bangkok street portraits

How to take Street Portraits

Taking street portraits of random, everyday folks I meet during walks in any part of the world, is inspiring but can also certainly be a multi-level challenge. To be able to capture a series of unstaged, authentic portraits, I need to be prepared on a technical, emotional and creative level.

Let me explain.

Technically. Since I don’t possess Spiderman’s lightning speed and can switch setting and dial in optimal settings on the fly, I have to prep the camera before approaching my subject. Sneaky style, if you know what I mean. Often I’ll recognize someone I want to photograph, make a 180 degree turn so I can get all my stuff in order before he or she notices me and then turn back around again and start working the shot.

If you’re shooting with autofocus and auto ISO enabled, then all you’ll really need to decide on is depth of fied and how to compose the portrait. As long as the capture size in the camera’s preferences is set to a large enough size (JPEG or, even better, RAW), you should be provided with a big enough photo to allow for recomposing (by scaling up/cropping) in your preferred image editing software. All of the photos above were shot with an iPhone 7+ using Apple’s standard camera app. All of them have been cropped to bring forth what I felt was the best composition for each subject.

Emotionally. I try to be both humble and decisive when attempting to photograph interesting people – or, people in interesting situations – that I come across during a street walk. Above all, I always smile just before conjuring up my camera and looking ever-so unassuming as I ask to take a photo of them. The real trick is to startle folks a little and hope they feel charmed and flattered by the very thought that someone actually wants to take a photograph them. Hopefully, I’ll get the shot before they start analyzing the situation too much. If I can only get a subject to freeze physically (and intellectually) for just a few seconds, I’ll usually be able to capture a few frames. Subjects who are standing still are much, much easier to shoot than getting those on the move to stop in their tracks and let some stranger point a camera at them. I also find reading the mood to be a key variable. Statistically, about 70% of everyone I ask agrees to let me take their portrait. Especially if the camera I’m using is small and discreet. Like a cellphone…

I’ve just ordered the new iPhone Xs Max and though it comes with a bigger screen, the phones physical size isn’t bigger than my current, two year old iPhone. What has gotten much bigger, though, is the camera sensor. Apple’s camera team has increased the sensor size by a whopping 30%. In addition to all the benefits a larger sensor provides, like better lowlight sensitivity, better color rendering and wider dynamic range – thanks in part to larger pixels (Apple opted for larger pixels of higher quality instead of increasing the amount of pixels) – the new iPhone models have vastly improved optical image stabilization. To me, the latter is really interesting. See, if the camera sensor can move to counter-balance a hand’s shake, the shutter speed can be lowered without introducing blur in the photo or having to increase the ISO level – which inevitably adds noise to the portrait. Sure, I can always reduce noise during the editing process, but the cleaner the image is when captured, the more leeway I have to make adjustments after the fact. In short, shit in, shit out.

Creatively. Taking street portraits can at times be pretty stressful. Even if I’ve seduced the subject into letting me take his or her portrait and my camera’s ready to go, at best, I still have only but a few seconds to compose and make sure there’s not too much going on in the background or on either side of the subject. Unless of course it’s my objective to contextualize the portrait using the surroundings. As with the female motorcycle taxi driver pictured above (center).

Like many other photographers I’ve talked about this with, taking street portraits is a heck of a lot easier in Asia than most other places. Especially in the US and Europe where urbanites tend to be so abnormally self-concious about their “image”, they often freak out when I approach them for a street portrait. Where as in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos, folks are generally un-shy and happy as can be to pose. And they’re also easy to get smiling, which is isn’t a prerequisite, but after all, a smile does make for a nicer portrait.


Live Jazz on Sukhumvit Rd & Quincy Jones

Enjoyed a set of jazz classics by local musical quartet, Jook-kru Brass who were performing on the sidewalk of Sukhumvit Road the other afternoon. I admire the brass band’s tenacity – competing with the pandemonium emitted from Bangkok’s indisputably busiest street takes some real artistic courage. I met them on my way to dinner at the Japanese restaurant Isao and they were still playing on my way back to Thong Lor about an hour later.

Last night I saw a riveting new documentary on Netflix about multitalented musician and producer Quincy Jones. What a tumultuous life he’s lived! I knew about some of the world class musicians the man had worked with. But the film really provides new insights as to both Quincy’s genius and fragility as a human being. I just found some of his many brainy quotes here.

