During his residency, Ohm Phanphiroj photographed for two new series and worked on his series Underage. The latter is a photo project on young male prostitutes in Thailand. Phanphiroj juxtaposes his street light lit portraits of the boys with biographical facts such as their age, reason for working the streets, number of customers, and aspirations.
Phanphiroj holds an MFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology, an MA from Georgia State University, an MA from the University of Northern Iowa, a diploma from Memphis State University, and a Bachelor of La from Thammasat University in Bangkok. He has received numerous awards for his photographs, including Foto Visura, ArtTake Miami, Air Asia Film and Animation Award, Sony World Photography Award, Pilsner Urquell International Photography Award, PDN, and more. He currently teaches at the Bangkok University International in Thailand.
Thailand has a reputation. I’m not talking about its rich history filled with palaces and kings, spectacular festivals and ceremonies that pack its annual event calendar, the Island of Samed, Miracle Beach, or famous spicy cuisine. It’s a destination for sex. Tourism brings welcome revenue to this newly industrialized country. It also brings travelers, primarily from North America and Western Europe, in search of underage prostitutes. While existing law protects women and girls, no laws protect men or boys. Even with laws in place, cultural toleration of prostitution contributes to a dearth of arrests and prosecution. In 2003, the United States Department of State approved financial assistance to the Thai government to reduce the problem by increasing police education on laws against prostitution aiming to increase arrests and to promote a human rights agenda for the prostitutes who entered the profession forcibly, coercively, or voluntarily. Despite foreign aid and counsel, governmental initiatives, and efforts by non-governmental organizations, prostitution in Thailand burgeons.
Ohm Phanphiroj’s recent photographic work focuses on underage prostitution in Bangkok, Southeast Asia’s “City of Angels.” His project Underage draws attention to an overlooked group in the discussion of prostitution in Thailand—local boys. Phanphiroj’s subjects range in age from ten to seventeen. These boys have already experienced hardships such as poverty, abuse, drug addiction, and homelessness. He photographs them where they stand to conduct business. In a notebook or on an audio recording device, Phanphiroj collects biographical information such as name, nickname, age, date of birth, hometown, number of siblings, information about their parents, sexual orientation, amount of time prostituting, approximate number of clients, reason for prostituting, dream for the future, and the date of the photograph. Some subjects do not know their date of birth or their parents. All report that they prostitute themselves for money to pay for essentials like food and rent or bail for friends and family.
The artist’s intention is to confront viewers with the reality of child abuse and exploitation and to pose hard-hitting questions about choices, consequences, and humanity. Some aspects of the biographical sketch are painful and difficult to digest. One boy confessed that he started selling his body for money because his father asked him to after his mother died. The power of Phanphiroj’s project lies in its ability to pair anguishing details with compelling images. He creates a portrait of the problem through the circumstances of a few. The photographer works with each subject to determine the pose and tone of the image. Most of the boys confront the camera from the center of the frame in a stance of little-boy bravado. Take “Bas” for example. With his hands on his hips, he looks at the camera, the photographer, and future viewers straight on, but in a casual manner that conveys courage through confidence and ease. In another context, such an image may present a neighborhood boy, t-shirt hanging around his neck, taking a momentary break from a pick-up game of soccer or basketball. “Bank” addresses the viewer with dyed-hair, tattoos, and a stance that exudes self-proclaimed toughness. “Pond” also looks straight into the camera, but the ten-year-old’s expression on his first day prostituting is far more serious and questioning than macho. Some of the subjects turn away from the camera conveying a sense of introspection and sadness. No matter the pose or expression, their youthfulness is haunting. Their wounds are not visible in the photographs though they are unmistakable in the biological details, kept intentionally brief to protect the subjects.
In the interview process, Phanphiroj asks the boys what they dream of. Many dream about growing up and owning homes and cars, becoming wealthy, traveling abroad, living in America. They also imagine
joining the police force or the military, becoming a dancer or singer, or being a news anchor. Some boys respond: “no dream.” What is it like to be a child without dreams? Is it hunger and day-to-day survival that preclude thoughts of the future? Does the entry into prostitution blunt any other possibilities? Do they expect to die young? Underage asks us not only to look at these pictures but to participate in solving a social injustice that is more expansive than an overview of the literature on this topic suggests. Thai boys are part of the picture.
Jennifer Pearson Yamashiro
Ohm Phanphiroj was a Light Work Artist-in-Residence in July 2011. For more information on Phanphiroj and his work, visit his website at www.ohmphotography.com.
Jennifer Pearson Yamashiro received a PhD in art history from Indiana University and is currently the director of honors and a lecturer in the Department of Art at Miami University Hamilton.