While our click-bait headline might reflect a charged visual history of western photographers insensitive attempts to photograph in developing countries, Chris Mottalini's latest photobook Land of Smiles is remarkably different. Mottalini breaks the tropes one might expect, capturing Thailand in abstract hues, balancing highly saturated, unreal landscapes -- both natural and man-made -- with mundane images of the city and countryside. Fluorescent alpha-tube lights jut into jungle landscapes like laser beams, alleyways descend anonymously, occasionally populated by a lone dog or cat, overgrown foliage sits haphazardly illuminated only by a small flashlight. Land of Smiles makes little attempt to provide answers about its subject matter, and instead functions as a series of open-ended visual notes and questions. I interviewed Mottalini to learn more about the book, which can be purchased on his site, and also at Dashwood Books, Printed Matter, Ampersand, and other fine bookstores.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: How did Land of Smiles begin?
Chris Mottalini: The project actually began with the photograph on the cover of the book. That was the first image I made for the project, back in 2013. My wife's aunt and uncle have a little beach cottage a few hours south of the city, down a narrow dirt road, right on the Gulf of Thailand. The streetlight in that photograph was the first fluorescent streetlight I ever noticed, perched right outside of their cottage. That one light is what started the whole adventure for me. Once I started noticing those lights I just absolutely needed to find and photograph as many as possible (they're all over the Thai countryside, you just have to look for them). Thais would never think twice about what are essentially ordinary street lights, but for an outsider like myself, they were endlessly fascinating and beautiful and just totally weird.
Feinstein: What brought you to Thailand?
Mottalini: My wife is originally from Bangkok. Her entire family still lives there (parents, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins), so we go there once or twice a year. We're actually about to bring our baby boy for his first trip to Bangkok, which should be amazing. Unfortunately for him, though, he's too young for street food.
Feinstein: What's the significance of the title "Land of Smiles?"
Mottalini: Well, it's a bit tongue in cheek, since most of the photographs in the book are pretty subdued and not exactly what you would describe as happy pictures. Also, there's almost no people in the entire book and you can't see their faces anyway!
Land of Smiles is a nickname for Thailand which was invented by the tourism industry. All of the texts in the book are printed in English and Thai (including the title) and my wife, who is Thai, helped a lot with making sure the English translations matched up with the Thai texts. When it came to Land of Smiles, she sort of had to freestyle it a bit, as there is no direct Thai translation of the phrase Land of Smiles...it's completely made up for Western tourists and it doesn't really work in Thai (which is kind of funny in and of itself). I thought it was a perfect title for the book, though, in part because my photographs are so opposite of anything related to tourism and the Western world's perception of Thailand.
Feinstein: There's been a history of white/ European photographers approaching the developing world like tourists, perpetuating stereotypes and sometimes creating ill-informed narratives about the people in their pictures. Yet you avoid this, and quite poetically. Was this on your mind as you began to make these pictures?
Mottalini: Definitely. I hate that whole tradition and I would never want my work to be lumped in with that exploitative attitude. I feel like photographing the country any other way would be disrespectful to my family in Thailand. I wanted to make a book that was respectful and sensitive and calm and didn't feel like it was seen through the western gaze.
Part of the reason Land of Smiles feels so different from other projects that it might be connected to, is that I basically photographed things most people don't care about and in a sincere way. No irony or jokes. When it comes to how Thailand is represented in the western world, I really wanted to avoid all of the tropes...."it's so exotic, so full of life, look how colorful, the people are so friendly and compassionate, how ironic, blah, blah, blah...." The best way for me to do that was to photograph banal, ordinary subjects: streetlights, back streets and alleys and plants. My challenge was to take those everyday subjects that nobody cares about and make them interesting and, hopefully, beautiful. In the end, I just wanted to make a book about a place I love.
Feinstein: I'm fascinated by the unique way you printed the book can you tell me a bit about this?
Mottalini: So, those are called "Japanese fold pages" (also sometimes called "French fold"). I wanted to give the book a different tactile feel and also a bit of heft, while keeping the indivdual pages themselves quite light. My friend who designed the book (Mike Dyer/Remake Design) is a brilliant designer and he came up with the Japanese fold technique as a solution. I think it makes for a really nice, unusual feel as you flip through and the book is also thicker as a result. The fact that we used two different paper stocks makes for a nice contrast in texture, too. I printed the book with Die Keure in Belgium and I can't speak highly enough of the job they did. Absolute pros.
Feinstein: The book is populated by gritty back alleys, lush, night photos of foliage, territory that implies a narrative, and only one photo that actually includes people.
