This is a selection of images from a recent trip to Isaan, Thailand’s northeast. They are part of my on-going project on male-to-female transgender, or khatoey.
For the full gallery of images, please go to my main website.
Isaan is largely rural, relatively poor and predominantly ethnic Lao. It made an interesting comparison with Bangkok, where I spent most of my time previously.
One theme I am always keen to explore is the degree to which khatoey are accepted by their families, neighbours, school mates and work colleagues. In urban, middle class Thailand the growing acceptance over recent decades seems to be linked to the ability of khatoey in general (through hormones, surgery, cosmetics and their wardrobes) to physically resemble women. Beauty is highly prized (khatoey are commonly talked of as more beautiful than women) and often considered an indicator of virtue.
In rural Isaan, it is rather different. Few khatoey have the time, money or inclination to beautify themselves to the extent of their urban sisters. Yet most of the people I spoke to said that they suffered no social stigma. Families, especially mothers, aunts and grannies who do most of the child-rearing, seem to reach an acceptance of their sons as khatoey at an earlier age than elsewhere in Thailand. One mother told me: “I have five sons. I always wanted a daughter so when Poy [her youngest] turned out to be khatoey, I was happy.”
On this trip I met khatoey school teachers (as well as a small army of school boys), older khatoey who are married with children, and I heard of policemen, soldiers and village chiefs.
Why Isaan should be so khatoey-friendly is interesting to speculate. I am no anthropologist - and I am aware that there is rarely one simple reason for the way people behave - but I suspect it may have something to do with the region’s relative poverty and how that affects gender roles.
Due to poor soils and a lack of irrigation, much of Isaan has only one rice harvest a year. This means that men in particular are often under-employed. Many have to search for labouring work in the cities between harvests. As in many places where work is hard to come by, men in Isaan have a reputation as less than ideal husbands and fathers, with hard-drinking and domestic violence cited as common ills.
By comparison khatoey come out looking rather good. In taking on a female or ‘daughter’ role they tend to put family first, be it as carers or domestic help. What’s more, many khatoey are willing to take on both ‘male’ and ‘female’ work if required. In lean times this flexibility can be an asset to a family.
Bondi again. This time for the City2Surf (City to Surf), apparently the world's biggest run. Some 80,000 powered, jogged, trudged and puffed the scenic 14 km between Hyde Park and Bondi Beach on a stunning Sydney morning. The winner made it in 41.05 minutes but I have to say, hanging around on the finish line, I was more interested in the '3 hours plus' crowd...
Events/functions may not provide the most hearty creative nourishment for a photographer but they do at least open windows on different social worlds. Last week I covered the 25th birthday of the International Women's Development Agency at Admiralty House, the official Sydney residence of Australia's Governor-General. I also shot a barbie organised by Mission Australia at Bondi Pavilion bringing together a number of the org's homeless clients with the NRL's Sydney Roosters. I can't help thinking that, in a small way, the events neatly bookend Australia's social zietgiest (...pretentious, moi?).
One of the (few!) downsides of juggling work and family life is that I have very little time to wander around doing the kind of street photography that generates virtually zero income but does wonders for the soul. It was nice then to stumble across this hardy winter sunbather who had no qualms about stripping to his budgie smugglers and staking his patch on this cigarette-strewn turf. I like the fact that he spurned arguably the world's most famous strip of golden sand - Bondi beach - which happened to be a mere 30 metres to the left.
Actually, yes, I probably would -- if I didn't have one already (although sadly it's not an Audi).
Most of my portrait work these days tends to be of the family variety, so it's nice to get a spot of corporate work. My good friend Sam Tinson steered me to Audi who were looking for shots of two of their sales staff, Ari and Daniel for a feature in Jewish News. The fellas turned on the charm and the shoot was quick and smooth, rather like an Audi I'd imagine.
This morning I had a taste of Pii Mai, or Lao New Year, festivities. Nothing novel there, given that I recently spent five years in that country. Except that this time it was in Sydney -- Phrayortkeo temple, near Cabramatta, to be precise. I'd long been curious to check out the small but proud Lao community here. And on the basis of a few hours of tak bat (alms giving to monks) and some excellent spring rolls, sticky rice and laab, I'd say it was, well, very like being in Laos.
One notable exception was the white plastic laundry baskets that were carried in the wake of the monks. On receiving alms -- mainly packaged food and drink snacks -- on their silver trays, each monk would turn and tip the offerings in the baskets. It didn't exactly add to the magic but then Lao Buddhist practice is nothing if not pragmatic. It is also a lot of fun. Once tak bat was complete a senior monk did the rounds merrily sprinkling the crowds of lay people with water.
I'd be curious to see what goes on outside the temple. Lao itself is a nation of party animals and Pii Mai is the biggest and wildest of them all. Cross-dressing, ice-cold water throwing, drinking games that take you from sober to staggering in roughly 10 minutes, sound systems with internal-organ-rupturing output, dirty dancing... and a great deal of traffic carnage. Australia is an rule-bound, nannyish land but no doubt some of that same mischief is being played out in those distant suburbs as I write.
If you're interested there are some Laos party pics here.