Thailand is home to some of the most beautiful, bizarre and grotesque art in the world, much of which is housed within the grounds of temples and other religious and scared complexes. Depictions of torture and hell are on display in the form of murals or sculptures for all the family to see. Surprisingly though, no single volume had been dedicated to this irregular yet captivating side of Thai art until the publication of Secret Siam: Hidden Art and Iconography of Thailand, a beautifully illustrated book comprising of over 300 photographs.
I recently caught up with author/photographer and underground film-maker Mark Hejnar (via email) to find out what exactly 'possessed' him to produce such an intriguing piece of work.
Can you talk a little about your background, where you grew up and where your interest/fascination for the weird and wonderful stems from?
I grew up in a small town in Vermont, USA, not far from the Canadian border, with more cows than people. I moved to Chicago to go to university, and stayed there for over 20 years. I had a day job in video production that allowed me to make underground videos, creating soundtracks with my band, Pile of Cows. My interests have always been outside of the mainstream. As a kid, when the fair came to town, it was always the carnival sideshow that got my attention.
Has it always been your ambition to have a book published?
I always wanted to do a book of fiction, but I realize I’m better suited to non-fiction.
When did the idea for a book about the hidden art and iconography of Thailand come about and why that subject matter in particular?
The idea first came up in 2011 over numerous beers when I was living in Kyiv, Ukraine and my friend James Williamson came to town. (A well-kept secret: Ukraine is one of the best beer countries in the world, but as the beer isn’t exported, nobody knows!). James, who has since retired, had worked in publishing his entire career. He moved to Bangkok in 2005 and we hung out often. He knew I had all these photos I took while living there, and years later, he asked me if a photography book was something I wanted to do. The idea of hidden art and iconography developed as we worked on the book.
How easy or challenging was it getting your book published? How many publishers did you approach before getting signed?
James took the idea to Shinbaku, which publishes Asian-themed art books, and they agreed to publish it. I realize this is not the way it works for most people. I had shot 98% of the photos while I was living in Thailand between October 2004 and October 2008. I had no idea when I was shooting they would end up in a book. I shot a few more December 2012 to January 2013 while on holiday. As the images were already collected, the expense was mainly in the physical production of the book.
From having the initial idea to getting the book published, how long did the whole process take?
I spent about six months working on it in Moscow from April 2013 until its completion in early November 2013. All of the photos had already been taken, so it was the selection and writing during that period. The book needed to be completed by November 2013 to fit the publisher’s printing schedule for 2014. It was released in November 2014.
How involved were you with the actual layout and design of the book?
Luckily, quite involved. We discussed certain options in advance with the designers, Broken Fang Cryptography. We made decisions based on the options, which were then strictly adhered to. For example, they created the cover, but I was shown several mock-ups and was allowed to pick the final design.
The book includes over 300 photos which you personally took. How difficult was it choosing from the thousands of photographs you had taken over the years during your time in Thailand, how did you narrow them down?
I thought putting a photo book together would be easy, but it wasn’t. The first thing was to come up with a series of thematic chapters, then pulling the photos together and seeing what worked together in the layout. For the page count, the book had to be in multiples of 64. We expanded from 192 pages to 256 as the project was underway.
In my video work, it’s 100% me and I’m comfortable with that, as I trust my own instincts. However with the book, I had to put faith in James’ decisions. A photographer might be attached to a photo for a personal reason. But if the image doesn’t convey that reason, it doesn’t matter. I wanted a chapter on monitor lizards, as I spent so much time in Lumpini Park in Bangkok, taking photos. Thais have an intense superstition of the lizards. They feel it’s bad luck to even say the name out loud (similar to “hee-ah”). James said it didn’t fit thematically with the book, and he was right. He had final veto power.
In terms of the text, the most difficult part was to get all the necessary text into the half-page format. There were only a certain number of lines and words that fit into the space. So I’d write the text, and keep trimming and trimming until it fit the space.
During the time when you took the photos did you witness anything strange or bizarre at any of the places you visited such as at the temples that you can tell us about? Any interesting stories come to mind?
The strange and bizarre is all around you in Thailand! Certainly safety is your own concern, when you walk in a cave and there are no handrails or lights. Or if you go to a crocodile farm where if you put your arm over the waist-high fence it would get bitten off. Temples are social as well as religious centers where people spend their free time, it’s not like just going to mass at 11am on Sunday. You would say to somebody, met me at Wat Suan Dok at 8pm, and we’ll head to the party from there. People are usually interested in why you are taking photos, so they come over and chat. People leave their unwanted pets at temples, as they won’t be killed, and some of the dogs get very protective of the spaces, so that can be a danger. I recall we went to Phuket after the tsunami of December 2005 and how strange it felt. There were many reports of tuk-tuk drivers picking up customers who ‘disappeared’ half way through the journey, and spirits who didn’t know they had died playing on the beach at night.
There are so many wonderful photos in the book. I particularly like the huge scorpion statue within the grounds of Wat Phra That Wai Dao and the murals depicting scenes of hell towards the rear of the book. What are among your personal favourites and why?
The temple murals from Wat Sa Bua Kaeo and Wat Ban Lan in Isaan. I took the photos in spring 2008, and I’m sure the structures have been torn down by now, so my images are all that’s left. This was considered just folk-art to tell a story, nothing more. There is a move to replace the historical with the white-washed and the new. While taking photos, a monk asked me why I was spending time on these old portraits on the sim, when there was a new white temple with a gold bell they just erected across the yard.
What make of camera did you use to take the photos, did you use more than one model?
