Adam Birkan goes against type for his lat­est work based on pho­tos taken from his Bangkok apart­ment bed­room win­dow


Walk­ing into “Hope Land” — Jam Cafe’s lat­est pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tion by ris­ing Amer­i­can tal­ent Adam Birkan — some may ap­pre­ci­ate the min­i­mal­ist shots of peo­ple going about their day, soi dogs stand­ing around in dump­sters, and the typ­i­cal scenes of Bangkok’s bustling chaos. Some, how­ever, may also think that all of this is noth­ing new.

Taken from the bed­room win­dow of his Sukhumvit apart­ment for a pe­riod of 18 months, Birkan, who’s been named one of Mag­num’s 30 Un­der 30 among other pres­ti­gious lists, first got the idea for the project af­ter see­ing a neon “Hope Land” sign flash­ing on top of an un­known es­tab­lish­ment.

Wait­ing for the right mo­ment at the right time, he then fo­cused on find­ing hope in ev­ery­day sit­u­a­tions — tak­ing snap­shots of the var­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties hap­pen­ing be­low his bed­room win­dow. All well com­posed with strik­ing colours thanks to his good eye, the high an­gle of the pho­tographs makes his sub­jects ap­pear vul­ner­a­ble, lonely and al­most hope­less. Birkan, how­ever, sees some­thing else.

Usu­ally known for his cyn­i­cal style and long-term doc­u­men­tary works fo­cus­ing on so­cial and eco­nomic is­sues, “Hope Land” is one of his most op­ti­mistic se­ries yet. Life talked to Birkan on his artis­tic pro­cesses and the mean­ing be­hind his work.

How did you get started on this project?

When I moved into this apart­ment that I’m cur­rently liv­ing in, I got lucky and got a re­ally nice view and it was just natural. I got a good view, I’m a pho­tog­ra­pher. Easy project.

I think the name of the ex­hi­bi­tion is a bit more in­ter­est­ing be­cause I saw that ‘Hope Land’ sign in the dis­tance. I was like wow, I can work with this. It’s a nice metaphor. Af­ter I took that pic­ture, I kind of built the project around that idea.

Could you ex­plain the idea of Hope Land then?

The idea is that Hope Land is ev­ery­thing I can see — ev­ery­thing is kind of tied to­gether by this one idea of hope. That’s the one thing we all have in com­mon no mat­ter who we are, where we are. It’s small, it’s big. It’s kind of just ev­ery­where — ev­ery­thing. I can take any pic­ture and say here’s the hope in the pic­ture or lack of hope or what­ever. So it’s kind of just an am­bigu­ous way of cre­at­ing a project. But at the same time it def­i­nitely has a solid frame­work. It’s a solid idea built around hope.

You must have taken a lot of pho­tos in the 18 months that you did this project. How did you choose your fi­nal pho­tos on dis­play?

It re­ally just took a long time be­cause it’s all luck. I’m just wait­ing for the uni­verse to give me some­thing. The way I chose my pho­tos — I just wanted as di­verse a set of pho­tos as pos­si­ble. I wanted to mix in land­scape to kind of give it a nice en­ergy, a good vibe. Pho­tos that didn’t have much con­tent but were pretty — that kind of spoke more about feel­ing and was more metaphor­i­cal and emo­tional than lit­eral. But also pho­tos of peo­ple just going about their day. Just to kind of keep it as di­verse as pos­si­ble. Ob­vi­ously I have a ton of pho­tos, so many that I didn’t show. But I feel that it’s bet­ter to have less good pho­tos than more medi­ocre ones.

Your last ex­hi­bi­tion was quite pro­found — what mes­sage are you try­ing to send in this ex­hi­bi­tion?

Well most of my work is quite cyn­i­cal — kind of sad. Most of my work is doc­u­men­tary work. Long-term so­cial is­sues. So I was kind of maybe hop­ing for more of a pos­i­tive vibe this time. It’s not re­ally like pos­i­tive for me, I think it’s just the images them­selves are pos­i­tive. I’m still a cyn­i­cal per­son. My pho­tog­ra­phy usu­ally has some dark dark hu­mour or some sad joke in it. But I think as far as these pho­tos go, I’m try­ing to con­vey a sense of hope. I don’t know a bet­ter word than hope.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that your pho­tos are so bright but send quite a cyn­i­cal mes­sage.

Right, that’s kind of like the sar­casm I guess. I’m al­most telling a sar­cas­tic joke. Like look how great ev­ery­thing is! But not. I guess that’s just where my pho­tog­ra­phy is right now. Maybe in a few years it won’t be like that. It wasn’t like that a few years ago. I guess that’s just kind of a cre­ative phase. My style is al­ways chang­ing and I feel like this cur­rent project is def­i­nitely an evo­lu­tion of my style. I don’t think I’m gonna do an­other project like this, but it’s def­i­nitely gonna im­pact how my work is mov­ing for­ward.

Do you think there’s still hope in this coun­try?

Of course. If there was no hope, what else is there? Cities are liv­ing things. They are or­gan­isms. The streets are the veins and the build­ings are the or­gans and the peo­ple are the cells. But hope is kind of like the en­ergy for all of that. You look at old towns in the US, maybe min­ing towns are boom­towns, ba­si­cally when the natural re­sources dry up and the money leaves, the town just dies, and there’s places like that all over the world. Those are places where there’s no hope. Those are places that aren’t com­ing back. But a place like Bangkok isn’t re­ally re­liant on one thing or one idea. So I think there’s al­ways hope. Even though there’s no hope in one spot there’s al­ways an­other spot. You just got to find it.


‘Hope Land’ by Adam Birkan runs un­til Sept 24 at Jam Cafe, Soi Rong Nam Kang (Charoen Rat 1). Visit www.face­book.com/ JAMCAFEBKK.

‘Hope Land’ at Jam Cafe.

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