Mottalini: Though I sometimes photograph people for assignments and jobs, when it comes to my personal work I just never do it. My work is mainly architecturally-themed anyway, so there isn't much call for people to begin with (which is probably partly why I got into photographing inanimate objects in the first place). In the case of Land of Smiles, though, I thought it would be way too obvious to avoid people altogether, especially since half of the book was shot in Bangkok, an enormous city of 15 million people. So, though I tried to avoid humans, I did end up letting a few people (and a dog and a few cats) make their way into the book. There's probably like 5 or 6 people in the second part and even one person in the first part, but you'll have to look pretty hard to find him.
I enjoyed the challenge of creating a loosely narrative series without the help of people to tell the story. Lately, I find people in photographs pretty boring anyway, so if it's up to me I'd rather just leave them out altogether. In the case of Land of Smiles, I decided to let the various landscapes and ordinary details tell the story. The lack of people actually allows the viewer the space to notice other, smaller details that might be otherwise ignored.
Feinstein: I just learned that you're partially colorblind, yet you are making these lush, ultra saturated images. Does color/ your partial colorblindness impact how you see/ make pictures? Is this something you even think about?
Mottalini: Wow, I actually forgot that I'd included that little bit of info in my bio....come to think of it, I should probably omit that tidbit, you know, in case I want to continue working as a photographer. Seriously, though, I've always found it kind of amusing (albeit in a frustrating way). One time I bought what I thought was this great pair of navy blue Levis work pants....I wore them to an opening or something and then like two weeks later my girlfriend (wife now) broke the news to me that they were actually purple! That sucked.
So, I guess I have this sort of love/hate relationship with color. I do think my somewhat skewed sense of it has helped me to cultivate a bit of an unusual aesthetic sensibility when it comes to the colors I respond to in my work. It's definitely no accident that Land of Smiles is incredibly colorful. I gravitate towards power when it comes to color in my work (see some of my still life projects, like "Secret Meaning", etc.) and Thailand is basically the least challenging place to be a photographer with color issues....there is no subtlety, not really any ambiguity, just explosions of color everywhere you look. Even the browns are more vibrant. Everything is just super saturated and I feel like I don't need to have to say, 'oh, that's pink, that's green, that's red not brown, etc.'....it doesn't matter. As a subject, Thailand doesn't give me a hard time or make me feel like a dumbass, everything just works for me there.
Feinstein: You anchor/bookend the series with glowing night images. Why this decision?
Mottalini: The process of making Land of Smiles come together in a coherent form was much different from how I'm used to working (and much more challenging and ultimately satisfying). As we've discussed, the book is divided into three distinct parts, which are intended to flow together....I get the chance to go to Thailand once each year, so I ended up shooting each of the three parts in the book seperately, one every year for three years. So, I basically had a whole lot of time in between to think about how the next part was going to turn out, what I would focus on, etc. In a way it was pretty frustrating because all I wanted to do was get back to Thailand so I could keep the project going. Lots of waiting around, which I hate.
As for the sequencing of the book, I wanted the second of the three parts, which is harshly lit with brutal Thai midday sun, to be bookended by much calmer, darker images. I was advised by a few people to sort of mix everything up, but I think the individual parts need to be separated in order to have maximum impact. I like the idea of dark surrounding light.
Feinstein: So many of the images can stand on their own, but in book form they feel more like notes in a larger, somewhat obtuse narrative. Would you agree?
Mottalini: Agreed. I was hoping that was how the book would feel. I took a few photojournalism classes in school and I remember one of the things they always tried to drum into us was that each and every single picture you make should be able to stand on its own. I kind of disagree with that....I feel like that sort of goes against the point of a photo essay, series or book....the images support each other and, as a result, help each other tell the story. I find sublter photos don't usually fall into the 'stand on their own' department and I happen to be pretty into subtle pictures. Every single narrative doesn't have to hit you over the head in order to succeed as a narrative....subtlety is okay sometimes.
As for Land of Smiles, I find have a hard time picking individual favorites from the project and, instead, I end up seeing each of the three parts as one big photograph made up of many smaller images. I wanted the book to feel like a bunch of memories blurring together and, in a way, didn't want any one image to stand out too much.
Bio: Chris Mottalini is a partially colorblind photographer based in New York City. He grew up in Buffalo, New York and studied journalism and photography at the University of Colorado, Boulder and Uppsala University, Sweden.
Much of his work deals with the photographic preservation of Modernist architecture and its place in the American landscape. He splits his time between Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley with Nepal, Nino and Burger the Corgi.