Noi Satirat Damampai is a young photographer based in Hat Yai, Thailand. A journalist by training, she is using her own unique voice to tell photography stories such as Mae Ying, portraits of Laotian women, and The War Within, the protracted Karen conflict in Myanmar. We are also pleased to present a sneak peek at her new work, her first since The War Within. Called The Muted Whispers of the Wild Water at a Nightfall, it is a soulful, vibrant and poetic representation of Noi, the photographer and the artist, and where she is now.
I’m excited because we are looking at new work today. It’s personal work that you’ve been working on for awhile.
It’s like a novel, it’s like an autobiography, just that. The title is The Muted Whispers of the Wild Water at a Nightfall. It’s my own body lying naked in front of you. Beyond that, I leave it to your own imagination and interpretation.
I understand that in your photography, you’ve had a conflict between your artistic impulses and photojournalism or documentary work. Can you tell us about your journey?
Let’s start from the beginning. I was a journalist in my early career. During those times, I was running after news stories, but they were not so much related to me. I was trying to look for something that I could connect to, whether it is in text or photography, but I was not satisfied with what I had to work on. I often asked myself, “Will I care about this after a few days?”
I only started to listen to my own intuition when I did the Mae Ying story in Laos. I was there to do a story on the Mekong river and the dam project that China has been trying to launch since years ago. I went to Laos to capture the pristine Mekong river before it was too late. I travelled from northernmost Laos all the way to the south, taking photos of the village and the people. But somehow I felt the story was too big. The first village that I went to in the North, I got the portrait of the blind lady, sitting in a very dark corner of a wooden hut. And I thought, wow this is it! Later, I took more photographs of the elderly ladies in Laos.
I was trying to look for something that I could connect to, whether it is in text or photography.
When I came back, I had a few stories but I felt no connection to the other work. When I showed Mae Ying to Yumi Goto, she said, “Noi, this is the best one that you have done.” She later included it as part of an exhibition in the World Event Young Artists in the UK in 2012, and that was the first moment that I learnt to trust my own intuition and that it works. Some people said, well, you have to find a context and some issue with these Laos ladies so you can sell it as an editorial story. Well, I know that part because I was also a journalist! But I tried to be honest with what I was feeling at that time, and it was just to make simple portraits.
As a young photographer, it is sometimes difficult to trust your own voice or instinct?
Not only a photographer. You just need the first time to boost your confidence. I remember the first story I wrote as a journalist in 2005. I didn’t know how to manage it at all but my editor told me to lay it all down and use my own creativity to weave the story. And as I started photography seriously after that, I forgot that note and was lost in photography for many years. It wasn’t until Mae Ying and the War Within that I realised it’s the same thing, either in writing or photography. It’s story-telling, and if you know what you wanna say…. follow the line. Because when you’re confident, and the story is good, the editor will help you to polish it to the moon! But if you yourself don’t know what to tell, who else is gonna know for you! It’s your story. That’s what I have learnt from my last life as a journalist and then I was like… oh yeah… in photography too!
“How can one tell Thom Yorke how to write his songs?” – a trusted friend
When you are working on a new project, is there anyone that you trust to look at your work and give feedback?
With The War Within, it was Yumi. For this new story, it’s a close friend. No one else has fully seen it yet. He told me, “This is shit, that is good.” I asked for more suggestions, and he only replied, “How can one tell Thom Yorke how to write his songs?” That’s his best comment ever. He’s one of the few people who always encourage me, one way or another, to be myself. And it’s become the most important part of my self-discovery process. Without him, I think I will never find the way and be who I am today.
You have said that your works of late are crafted on an expression of emotions. Can you elaborate on that?
Nothing more to elaborate on. Even saying that myself is too much elaborated already. Let’s say, with Mae Ying, it’s about them and their facial expressions to me and my impressions of them. It’s a mystery. With the War Within, they were so open with me. They told me their feelings and struggles. Isn’t that emotion? It’s something normal that standard journalism doesn’t want to focus much on. It’s too sentimental, perhaps?
But the best work is a combination of both, no?
I don’t know. But when I find my way to do a particular story, I’m not going to hold it back. Of course, you need truth, you need to tell a story, you need to cross check. It’s the same process, just that the presentation is different.
You’ve said in an interview that you had a dream before you got an assignment as a fixer to cover the Karen conflict. Tell us about the dream.
I had a strange dream of walking into the jungle, there were a lot of ghost and spirits. I cannot prove it, but I cannot deny it too. It happened to me! I was calm and had no fear in that dream. Walking deep into the jungle, they let me pass through. Just like walking in a park. Up and down mountains, past waterfalls, and then, all of a sudden, I showed up at the border and was talking to people, exactly at the border line. Then sometime later (after the dream), I was asked if I was interested and available to go for an assignment about the Karen near the border between Thailand and Myanmar. I was like, “Oh yes, why not!” Adventures await me!
Did you think that there was a possibility of a photo project when you went on the assignment?
I didn’t think about the project, that it has to happen or whatever. I paid all my attention to the required work for that assignment as a fixer. What I knew at that time was that I needed to follow my dream path. It was all subconscious, I would say. So every shot, it was simply after a scene or mood in the dream.
It’s the perfect expression of a dream.
Yep, faded dream versus stark reality. And you know what? I dreamt it in black and white!
