Dax Ward ex­plores aban­doned sites through his lens.



Have you ever been com­pletely spell­bound by pho­to­graphs of de­te­ri­o­rat­ing malls and hos­pi­tals? We cer­tainly have, which is why we reached out to Dax Ward, the man who cap­tured these places for us so we didn’t have to. An Amer­i­can, Bangkok-based pho­tog­ra­pher, Ward’s works have been fea­tured in CNN Style, The Guardian, Lonely Planet and other well-known pub­li­ca­tions. His beau­ti­fully haunt­ing pho­tos of aban­doned sites in Thai­land are on dis­play at “Aban­do­nia”, at Wish­beer the Vue on Charoen Nakhon 13 un­til Jul 24. We spoke to Ward about his love for the “aban­doned”. Tell us about your­self and why you chose Bangkok? I have been in Asia since late 2003. While trekking in Nepal in mid-2007 I was of­fered a job as a tech­nol­ogy teacher in Bangkok, so, with pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences I had had while vis­it­ing Thai­land in mind, I took the op­por­tu­nity. I’ve now been in Bangkok for 10 years, work­ing pri­mar­ily as a tech­nol­ogy teacher and man­ager at a pri­vate school, but with more and more jobs in pho­tog­ra­phy.

What is your re­la­tion­ship with pho­tog­ra­phy and how did it de­velop? I started out as a hob­by­ist. A few years ago I didn’t even know how to shoot with man­ual ex­po­sure set­tings. I worked steadily with a few in­struc­tors and learned quite a bit on my own. Now I get enough pho­tog­ra­phy work to con­sider it a part-time job. Since I do not do it full time, I’m lucky enough to have the choice of be­ing able to work on projects I like. I picked up a drone about six months ago as a new way to gain per­spec­tive on the lo­ca­tions that I doc­u­ment.

Which pho­tog­ra­phers have in­flu­enced you? My favourite photo book is Sub­way by Bruce David­son. His work is gritty, vis­ceral, ag­gres­sive, risky and, most of all, fear­less. He did what­ever he had to do to get the pic­tures and to cap­ture his sub­jects with an un­flinch­ing frank­ness. His work re­minds me to al­ways keep on the hus­tle and don’t be afraid to take risks. Is Bangkok a play­ground for pho­tog­ra­phers? Bangkok is one of the best ci­ties in the world for pic­tures. The cityscapes, traf­fic, in­fi­nite lights, mo­tion, colours and most of all, peo­ple, make it a pho­tog­ra­pher’s dream in many ways. There are a few neigh­bour­hoods that are my favourites for walk­ing and tak­ing pic­tures. The best thing about them is that, though they are in the mid­dle of an enor­mous city, if you walk deep enough into the

sois it can feel like you are in a small vil­lage. It gets very quiet, the pace slows down a lot and peo­ple are friendly and in no sort of rush. I love get­ting lost in these places for a few hours, spend­ing time chat­ting and eat­ing, tak­ing a lot of pic­tures. I am never dis­ap­pointed with the im­ages I take home.

How and why are you fas­ci­nated with aban­doned lo­ca­tions? I got i nto ur­ban ex­plo­ration pho­tog­ra­phy purely by chance. A me­dia dis­trib­u­tor rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the UK con­tacted me af­ter they saw my pho­tos of the Bangkok aero­plane grave­yard. That story did very well and was picked up by mul­ti­ple pub­li­ca­tions. Since then I have been in con­stant pur­suit for new places to doc­u­ment. I hadn’t re­ally done any aban­doned-site ex­plor­ing un­til that story broke, but since then I’ve found it to be a blast and have be­come a bit ad­dicted. I have since shot about 40 aban­doned sites in Thai­land, South Africa and the US.

I do think that places take on a com­pletely new per­son­al­ity when they are left derelict.

When a site has been de­void of hu­man in­volve­ment, it de­te­ri­o­rates pretty quickly, es­pe­cially in a trop­i­cal cli­mate. Fo­liage sprouts up from any spot with a bit of light and mois­ture, mould and dust gath­ers en masse, roofs and walls col­lapse, and squat­ters — hu­man and other­wise — take up res­i­dence. Build­ings be­come dif­fer­ent. Aban­doned places de­velop a dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter, which makes them more in­ter­est­ing to ex­plore and pho­to­graph than when they are in­hab­ited.

