dherbeys_280After eight years living in her adopted home of Thailand, Agnès Dherbeys’ decision to consolidate her assignment work, and to take a more focused look at the political turmoil that intermittently threatens to engulf the country and its people, marks an important development for an interesting picture-maker.

Dherbeys moved to Thailand from France in 2001 and has also photographed in Nepal, East Timor and Cambodia. Increasingly, her work has been charged with the kind of energy and reflection that can only be born out of a period of extreme change. “It’s back to basics for me, now,” she says. “It’s a time to question everything, myself, my photography. I definitely reached the point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore, or even what I liked. Now I’m figuring out what I want and how to move forward.”

Early on in our conversation, I start to sense what it is that drives 32-year-old Dherbeys, and it’s best summed up for now as “pure feeling”. As her photographic style matures, there are clues that it will become significant for its emotionality, in the way of a D’Agata or an Ackerman, yet her gaze may well retain the aesthetic that is referred to in shorthand as “photojournalistic”. It is difficult to draw her precisely on how her image-making might develop, as the conversation becomes quickly and passionately infused with the subject matter, politics and the ethics of style. “I shot them just as news pictures, you know, as stock. But I have realised that given what might happen in Thailand over the next few years, they might make better sense.” She’s sure of one crucial aspect, however: “Within the coming months, I would like to put a face to these abstract powers, raise questions and if not give answers, at least provide clues and tracks to be further debated and followed.”

Through work undertaken for Newsweek, Dherbeys has accumulated a significant portfolio that encompasses news events in Thai politics. If it has a starting point, it could be fixed at the coup d’état in 2006, which saw Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ousted by his own military while he was away in New York for a UN meeting. Dherbeys was visiting Paris when the coup took place and so flew in from there to cover the turbulent scenes. The decision to shoot in black and white was entirely pragmatic:

“I was shooting only in negative, and at the time we didn’t know how the situation was going to play out. If I shot in colour I may not have been able to print the films and send the pictures so I could do everything from home if I shot in black and white.”

For the observer, the mix of colour work and black and white adds to the sense of turmoil that Dherbeys wants to portray. “I am profoundly convinced now is the turning point of Thai history,” she says. Thaksin’s rule leading up to the coup was characterised by its infamous and ruthless “war on drugs”. His government adopted what was effectively a shoot to kill policy in relation to drug dealers, a policy which left hundreds dead, including babies and children, and did little or nothing to stem the country’s vast drug problem. While the official reasons for the coup are still quite opaque, Thaksin’s increasingly totalitarian grip on power provoked the move for change.

Though Dherbeys says her work does not aim to analyse the political turmoil, she describes her work as a need to understand the country with her own eyes, during a time when the twin peaks of information and knowledge are restricted. “The climate of auto-censorship and lack of critical debate about current Thai events, are precisely the reasons why I feel totally compelled into witnessing and documenting today’s society,” she says.

Dherbeys has captured many of the events that have brought the world’s attention to Thailand in recent years, from the 2006 coup, to the Red Shirt protests earlier this year, when thousands of largely pro-Thaksin supporters took to the streets of Bangkok, demanding a return to the former leader’s “democracy” and insisting that the new regime was illegally installed. The new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s security forces called the victory theirs as protesters were eventually dispersed, yet the precarious and increasingly polarised situation that prevails in a country once known for its harmony benefits no one.

The opposing forces are the Yellow Shirts, whose street protests led to Thaksin’s deposal in 2006 and who wear that colour to show their allegiance to the King. Their leader Sondhi Limthongkul survived an assassination attempt earlier this year. Dherbey’s has also photographed the “Day of Change” in South Thailand, perhaps the most politically unstable and volatile region.

The wider work that Dherbeys wants to make will draw together these seemingly chaotic events, connecting them with a thread through history, and, importantly, framing them through a uniquely Thai mentality, that of extreme veneration for the King of Thailand, 81-year-old King Bhumibol, whose reign remains a fundamentally unifying and stabilising force. The monarch seems to embody a very specific type of nationalism that any Thai leader would be keen to exploit. It’s this sense of national identity that Dherbeys will be seeking to capture, in part through a series of portraits. She is still wrestling with the idea of achieving a coherent visual style for this aspect of the project, but mentions an earlier series of photographs, taken in Wat Prah Bat Nam Phu, the so-called “Aids Temple”, as a possible visual template.

Dherbeys knows that part of her project will necessitate heading south. She talks of the difficulties of representing such complex political situations, wary of perpetuating Western stereotypes of a seething hotbed of Islamic insurgents. Rather than trying to cover news events, she wants to take a different approach, again taking Thai identity as her subject.

“Successive governments are trying to impose a kind of identity on the region that is not really Thai. Their culture is Malay and predominantly Muslim. I think it’s incredible that the government thinks it can compel them towards a particular identity – maybe that is not the right word – but try to control them like this.”

Dherbeys thinks she may well begin by shooting portraits, maybe of a teacher or a doctor she knows, to try to provide some kind of entry to the complex story. When asked if she has a fixed idea of how she wants to shoot the portraits, she says no and it’s clear that such a preordained series would be anathema to Dherbeys, whose endeavour is precisely to explore the world with her camera. If she already knew what she was looking for, she wouldn’t be able to find it.

“I’ve never been a fighter for a cause,” she insists, yet on hearing the strength of desire to understand the causes that underpin the political turmoil that she has lived through, I wonder if she is on her way to being exactly that. The cause would be communication itself.

The feature as it appeared in 8 Magazine

Current events in Thailand continue to keep Dherbeys occupied. Her most recent work focused on the 20,000 anti-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship supporters gathered at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok’s Dusit area in September 2009. Meanwhile, she’s looking forward to working on this long-term project, and while she acknowledges that she finds her work “overwhelming”, she clearly feels in a position to progress, a position that is strengthened professionally by her mentorship with the VII photo agency, under the watchful eye of Gary Knight.

“I’m starting to find some answers about what I like in photos or what I want to do with them and that helps me to regain confidence as a person and to redefine myself or reinvent myself, however pretentious that sounds. The part of me that is a photographer and the other more private part are feeding each other and help the other one to grow or to change. I’m very grateful to photography; I feel very indebted to it.”

Dherbeys is remarkably frank about her own stake in attempting to represent a country, particularly a “foreign” one. As a child who grew up in an ordinary middle class family in a small city in the middle of France, Dherbeys believes that it is her very ordinariness that permits her to be a filter for events, thinking that if she understands it, so can others. There’s an essential humility at the core of her picture-making that partly comes from a particularly feminine sensibility that doesn’t feel a necessity to master history, but feels a need to picture it, so that others can see it too. She describes the process as an unfolding that happens in parallel with her own learning experience. Then, just as I am about to accept her claims to ordinariness, she reveals that she was adopted when she was just five months old and taken from a Korean orphanage to the middle class French life she has just described.

“It’s like a black hole. I have no information from my file, nothing at all. I never thought it was important and I was never interested, nor did I feel Korean or anything like this. But then with my mother passing away, suddenly I have this rush to go to Korea and I realise that I don’t know where I belong, really. Of course I was raised and I was educated, but there is something else. I have this expectation it [going to Korea] would change me completely. It’s not the goal – I don’t want it to change me – but I guess its going to…”

Once again, Dherbeys’ willingness to put her whole self into the work, to grapple with issues that speak to her privately as well as professionally, will be the factor that renders her future work, on Thailand, on Korea, on the unchartered territory of the self, quite compelling.
Max Houghton

For more information on Agnes Dherbeys, see www.agnesdherbeys.com

(This article first appeared in issue 26 of 8 Magazine, Autumn 2009)