Elephant in the Room
14 Jan 2010
Elephants, revered symbols of Thailand’s glorified past, have long walked side by side with the monarchy and common farmers alike. The indispensible role of elephants in Thai society has been captured in countless tales and works of art along temple walls. More recently, elephants have been represented as cultural icons and used in the commerical branding of numerous products. One would be hard pressed to look in any direction in the capital of Bangkok and not find an elephant motif somewhere. Perhaps most notable is the common use of the elephant as a symbol of power and durability in Thai industry. But for all the iconic representations of elephants as symbols of strength, dignity and prosperity, in reality the only elephants seen in Bangkok are those being led by their mahouts
, wandering the cogested streets, begging. The sight of the elephant displaced from its natural environment, roaming the city streets is a source of shame for many Thais – many of these once proud creatures have been left on the fringes of Thailand’s modern economy and have come to represent the failures and inequity of economic development.
Although it is illegal to bring elephants into Bankok, the poverty in Thailand’s rural areas, the loss of the elephants’ natural habitat and the resulting threat of starvation evoke sympathy among Thais. Despite their illegal status, most police, politicians and citizens continue to turn a blind eye to urban elephants, failing to address the underlying issues and allowing the situation to remain ‘the elephant in the room’.
The following is a seris of portraits of street elephants in Bangkok. While documenting their stories, I was drawn to the natural beauty in an unnatural situation.