We see them all over the bustling metropolis of Bangkok: working on the street or on the side of a skyscraper under construction. Even out in the provinces, wherever there is work to be done, one sees them: men and women working, covered from head to toe to ward against the hot Southeast Asian sun. Often they bear facemasks or coverings that swaddle their entire heads, leaving only the eyes visible, protecting against both sun and dust.

Looking at Bangkok in a different way.

But what of them, the construction workers? Really in any cosmopolitan area, one sees them but typically one doesn’t pay them much mind; they are part of the background of any bustling, thriving urban tableau.Of course sometimes first-time Western visitors to Bangkok may be taken aback at a guy in street clothes wearing a headdress that’s reminiscent of a revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on which side of any particular political divide one stands). But once one realizes they are only blue-collar working people doing their jobs, they tend to melt back into the background for the visiting tourist, as well as the long-term expat.

Which is what makes photographer Emmanuel Benoit’s images in his “Portraits With A Leica” exhibition at the Alliance Francaise Bangkok so riveting. He takes these members of the background of Bangkok’s urban milieu and puts them front and center in stark black and white portraits.

Masking the Thai smile.

While most photographers would take a more conventional route and remove the dressings that protect the workers’ head and faces, Benoit does not, and this is what makes the images compelling. The only part of the face the viewer sees are the eyes – some seemingly manage to convey the ubiquitous Thai smile; others seem a little more reticent to grin, keeping their emotions veiled, just as the rest of their bodies are veiled or covered.

This inability to see their faces – the face being what we use to identify one another as humans and arguably the one part that in each one of us is truly unique – compels the viewer to look elsewhere: at their clothes, their torsos, their arms and legs, and their hands. Perhaps it’s because they are the only other parts of the workers’ bodies that are uncovered besides the eyes, one feels drawn to their hands. The hands of a working man, naturally, are interesting subjects for art.

At least this is what compelled and drew this viewer. As always, art is subjective. As the photographer himself explains in a press release:

One person’s gimmick is another persons art.

“When I arrived in Bangkok, some construction workers with naked ambition written on their faces caught my eye,” Benoit said. “I asked them to pose wearing the masks they use as protection against the sun or dust, in front of the piece of white cloth that isolates them from their work environment. But it is the Leica camera slung over their shoulders that induces confusion as to the identity of these people. Are they journalists, science photographers or revolutionaries?”

To be honest, the Leica draped around the neck or shoulders just seems like a gimmick, the kind of gimmick one often finds in the art world – but then one person’s gimmick is another person’s art. However you feel about the Leicas in the images, they can only add to the works; even if you find them mildly distracting, the workers themselves are such strong subjects the cameras doesn’t distract from the photographs.

If nothing else the exhibition will give those that see it pause the next time one spies a construction worker while out and about in public on the streets of Bangkok; behind that mask is a fellow human being, not just a piece of the backdrop.

“Portraits With A Leica” is on show at the passageway of Alliance Francaise Bangkok on Sathon Tai Road until June 1. The exhibition runs on weekdays from 9 am to 6 pm and 9 am to 5 pm on Saturday and admission is free. Call 02-670-4231 or email chalanthorn.kidthang@alliance-francaise.or.th. for more information.

By Jeff Chappell.

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