Aside from having several of his solo albums in my Apple Music collection, including the outstanding »The Dude«, the only two remote connections to »Q« I have is that my late father also worked with Frank Sinatra as an actor in a film called “The Man with the Golden Arm” from 1955 (my dad’s wearing a hat and sitting immediately to the right of Sinatra at the poker table) and younger brother Tyko who during the mid 1980s was good friends with Quincy Delight Jones III, Quincy Sr’s son from a marriage with model, actress and photographer, Ulla Jones from Sweden. They stayed in touch until Tyko eventually left Stockholm and moved permanently to L.A.


Meanwhile, stomy back at home…

It’s been mostly fair weather since I arrived in Southeast Asia close to a month ago. A few monsoon showers, but no flooding or unbearable heatwaves, either.

I would perhaps not extend the meteorological description to include adjectives like cool or even pleasant, but from time to time, a soothing breeze sneaks its way through Bangkok’s myriad of skyscrapers and blows gently on your face. Excuse the double negative, but for a moment, the weather is not entirely disagreeable.

Meanwhile, in Malmö, one of autumns first storms arrived yesterday. The footage is from late August last year, when I storm rolled in to southern Sweden and Västra Hamnen where we live. More visuals from Malmö can be viewed here.


Roasting Coffee Beans

Shot this during a return to Bang Rak a couple of days ago. I eventually walked into Warehouse 30, a cluster of vintage storehouses near the Chao Phraya River and which have been repurposed as a hub for local artists and designers. The owner of one of the dozen or so vendors, The Fox and The Moon Café, had just installed an industrial scale roaster which he said had set the café back some USD$17,000/€52,000.

To me, it seemed like a hyperbolic investment for such a relatively small – albeit cool – café. But then again what the hell do I know about coffee roasting? Especially now when I’m not even drinking the stuff.

Fact is, I haven’t had a cup of coffee for close to a month.

At home, after some form of exercise and a shower, I usually begin the day with a smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal and then start hitting the coffee straight after. By the time the rest of the family is up and about, I’ve already poured a second cup of French press. And by ten, I’m at my third cup and sometimes even a fourth, if Charlotte’s made a new brew. I don’t think my level of consumption was abnormal for someone living in Scandinavia where coffee is an integral part of society’s social fabric.

Still, I have to say that I’m surprised at how easy it’s been to kick that particular habit – without being tempted by the multitude of trendy coffee bars and cafés here in Bangkok. Do I feel any effects of not drinking 3-5 cups of coffee a day? Hard to say, really. But if nothing else, it’s one less thing my digestive system has to deal with. And since I add cow, soy or coconut milk to my coffee, I’ve also reduced my calorie intake. Do I miss the smell and  taste of coffee? Absolutely. But as it turns out, coffee isn’t quite as addictive as I’d thought. Or, maybe my character is stronger than I gave myself credit for.

The commons bangkok

This is from last night’s sumptuous Mexican dinner at Barrio Bonito where as an appetizer, I ate DORADITOS DE GUACAMOLE, which is a set of six small crunchy cones filled with salsa and guacamole (served in an egg carton!) and then, TACOS DE PESCADO, three fish tacos in soft shell corn wrappers as an entrée (presented in a small wooden crate about half the size of a shoebox).

The venue where Barrio Bonito is neatly tucked into a corner is an indoor and outdoor foodcourt and shopping mall called The Commons. This is where a wide range of eateries and bars serve some of the best food and drink you can get in Bangkok here. Several of the city’s most popular vendors have also set up shop here, including Absolut You, Bangkok’s popular fitness and yoga studio chain.

I’m a little curious as to what the name The Commons is supposed to imply. I read there story, and it seems they want to be a community or at the very least, a part of the community.. Thing is though, you don’t see a lot of Thai commoners here, that’s for sure. If you don’t count cooks, servers and cleaners, that is. It’s mostly well-to-do patrons that can easily afford to spend more or less what an equivalent dining experience would cost in L.A., Manhattan, Paris or London. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept, backstreet location, assymetical architectural style, laid-back ambiance and all that. But let’s be upfront about who the Commons are really catering to: a demographic that usually doesn’t care an awful lot about their community. Just sayin’…

It was busy last night, but still enjoyable and despite the large crowd of hungry/thirsty locals, tourists and expats, I thought the service was really good. We all ate different stuff, but the consensus was overwhelmingly positive. From left to right, Lena, me, Peder, Lotta and Thomas. Next time we gather for lunch or dinner, Charlotte will hopefully be among those smiling faces.

