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Faces of Khlong Toey

Faces of Khlong Toey

Story by Joe Cummings / CPA Media (20 June, 2020)

I interviewed Tim Russell nearly two years ago while researching a story on Port FC, one of Thailand's longest-established premiere football clubs, and one which draws much of its fan base from the densely-populated working-class Khlong Toey district.

Russell runs The Sandpit, an extremely informative English-language website devoted to Port football culture and devoured by expat football fans. Originally from Coventry in the UK, Russell moved to Bangkok in 2012 after a decade-long stint in Vietnam, where he developed a keen interest in street and travel photography.

These intersecting pursuits, Port football and photography, eventually led him and his camera into the heart of the Khlong Toey community. Here roughly 100,000 people live in simple houses and shanties built on former swamplands bordering the busy river port. Many work on the adjacent docks or in nearby Khlong Toey Market, Thailand's largest fresh market.

Over the last four years, Russell has accrued an astounding collection of black-and-white images he shot in Khlong Toey. Many photographers, Thai as well as international, have covered the colorful neighborhood before, but Russell's scenes and portraits bring out a character and soul that other shooters have, at least in my opinion, rarely achieved.

Recently the photographer -- he insists on being called an amateur, though the quality of his work says otherwise -- launched Faces of Khlongtoey, a website devoted to his self-curated photo selection. Divided into Street Life, Market Life, Portraits, and Kids of Khlongtoey, the website so impressed me that I asked Russell if he could take me through his favorite Khlong Toey haunts.

We arrange to meet one late afternoon in front of a rustic car wash under the elevated freeway running parallel to the neighborhood. Vibrantly colored clapboard-and-chickenwire structures partially fill the space beneath the freeway, offering a bold contrast with the skyscrapers and shopping malls of Silom financial district nearby.

“I don't really like to use the word 'slum' about this area,” says Russell as we head down a narrow alley entrance. “It's what people call it, and it's probably about as close as Bangkok gets to such a thing, but it's not like in Mumbai or Delhi.

“Yes, it's a low-income area, there's poverty, there's alcohol and drug abuse and even a little bit of squalor in places, but you always see people out cleaning the area of front of their homes. There's a sense of community pride. I've never seen or experienced anything approaching violent crime.”

Russell says his camera explorations of the Khlong Toey community over the last four years number nearly 40, but he's never felt unwelcome.

“I don't want to glamorize or romanticize it, but it's not what people tend to think,” he says. “People have invited me into their houses to share drinks and food. The only dodgy moments I've had have involved stray dogs.”

As if on cue, a dog ahead of us in the alley runs straight for Russell, obviously recognizing him from previous visits. The cream-colored soi dog is anything but hostile, leaping in joy while he strokes the fur on its back.

Asked whether he's met with any resistance from would-be subjects, Russell explains how he takes time to develop a rapport before whipping out the camera.

“If I'm thinking of putting my lens in front of someone's face, I always talk to them first, to make sure it's ok. And 99 times out of a hundred it is. If I sense any reluctance at all, I just move on.”

Homes along the narrow walkways vary from abandoned shacks caving in on themselves to freshly painted two- and three-bedroom houses fronted by rows of well-tended flower pots. I noticed lots of sak yan, sacred Thai tattoos, on the arms, chests and faces of older men. Among the hordes of smiling kids playing the alleys, I see two whose scalps have been carefully shaved around long topknots following Thailand's old-fashioned kon juk custom, a tradition rarely seen elsewhere in Bangkok nowadays. A sense of the spiritual hovers in the air; it seems like we pass a guardian deity shrine -- not the normal house shrine -- every 100 meters or so. Banyan trees are carefully preserved and swathed in gold lame. Wind chimes decorate doorways, their quiet song reverberating down the alleys.

Somewhere towards the middle of the ‘slum', Russell points out a well-equipped children's playground.

“This used to be a festering garbage dump, but the community got together and cleaned it up,” he says. “I think a local NGO supplied funds for the playground gear.”

I remember a Bangkok Post headline from last year quoting a deputy transportation minister: “Khlong Toey Slum Must Be Erased.” The city administration says it will remove Khlong Toey dwellers -- an estimated 15,000 families -- from the area to make way for more condos and mega-malls.

“We've been hearing these claims for years,” Russell says. “Some locals say it will definitely happen next year, while others say it will never happen, because too many refuse to move. Some families have been here 40 or 50 years.”

To see more of Tim Russell's Khlong Toey images go to Faces of Khlongtoey