Delayed in Bangkok
January 2009

by Katharina Hesse

The plan was to go to the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Riep, Cambodia, via Bangkok (the only way to get there from home in China) and then come back to Bangkok to finish a long-term project.

© WpN/Katharina Hesse
Anti-government protesters demonstrate outside the government house in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 27, 2008. The campaign by the PAD (People's Alliance for Democracy), which began in earnest in May, has paralyzed the Thai government. The group - an alliance of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class - claim that the government is corrupt and hostile to the monarchy. They also accuse it of being a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains very popular among Thailand's rural poor.
A colleague from the OnAsia agency and I landed at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport in the evening not knowing the airport would be closed down in about two hours.

While waiting for a taxi, a Beijing-based correspondent from the Italian news agency Ansa called to inform us there were protests and the airport was going to be shut down. That situation hadn't been apparent to us – things seemed to be kind of normal though quieter. I asked a security officer about the protests and he kept smiling. It was confusing.

The next morning my colleague was banging at my door at 6 a.m. to alert me that we wouldn't be going to Siam Reap that day. We had to change plans…what now?

By the late afternoon, we went to the government house and I kept thinking the scenes and atmosphere we were seeing would be difficult to explain to someone from outside: middle-aged women were trying on bras on the government premises; peddlers were cooking in street kitchens; people were selling souvenir items; Buddhists were praying at a small temple; Muslim women were passing over bamboo bridges; a whole market economy thrived in the alleys; people in yellow T- shirts waved plastic hands, and some enraged protesters quarreled among each other. Here was a gathering of loyal protesters sitting in front of a stage. It somehow reminded me of the Falun Gong movement in China years ago, possibly due to the many smiling faces trying to convey a feeling of peacefulness. A burnt-out bus and the presence of a few confusingly friendly policemen, however, were a reminder that there was potential trouble.

© WpN/Katharina Hesse
An anti-government protester prays outside the government house in Bangkok, Thailand, Nov. 26, 2008. A small group of street vendors, Buddhists, Muslims and others, joined in the protest.
Where I am based, China, mass gatherings are usually dispersed rapidly; it would be unthinkable to stage a protest near the government seat of Zhong Nanhai, let alone over several months (certainly true for most countries). In fact, we have witnessed protests in China where the number of public security officials was much higher than that of the protesters. One isn't exactly encouraged to cover such events either without a proper media accreditation.

I kept wondering why I'd even try to cover this event when dozens of other photographers – contract photographers, wire photographers, freelance photographers on assignment and very experienced photographers – were on the case. I called a client of mine in Germany and we agreed I'd be on standby and if the story would get bigger there would be an assignment provided I could show something different from the news photos that came out already. Easier said than done. Meanwhile, I tried to get into the idea of working along a theme like "weird … spooky Bangkok."

© WpN/Katharina Hesse
Anti-government protester sleeping during the long protest campaign against the Thai government.
The next morning we took a taxi to the airport where again this strange concert atmosphere was prevalent. One leader sang slogans while playing his guitar; the masses cheered and waved their flags and yellow plastic hands in support. In the Thai Air Silk lounge, transformed for the occasion into a mini media center, we chatted with correspondents from The AP and CNN. During the day I kept in touch with one photographer but his reports didn't sound particularly exciting: little fights here and there.

When we went past the checkpoints back to the airport that evening the number of protesters had increased significantly. There were a few photographers prepared for the worst-case scenario: one person, carrying a security helmet and goggles claimed there'd be an immediate cleanup which turned out to be incorrect. Some masked protesters were rushing outside the airport armed with sticks while Thai families were sleeping in their self- made camps inside the airport.

At the very end of the departure hall there was still the group of Muslims waiting for their charter flight to Mecca. With a nervous atmosphere on the one hand but then the sight of the peaceful families and the Muslims on the other, it was confusing.

After walking back and forth, checking out all corners in the departure hall, it occurred to me that I wasn't prepared for a real emergency and I didn't see anything particularly striking that I really wanted to photograph. Besides that, the news of the terrorist attack in Mumbai had taken over the news. By that time my German client indicated that Bangkok would be, at best, a picture of the week, nothing more. So I went down to the arrival hall, photographed the empty street outside the airport that was normally crowded with coming and going taxis. Suddenly there was an airport worker standing next to us offering to drive us out. We sat next to his wife who was clutching her baby in the Jeep.

The next day I finally continued working on my long-term project.

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© Katharina Hesse

Katharina Hesse holds a graduate degree in Chinese and Japanese studies from the Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris. Hesse initially worked as an assistant for German TV (ZDF) and then freelanced for Newsweek from 1996 to 2002. In 2003 and 2004 she covered China for Getty 's news service. Hesse is self-taught in photography and her photos have appeared in publications such as Courrier International, Der Spiegel, Della Repubblica, Glamour (Germany), IO Donna, Marie-Claire, Newsweek, Stern, Vanity Fair (Italian/German editions), Die Zeit, etc. Her work has been featured at photography festivals including Visa Pour l'Image, Perpignan, France; the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; the Angkor Photo Festival, Cambodia, and will be at Chobi Mela V, in Bangladesh, in January 2009.

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