I bought my first digital camera in March of 2005. I had been shooting 35mm with a Pentax on trips and during my first five months living in Bangkok. I didn’t like the way the 35mm and the digital images looked next to each other, and decided to only use the digital images in the book.
I used a Sony DSC-V3 and later a Canon PowerShot SD550 as well. The PowerShot was important, as I needed a camera to carry in my pocket at all times, rather than a larger camera that I needed a pack for. I had missed some great shots because I didn’t carry a camera every day. And remember that I didn’t know these photos would end up in book seven years later. Additionally, as a farang (white westerner), you stick out plenty in Thailand already, and using a big camera alienates the people around you. A smaller camera makes you less conspicuous.
For the last few shots from December 2012, I used a Canon Rebel and a Canon PowerShot SD1400 IS, as the SD550 was damaged in Moscow. I’m not a camera fanatic, I believe you use whatever you have to document what you can. I own a Sony DSC-RX100M3 that I bought in 2015, and the Canon Rebel today. Plus another Canon PowerShot that I like to keep in my pocket.
There is a caption for each photo at the back of the book to help readers identify the images. Did you make a note of every photo you took at the time of taking the photos or did you have to research any of them?
Unfortunately, I did not make a note of every temple or location where I took a shot, something I always do now. And Chiang Mai has over 300 wats! Many of the temples only had signs in Thai, and at the time I didn’t feel it was that important. I was able to track down most of them, but for others I just had to list the photo as Chiang Mai or Mae Sot. The idea of all the thumbnail photos at the end with an explanation was from my editor, and I feel it is quite effective. Our disagreement was over how much information to include: there was space for additional text and I wanted to fill it completely with little factoids, but my editor was against the idea as he preferred short and sweet. Guess who won?
The symbolism of the many art works featured in your book are deep and meaningful, especially to the majority of Thai people, of course. The text accompanying each chapter and section goes some way to explain the meanings behind each subject like the mythological creatures and spirit houses. Therefore, I’m interested to know if any of the objects or scenes that you have photographed has affected your own life in any way, on a personal level.
Thai art is religious art, and the spiritual intersects everyday life at all times. The idea that Thais erect spirit houses so the land spirits have a place to live, and therefore do not bring havoc to your life is so primal and interesting. The fact that you can’t just go buy a spirit house and set it up in the yard; it has to be facilitated by a monk on an auspicious day in the proper location. The first time I saw a banyan tree in Chiang Mai, with all these broken spirit houses and figurines left around the base to decay, my first instinct was to take something home, but you sensed that you shouldn’t. There was more going on here than meets the eye. In the U.S., when a child says he sees ghosts, his parents keep him away from scary television shows. In Thailand, it is accepted that the child is special. When we lived in Chiang Mai, you could go a few minutes by motorbike and it was like being in the jungle. And it got creepy at night, you felt you were not alone in the dark. It was wonderful.
When did you first visit Thailand and what was your initial reaction when you arrived there?
My first trip was in January of 2003, and then three additional one month-long trips, before I moved to Bangkok in October 2004. My first reaction was, damn, it’s hot here! Nothing beats your first street stall meal in Bangkok, in the middle of the night, sitting on a plastic stool, with the city racing all around you. Then we went to tiny Pattani, in Southern Thailand, not far from the Malaysian border which is 97% Muslim, where my wife was teaching and where I was one of six westerners. Quite an extreme.
Did you experience a culture shock when you first went there?
Certainly. I was comfortable traveling in Europe, but it was my first time in Asia. I was really busy with my day job before I went on my initial trip and had done zero research. I was reading Lonely Planet on the plane. I recall saying if Thailand was any more different than the U.S., it would be on it’s way back to normal.
What is it about Thailand you love so much?
Probably the easy-going nature of the people. Thailand was never colonized, so they must be doing something right. As a foreigner you are not immediately distrusted. I got interested in Luk Thung while living there, the music of the rice fields, the people’s “country” music. There was so much to learn about as it was all so new to me. And I could eat Thai food everyday, which I did 99% of the time.
Why did you decide to leave Thailand after four years?
My wife had been working in Thailand since 2002, first as a teacher, then as a teacher trainer and later an administrator. She got a new teacher training job in Chennai, India, where we spent a year. Sadly, we departed Chiang Mai in October 2008. We hope to return to live one day.
Do you plan on having another book published and if so what will it be about?
I shot video with punk rock legend GG Allin in the early 1990s before he died in 1993. I will put together a book of my interviews, recollections of touring, and video stills after my video documentary is completed. Basically, you use two minutes of audio from a source for a documentary, but you record an hour and a half interview, so a book seems logical.
Whilst you were living in Thailand for four years you shot a lot of video. Do you plan on releasing any of the footage, possibly in documentary form or something like that?
When I shoot video, often I have no idea what I will do it with it later, and the mass of footage I shot in Southeast Asia is no different. I shot what I found interesting, but I had no clear-cut idea of what I’d do with it at the time. I also tend to let footage stew for a long time. For example, I found a homemade cassette recording of kids singing in the early 1980s, and I mixed it as part of a video soundtrack in 2001. It sat in a box in my office for almost 20 years. So I’m not worried about doing something with the footage immediately. I’ve tried cutting some of the material together previously, but my style is fast-paced, and the footage doesn’t lend itself to that interpretation, so I’m waiting for the muse to strike. Maybe I will make a series of ambient shorts. I know it will never end up as a standard documentary with a voice-over cut to footage. I have several other projects I’ve shot that I would like to work on first.
Thank you, Mark. It's been a pleasure talking with you
All photos copyright Mark Hejnar. All rights reserved.
For more information follow the official Secret Siam facebook page.
Secret Siam: Hidden Art and Iconography of Thailand available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk