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The Beginning

I was born in a Northeastern Thai rice farming village in 1974. We had no running water, no electricity, no radio or television. The Vietnam War was wrapping up and due to the geography of my region, sandwiched between Bangkok and Laos, the American military built roads, introduced water seal toilets, installed radios (to broadcast propaganda) and basically connected Northeastern Thailand to the world.

Prior to that, the news was spread through bard performers called Mor Lam, which is both the name of the lead performer in a bard troupe as well as the musical/performance style. One of my maternal aunts was married to a locally well-known Mor Lam, who traveled from village to village, throughout our province and greater region, picking up the stories of each town and sharing them with the next one.

Although this was a relation by marriage, I still like to believe that the art of large group storytelling is in my blood.

Anthropology

I first fell in love with storytelling in college in Florida, where I took anthropology courses in folklore, theories of culture, and qualitative methodology (participant-observation, conducting in-depth interviews and writing ethnographies). After college, I returned to Thailand where I completed an M.A. in Thai Studies from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. I studied the Thai folk tradition, Thai music, Thai medicine, and Buddhism, conducted original field studies on silk weaving and folk stories, and wrote a 190 page thesis based on a 6-month field participant-observation project in a rice farming village (a history of the Northeastern Thai peasant family economy), under acclaimed Thai scholar Chatthip Nartsupha.

Storytelling Where You Work

Subsequent to this degree, I went back to the U.S. where I pursued a “practical” degree in business, and launched a career in higher education that has spanned almost two decades. Despite this shift in academic and professional focus, I have without intention continued to find myself in the role of anthropological storyteller for every place I have worked, through daily photo chronicles and deeply researched and impassioned campus tours.

No matter where I participate, I am recording and retelling the story.

Photography

I am a third generation Nikonian on my American (paternal) side. I spent many years refusing to learn how to truly use my Nikon DSLR camera. It seemed that combining the left and right sides of my brain was too painful of a prospect. But one evening, while visiting family in rural Thailand, I had the photo op of a lifetime. And my lack of skills ruined the shot.

It was late in the day, barely sunset, the sky still warm with oranges and pinks. Monks tatted from the neck down with Buddhist symbols and ancient Sanskrit letters, were hand calligraphing prayers onto a gas-fueled paper lantern which they would then release into the sky. I sat there in silence, alone with my family while this almost still, beautiful scene was laid out before us.

I had my camera set to auto, as was my usual MO, and snapped away. The flash went off every single time, but I had no idea what this meant photography wise. When I uploaded the photos, which I was sure would make me National Geographic famous, my heart sunk. The flash made it look like it was 2 PM, not sunset. And I didn’t shoot in raw so there was not enough data to attempt to correct the photo in Photoshop (assuming I even knew how to use Photoshop beyond using the lasso tool to put my friends’ heads on celebrity bodies). My lack of discipline could not make up for any natural artistic talent.

I eventually enrolled in DSLR workshops, began shooting in raw, slid the dial to aperture priority and began an earnest study of the technical side of photography, so that the next time I found myself in a rural Thai village at sunset, surrounded by tatted monks scrawling prayers on gas-fueled paper lanterns, I would be ready.

Mentors

Erika Barker

Jim Hobart