Can’t remember her name, but I spoke with the woman that owns Barrio Bonito the other day. Turns out she’s from Mexico City and has been cooking authentic Mexican food (not Tex-Mex) in Thailand for close to 11 years. That’s stamina.

After dinner, we crossed Thong Lor and headed over to a beer garden called Beer Belly where a few of us played a round or two of table tennis and chatted some more. I walked a few meters shy of 15k yesterday’s filming in Talad Noi, Worachok and Chinatown, so by 10:30, my body was exhausted and ready for bed.

There’s a couple of nearby galleries I want to check out today and then have dinner at what used to be one of our favorite sushi restaurants, »Isao« off of Sukhumvit, about halfway down soi 31. Might even take in a movie. We’ll see.


The Sidewalk Tailor

Yesterday, while eating dinner at a small restaurant here in Thong Lor’s popular foodcourt, The Commons, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on a conversation between a 30 something American (or, Canadian) guy and an American (or, Canadian) women sitting in the booth in front of me. It wasn’t really a conversation they were having, though.

It was more like the guy was giving his sermon or lecturing her. I have no idea what their relationship was. But regardless of if they were a couple or just good friends, I was astonished at how much he seemed to enjoy talking about himself, his accomplishments and what he must of thought was an infallible approach to life.

As I was eating my way through the day’s only meal while listening to the guy’s endless oration, I contemplated why we men have such a constant need to assert ourselves, share our many anecdotes and assume that the world has actually been starving for our universal wisdom. Knowledge we men are so generously giving away to practically anyone willing to listen.

Maybe she was thoroughly enjoying his rant. Maybe she just wanted to get him into bed and listening to his lecture was just a (boring) means to an end. Or, perhaps, to her, he represented a father figure. Someone to help her find »enlightenment«. Who knows, right?

In any case, I felt sad that we men – not all, but enough to go around – really are so self-centered and full of ourselves. As I walked down the sidewalk, eventually to the stretch of sidewalk where I met the tailor above, I wondered if I was just like that unapologetically talkative dude at the restaurant. Constantly giving unsolicited advice and unasked for guidance. Probably. But what about the tailor? When he gets home after a full day of sewing, measuring and threading, does he just sit in a sofa quietly with his family? Probably not.

During this trip to Asia, a working hiatus, if you will, I’ve tried to uncover the layers that form the composition of Joakim. I like to consider myself a reflective indivisual. So this is certainly not the first time I’ve been on a introspective journey. As could be expected, it’s been an analytical, self-concious process where I’ve taken inventory of everything from habitual behavior and things that triggers emotional instability (and vice-versa) to my insatiable need for creative input/output and perceptions of what’s really important in life.

The endgame of this five week long expedition is to figure out a way to reduce non-essentials and keep laser focus on the stuff that I can influence and which will incontrovertibly add tangible physical, emotional, spiritual and creative value. I’ve still got a couple of weeks to go, but I already feel interesting discoveries and important insights have been made. I’m betting heavily on that after this trip, I can achieve a more holistic perspective and approach to life – if I try hard enough and keep to the straight and narrow path – which I’ve discovered already resides within me.

thong lor

Thong Lor

I’ve moved on now. I took a Grab (Über equivalent) to Thong Lor where I’ve rented a really sweet apartment for a week. In addition to all the usual amenaties you’d expect from a reptuable hotell, I now finally also get to sleep in a really comfortable. It’s nowhere near the quality of what we have at home, but certainly better than what I’ve slept on up until just 24 hours ago.

Thong Lor is one of the most schizophrenic streets in the world. On par with Lincoln Boulevard in L.A., I think. And it perfectly epitomizes what I find so inspiringly captivating about Bangkok; the extreme culture clashes between contemporary and traditional, ridiculouslly costly and dirt cheap, futuristic and historic, decrepit and torn, shiny new and futuristic.

To me, Thong Lor is like an amalgamate of classic Bangkok, Abbot-Kinney, Harajuku and Rodeo Drive.

