Manit Sriwanichpoom doesn’t just make the best of what he has. He creates something new.
His photography series hanging on the walls of A+ Works of Art in Kuala Lumpur is a curiosity: it is obvious they are portraits but it is impossible to see who these people are.
These scans of old glass negatives from the 1960s is a photo studio’s nightmare: the image is distorted, streaks and stripes bleed into each other, and bold lines cut across the sitter, resulting in missing limbs and an absence of distinguishing facial features.
“It all started out as an accident, but subsequently I worked on it to exaggerate the error and to designate where it should happen, with a focus on the eyes and mouths of the people in the photographs. With missing eyes and mouths, they will not be able to see us or speak to us, the viewers,” says Manit.
This is a man who revels in the gaps, the spaces between that embrace ambiguity and prompt the viewer to connect the dots.
This series of work, titled Lost, came about because of an attempt gone wrong to scan and digitise glass negatives of prominent Thai photographer Liang Ewe (1911-1992) who owned a studio in Phuket.
“Liang Ewe’s negatives should be protected as our national heritage as they are portraits of Phuket’s people who lived in the 1950s-1970s, during the tin mining industry boom on this island. It was a pre-tourism era and the negatives give us a glimpse into the cosmopolitan Phuket town,” he says.
When Manit, 56, first noticed that something was amiss with the original batch of scanned images, he felt like the people in the photos were trying to communicate with him.
“But they are trapped in a space where they cannot talk or express themselves,” he says in an earlier interview.
History often gets lost in the mists of time and he muses that is it is no different in Thailand where convention dictates that only the stories of great rulers and kings are recorded. The common man comes and goes, leaving behind no mark on the world he treads on.
“In a country like Thailand, history is of kings and rulers of men. We tend not to promote or encourage the writing of the history of commoners, as if their stories are meaningless and are not worth remembering. We are told to learn and remember the stories of kings, but our family history is not given much attention because we tell ourselves that we are not important,” he explains.
Lost, comprising 30 works, sets out to create an awareness of what he calls “small people history” and self-empowerment.
“Writing your own history would change the way you look at the world. Photography is part of this process,” he adds.
Bangkok-based Manit was awarded the Higashikawa Overseas Photographer Prize from Japan in 2007, and the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French ministry of culture and communication in 2014. He is also an filmmaker and activist.
In Lost, he calls attention to the trust we have in modern technology, often erroneously expecting them to be perfect.
We often forget that just because they can be, it does not mean that they always are.
“Ideally, the modern digital scanner would accurately transfer historical data from the analog to the digital format. We honestly believe that the resulting data would be an exact match to the original source,” he says.
“But in reality, the digital format can be corrupted, distorted and manipulated at any stage of the process, be it during the scanning, transferring, transmitting, viewing or printing.”
It is just as we see in the startling reproductions – or rather, a modulated approximation – of Liang Ewe’s photographs in Lost.
“Modern people have the idea that digital technology is the answer of the future. Human beings could not survive without it. The world is of photography is shifting this way as well. The errors that happened to Liang Ewe’s glass negatives looked like the patterns of lost signal on the TV screen. It is something that is supposed to be perfect, but is not,” he points out.
Still, Manit has created new from the old. It is a revival of sorts, and also a celebration of faceless identities.
He describes the mood of the exhibition as “a silent scream”. And at the very least, one expects that we can find solace in knowing that this is a scream of the common man.