A happy snap from the land of smiles

This picture will be printed big on glossy paper, framed and hung.

It’s the wedding of Sarina and Kurisem: the moment they’ve been waiting for. Excitement and pride radiates from their families as Sarina’s parents send their daughter to a good family and for Kurisem’s parents, their son becomes a man.

The photo shows happiness, joy and a hope for a better future. Two beautiful young people smile in front of a golden background, plastic flowers and gifts. A synthetic carpet covers the mud and a silent fan prevents the scene from melting in the heat of southern Thailand. Two hearts, their names and the date are written in a strange combination of languages to remind us of a happy day.

Or, maybe, the day was not that happy?

The official wedding photographer, over whose shoulder I shot this very frame, was not really interested in what was happening outside of the golden moment. However, it was what made me rush to the wedding after hearing the news of violence on the police radio. I was driving when I heard about the shooting so I rushed to the scene. The wedding photographer is accustomed to the violence; he focuses on what photos sell instead. The age-old journalism expression “No bleed, no lead” doesn’t work here in southern Thailand. In the photo album, that filtered reminder of our past, this smiling wedding portrait will be the only picture.

Shortly before this image was taken, masked gunmen riding their mopeds out of the forest raided the wedding party, shooting bullets into the skull of a chief of the village. The man, a local and well respected Muslim, was seated at the head of the table, witnessing the happy moment in the life of Sarina and Kurisem.

The last picture of the village chief, before the body was wrapped in white cloths and taken for burial, was among party tables and pots in which the special wedding meal was cooking. A police photographer at the site of the bloody attack calmly recorded evidence, focusing on the wounds and bullet holes. From time to time, he looked over his shoulder at the tables covered with food – lunch time was approaching.

The party must go on, no question about it. We are in the land of smiles after all. Apart from forensic photo evidence; will the only visual document that remains from the wedding be the photo showing two young and happy people in front of a golden background?

Will the real truth remain buried between colorful images of happiness? Will that picture in their history books lie? Does it speak a thousand words or lie with silence? As usual, I have many good answers but I’m not sure which the right question is.

But, don’t only blame the photographer. Our sin is minor if compared to the power of selective memory and the need to escape the brutal reality. The guardians of history and the editors of our photo albums wait for the right frame to fit in to the bigger picture of what they want to be the only truth.



  1. Hey Damir, a very interesting story. Your reference to our collective memory is interesting too –

    but surely the photographer is of prime significance in making sure people believe a certain way of seeing things? Isn’t the photographer is the first editor of our historical photo album? Isn’t it the photographer who goes out, fresh from the media briefing room, into the field with the journalists to find the pictures that will convey the pre-existing interpretation of the story?

    I’m reading a lot of Susan Sontag at the moment so this will go someway to explaining the above. She argues that:

    “photographs cannot build a moral position but they can help reinforce and build a nascent one…”

    Do feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and am generalising too much (I think I am for the sake of playing the devil’s advocate!)

  2. Sontag argues a lot. 😉

    It is obvious she loved and appreciated what she was writing about so her essays would not treat the photography just outside “the frame” (those who treat mostly context often serve themselves only) but help understand what is happening on both side of the lens/screen/mirror.

    Her rhetoric was very good, her writing smooth with great examples but those are just propositions, not axioms that need no explanation, proving, discussion…

    With her skills, one could nicely argue that a single photograph can build a moral position, contrary to the quote above. After all, it is a fine line between to build (non existing) one and to wake up nascent one. Are we born with moral positions that are in hiding before hit by a right photo? That didn’t change much from seventies when she wrote this.

    Anyways, that is a long and separate issue to one of a photographer being the first editor.

    Whether is the first or not (pictures are being staged, there is an issue of access etc…) the photographer is an editor.

    But, being a photojournalist would mean pictures, edited on the spot or not, must represent the reality. Simple as that. We do not own the history therefore our sin is minor. Still a sin, though 😉

    Different sets of rules for us, different for those who play gods by intentionally recreating created and claiming the ultimate right to do it. Somehow, I feel better in my present skin.

    Going further that road, we will again make a full circle and come back to the issue of credibility. (of a journalist or his/her agency). Credibility that is not granted to all calling themselves photojournalists, but something built over time.

    Just like any other structure, it is difficult to build one and very easy to destroy it.

  3. Yep I agree. The practice of representing reality is a tough cookie though; we’re always informed by things before we enter them, or at least have some pre-conception of what’s going on from our own news…it’s inescapable…

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