And you shot the project with a Holga?
Yep. Light and easy. I prefer to keep it all simple nowadays. And it gave us a surprise too! Without the light leak, I literally couldn’t get the explosion of the landmine in my frame.
Ah yes, you were in Christopher Doyle’s masterclass in Penang too! Do you remember when he mentioned about that one particular movie that the film was somehow ruined, and they had to put the past story into black and white and the present story in colours? It was a movie by Wong Kar Wai, I think. I can’t remember the name. I can only recall what Christopher Doyle said: It’s the surprise and creativity we could get from an open mind.
Maybe. Anyway, back to the Karen story, I used all the surprises, mistakes and light leaks to literally portray the story. Why not!
It also gave you that dreamy quality that you wanted for the photos.
Yeah. Their problem right now is far, far away from the world’s perception, but it’s still happening and existing after 60 years or so. So, it’s like a bad dream.
For the sake of the readers, what is the story of the conflict?
It’s the sentence, the story that the Karens have opened up to me, it’s the mood and atmosphere that you can literally smell from the image. One day in Tokyo, at my exhibition, an old lady was walking outside the gallery. She put her head to further see what was inside. A Japanese friend, who accompanied me for that day, encouraged the lady to come in and take a look. She walked and looked around, and we didn’t disturb her. Later, my friend explained to her what the story is about. The old lady said, “Yes, I can see how important the guy with a moustache is. He must be a leader. Look at his powerful pose and determine eyes.” She continued, “Even though I didn’t know what it was about at the beginning, I could feel their struggle.” That’s the peak for me. I don’t need 500 people at my show, but for someone to get to know about the story from my work and appreciate it. And it’s her first time getting to know about the Karen.
You were in Japan that time because you had won the Newsprint Award. How did you feel when you won?
Finally, the story could get out! And not a self-published one, but something with help and suggestions from people. The story definitely got a lot more exposure than if I had worked on it alone.
For The War Within, you knew you wanted a combination of both photos and text?
I had photos, I had their stories. It was the best combination. Without the interview, it would have been weak. And one shot of the mountain was not enough. A panoramic collage of the mountain would tell how big it is and how difficult it is for them to cross that for their lives. I did every possible way I could to tell the story.
And have you gone back since you published the newsprint?
Not yet. I had plan with friends to go back last year but it didn’t happen. I don’t want to go back there alone.
Do you think, as a woman, it is difficult to pursue this work alone?
It is not, if you want to. But I didn’t want to. It’s about the financial aspect, safety etc. And since I’m not well at the moment, I’ll be more relaxed with myself. I’m glad my body has signalled me to rest. I know I have been tough with myself and everything for almost 10 years. I pushed myself too far.
How far have you pushed yourself for a story?
Not only for this one but everything I did. Thinking about work, day and night. Sometimes not sleeping for two consecutive days or so, just to keep the golden flow moments and finish my work. Everything was extreme, I give my all for work, and even for my personal life.
I remember, having met you that time in Penang. You seem tough, and that you go after what you want.
Really? Was that your impression? I’ve never imagined how people would think of me. While being a fixer, some said wow you look like you’re in an army. I got some recommendation from a reporter, a new client told me his friend said, if you want difficult work to get done, contact Noi.
What a compliment!
Yeah! But that means I have to keep up the standard and during those times on assignment, I stayed alert most of the time for any possible thing. So, it’s part of the process that exhausted me. I never looked after myself, took care of myself, or looked after my own needs until I started this new work The Muted Whispers. I started to get moody too if I’m too annoyed.
Has The Muted Whispers been, in a way, to step back, relax and take a moment to reflect?
Something like that. Hmm… it’s actually intense and tearful, but very beautiful indeed. I would say it is the best time of my life so far. One day, I finally found what I wanted, followed the path, experimented and demonstrated it all the way. I am telling the story of my own this time!
I know I love art. I love photography. Mysterious abstract work lures me no end with an attractiveness I don’t know of, and that’s charming and aesthetically pleasing to me. Now, personally, I’m into less stressful and depressing work of art and photography. I want to explore the beautiful side of things.
Besides photography, you work as a fixer?
Yes. I am also going more towards creative writing. I have written one story, and it’s still half done, with a lot more to work on. For me, it is not a light switch than can be turned on and off immediately. It takes a long time. This story is in Thai, about my time in Bosnia in 2005.
Over the years, you have won two awards – a Sony World Photography shortlist, and the latest, the Newsprint Award to publish The War Within. What is your experience of winning awards?
I’m still the same petite Noi. Well, just like Christopher Doyle’s quote from a Chinese saying: First, there is a mountain, then no mountain, then there is.
When you finally get there, there are more mountains to go, and you have to do the best for the next one. Antoine d’Agata has also told me – only show your best work – which I broke the rule sometimes too. “The standard is there and it gets higher and higher,” he said. “And you have to be above and beyond the ocean of works and photographers.” Anyway, I relate to the mountain quote, because in 2003 I went trekking in the Himalayas. When you are on top of a mountain, looking at its majestic range, you know you are very small. And when looking up at the sky, you are just a tiny bit of star dust. Those happy moments were both meaningful with all its beauty. It’s also something you could always learn from.
The Skype chat has been edited for brevity and clarity. A big thanks to Noi for doing the interview despite not being in the best of health. Get well soon!