Many photographers would agree that the most photogenic moments take place randomly and, of course, when you may least expect them. On the day I snapped the photo above, I was making an obligatory appearance at Bangkok’s main Thai immigration office which is located in a mammoth complex near the old (now domestic) Don Mueang Airport in the northern sector of that sprawling metropolis. After a long taxi ride, my mind was preoccupied by the wait I had ahead of me as well as the encounter I was about to have with a mammoth bureaucracy.
As usual, I hadn’t been given all the necessary forms by the international school where I was working, so an immigration employee provided the missing pages and directed me to fill them out in the courtyard of the office complex. As I walked out of the office into the cavernous interior of the building–mumbling now censored rude words about my employer under my breath–I looked around for a spot where I could sit while I filled out the forms. There were circular stone benches surrounding large planters that lined the outer edge of this vast space, so I headed for one of those.
Just as I was preparing to sit down, my eye caught a hint of brilliant color in the otherwise colorless football field-sized courtyard. I immediately recognized the saffron color of the robes that are worn by all Buddhist monks in SE Asia. Three young monks were huddled together on a nearby bench, apparently filling out some immigration forms. Not wanting to intrude, I maintained a comfortable distance as I pulled out my phone, thinking all the time that the unnatural interior lighting conditions of this office complex might render my attempt to get a good shot useless. Still, I managed to snap one before the monks changed positions.
To me, their body language and the setting made for the perfect photo op. Here in this cavernous space, I was seeing the continuity of history, as one ancient tradition–the dedication of oneself to the quest for enlightenment and freedom from Earthly suffering– rubbed elbows with the modern realities of world-wide immigration and ever increasing government control. As I gazed, I imagined that these young monks might be offering a prayer for this soulless structure as well as for a culture that would build something so unfriendly to both humans and the natural environment.
Aesthetically, the ultra-modern design of the building enveloping the young monks was in stark contrast to the humble nature of their attire. At the same time, I was excited by the visual sensation created by the monks’ brilliant saffron robes set against a background of beige and black.
During my years in SE Asia, I never tired of the frequent sightings of Buddhist monks and nuns, both young and old, in public places all around the region. To me, they represented an alternative way of life that is meant to somehow counteract some of our world’s negative forces set loose by capitalism and empire-building.