It’s an urban catwalk for young and affluent locals as well as the many well-heeled expat crowd living around here. They’re  perfectly styled, meticulously manicured and ever-so self-concious as they stroll in pairs or small groups along Thong Lor’s sidewalks. They omit an almost tangible aura of unflinching purpose while heading towards a boutique coffee bar, a teeth-whitening dentistry, maybe a shave at one of several chic barber shops, a bowl of organic Udon soup at a noodle restaurant or, some serious shopping along the string of ultra trendy fashion shops lining stretches of Thong Lor.

Perhaps the clearest indicator that you’re about to set foot on what is arguably the Thai capital’s most exclusive and expensive street is the mango store on the corner of Thong Lor and Sukhumvit Road where a large (non-organic) ripe mango will set you back as much as THB200 $6.

Up towards the Thong Lor Skytrain station, as you near the usual traffic chaos of Sukhumvit, it gets considerably less fancy-pancy. Here’s where you’ll see fewer influences from Tokyo and much more of classic Bangkok dominating the street scene. This is home to several cheap Chinese and Thai eateries, foot massage shops and, as customary in downtown Bangkok, soi corners occupied by a half dozen or so gritty-looking moto-cy taxi drivers.

Perhaps as part of a misguided rebellion, the woman above sat in front of jewelry shop in Thong Lor selling her wares. I saw her during yesterday’s 10k walk which led me to my favorite park, Benjasiri where I walked a few laps in a pleasant afternoon breeze before returning.

The woman was evidently oblivious to the urban gentrification so clearly visible just a bit further down the road. She laughed hard and long when I showed her the photo. There was a look about her that seemed to say she didn’t give a hoot about all the shenanigans going on in her neighborhood.


FILM ABOUT T/S HELENE

I’ve sailed with T/S Helene a couple of times and when I was younger, with a few other old sail ships of her generation.

On the first occasion, two years ago, I met the skipper and chairman of Ystad’s Sailing Club, Pelle T Olsson and his friendly crew of enthused sailors. It was then that the idea of making a short film about T/S Helene began to simmer.

Though the ship was originally built as a schooner in 1916 at the Ystad Shipyard, after a storm in 1943, which tore her rigg completely off, she was refitted as galliot (a single-masted cargo boat or fishing vessel).

T/S Helene is officially recognized by the Swedish National Maritime Museums – a public agency under the Ministry of Culture – as a historic and culturally significant vessel. In Swedish,she’s »K-Märkt«.

Shooting a film on a ship like T/S Helene had its challenges. I can imagine how hard must of been for Steven Spielberg during the film, Jaws. I used a stabilized Sony A7III with a Zeiss 18mm prime lens, a GoPro Hero 6 and Canon’s 70D equipped with a 50mm f1,4 lens for the earthbound footage. The DJI Mavic Air stood for the aerial shots. Except for the scene on top of the mast, which was so eloquently captured by the young sailor, Atle Runstål.


The Flutist

From yesterday’s 10k walk between Pratunam and Surasak on Sathorn Road. The flutist was standing under one of Bangkok’s many skywalks, playing so beautifully. I just couldn’t resist get a few clips of him.


Monsoon in Bangkok

When it rains in Bangkok, it pours. Literally. If you’re lucky, there might be a hint that a cloudburst is imminent. A few droplets here and there, or, maybe a slight drizzle, just to let you know that it could be a good idea to seek shelter before the monsoon thunderstorm above your head opens the floodgates really wide.

This slo-mo video is from yesterday afternoon at about 3:00pm. Peder, Ronald, Lotta and I were walking along Charoen Krung Road, a street that runs parallel to the Chao Phraya river all the way to Chinatown and beyond. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for this particular part of Bangkok (Bang Rak) with the highlight being the diesel fumed and oily Worachok neighborhood.

I’ve experienced two catastrophic monsoon storms while in Thailand. The first in 1991 and then again in 2005 and both while I was on Koh Samui where hundreds of locals saw their homes and belongings washed away together will bridges, roads and beaches. Our family was nearly electrocuted during the latest storm when the house we had rented was flooded with water above the electrical wall sockets. I think that’s why I’m so sensitive to sudden drops in air pressure. It depresses my breathing, somehow.

The storm eventually subsided and we caught a glimpse of the tall piles of engine blocks, carburators, transmissions and rear axels before moving on first to Chinatown and then Bangkok’s train station, where we ate dinner at a couple of different places. The excursion’s pleasentries ended at Thong Lor’s Soul Food restaurant where I ate a classic, albeit delicious plate of steamed crab with rice.