of that time was spent doing something other than making a photo. Sometimes the mechanics of making a photograph distract us from our subject. Whilst landscapes don't often get offended if you concentrate attention on your camera when you're photographing them, people are more sensitive and deserve more of your attention. I'm told this is true in other aspects of life too but I'm still verifying that.

I'll be exploring some of these topics and more in a Travel/Street Photography workshop in Bangkok this coming Saturday (3rd May) and there are more classes coming up at the Bangkok Photo School throughout the year. Who knows, if you eat your greens and do your homework, we might find some equally karmic moment if we go and photograph together.