What en­tails photograph­ing an aban­doned lo­ca­tion? If a lo­ca­tion is fairly easy to ac­cess, then it’s a very good day. This doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten, but, when it does, it’s fan­tas­tic. I typ­i­cally try to go early in the morn­ing when the light is best and the city is quiet. Once I gain ac­cess to a lo­ca­tion — one way or an­other — I go to work with my cam­era and tri­pod, try­ing my best to cap­ture the story of the lo­ca­tion, get­ting the shots to tell the story through de­tails. A sin­gle shot can put out as much con­text as a para­graph of words. I spend as much time as I can at a lo­ca­tion as my big­gest fear is that I may miss some­thing spe­cial. The length of time that I stay de­pends on an ar­range­ment I’ve worked out with the owner or over­seer, other times I have as much time as I need. I leave only when I feel like the job is done and all nec­es­sary shots have been cap­tured.

Have you ever ex­pe­ri­enced in­ex­pli­ca­ble mo­ments? At an aban­doned prison in Chi­ang Mai, I took a se­ries of eight or so im­ages near a guard tower, which came out with a dark shadow over them. I haven’t been able to get any de­fin­i­tive ex­pla­na­tions for what may have caused that ef­fect when in­quir­ing on pho­tog­ra­phy fo­rums. I be­lieve in ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tions for things like this, but Thais are very su­per­sti­tious about ghosts, so I had to go to a tem­ple af­ter­wards with my wife to make merit. When we re­turned to the site on the fi­nal day of shoot­ing, we walked back­ward as we en­tered, which is some­thing that some Thais be­lieve ap­peases ghosts. I don’t be­lieve in ghosts, but I do want to re­spect lo­cal cus­toms. Ex­e­cu­tions were per­formed at the prison as it was a death row fa­cil­ity and a num­ber of egre­gious events were said to have oc­curred here, in­clud­ing sus­pi­cious ‘sui­cides’ of in­mates in a well. There were seven days and nights of Bud­dhist ri­tu­als held by monks af­ter the prison’s clo­sure. It’s a pretty creepy place, but has some nice street art mu­rals.

What is you most mem­o­rable aban­doned place in Thai­land? There are a few that stick out as one-of-akind, but my two favourites would be the Petch-Siam Cin­ema in Sukhothai and the ‘Aban­doned Man­sions’ in Nakhon Pathom. The cin­ema was truly spe­cial as it was left com­pletely in­tact, with seats, screens and even pro­jec­tors sit­ting in place for more than 30 years af­ter the last reel ended. The fam­ily that owns it let me in and left me alone for hours. It was a great ex­pe­ri­ence and such a spe­cial place. The man­sions are spe­cial be­cause of the peo­ple who live there. Two kind and every­day fam­i­lies in­habit some run­down though up­scale houses that were orig­i­nally built for the af­flu­ent.

Which aban­doned place are you ex­plor­ing next? Un­til re­cently I was not at all in­ter­ested in Sathorn Unique Tower, be­cause it has been over-doc­u­mented and dis­cussed ad nau­seam. I want to pho­to­graph it in or­der to com­plete my port­fo­lio of aban­doned lo­ca­tions in Thai­land, though I don’t know that I’ll ever be granted per­mis­sion to en­ter. It’s be­come very dif­fi­cult due to past is­sues with back­pack­ers van­dal­is­ing the site and, of course, other darker in­ci­dents. I do un­der­stand the owner’s frus­tra­tion with so much pub­lic­ity in re­cent years and the need for strict se­cu­rity.

What in the fu­ture? I plan to re­turn to China in au­tumn to go to Sichuan prov­ince and see what I can find there. I know that there are nu­mer­ous fan­tas­tic lo­ca­tions to shoot, so I’ll get a mo­tor­cy­cle and see what I can find. Rus­sia is also on my list. With re­gard to places in Thai­land, there are a num­ber of aban­doned sites that I need to check out, but not so much in the Bangkok area. I’ll get to those in the next year or so. As far as long term plans, I love my job as a teacher, but the dream would be to work as a pho­tog­ra­pher full time, es­pe­cially in the realm of pho­to­jour­nal­ism. We’ll see what hap­pens, as things have been pick­ing up a lot lately.

Mook, Dax’s wife, poses at Bat­man Night­club in Pat­taya.

Os­car The­atre on Phetch­aburi Soi 39.

A pic­ture of aero­plane grave­yard on Ramkamhaen­g Road kicked off Dax’s ur­ban ex­plo­ration pho­tog­ra­phy. BE­LOW

LEFT A run­down man­sion in Nakhon Pathom and PetchSiam Cin­ema in Sukhothai are among Dax’s favourite aban­doned places in Thai­land.

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