The photo is of a little coffee shop that is off the main drag of Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road, down Soi 11 and left into a walkway loop called Soi Sukhumvit 11. Walk just past the Australian Pub and BBQ. Google map it to be sure. A sign propped up outside modestly claims it serves the best coffee in Bangkok, and the coffee is good.
Inside, the cafe seemed to be made from old teak boards, rusted corrugated iron and bits of flotsam and jetsam but combined with style and charm. The sometimes confronting hustle of a Bangkok street falls away as you rest onto one of the simple chairs or bench seats.
The two Thai women who ran the place seem unimpressed by westerners. They are polite, but this is their turf, and you are a guest, so best act like one.
Why is finding a place like this necessary? Travelling a lot on business is a mixture of excitement, uncertainty and boredom. Morning coffee shouldn’t be so important, though it just is. Once I have found a place to have breakfast that isn’t Starbucks, McDonald’s, or some chain hotel’s dining room, then my life begins to settle into a nice routine.
It’s a risky thing to commit to any place for coffee. Especially for the morning coffee. I only can drink 2 or 3 cups a day because I like them strong. So not wasting that first coffee in a place with no atmosphere, where the coffee sucks or the people are plastic, is just a waste of the most precious part of the day.
For more than three months, I came every morning for a double espresso and a croissant. After a while, there was an occasional smile of recognition but no fawning or false comradery – which I appreciated. Common courtesy between folk without the pretence that it was or could be anything more. So refreshing.
Most mornings, there were purple orchids in small vases on every surface, next to pieces of pottery, woodcarvings or sculpture. The warm colours of the aged teak wood glowed from the morning light, which poured into the café from an open ceiling at its far end. The sun reflected off the rendered concrete of the building next door, suffused the café with a soft radiance.
This entire space is a subtle combination of care and artistry, masterfully done, especially when you must work with found objects. This thought, this experienced reality, that I see in the image of that marvellous little café.
You know, this was the only shot I took in the café during the three months I breakfasted there. Why the only one if I liked the place so much? It is a difficult question and a harder answer.
Don’t you find that photographs and memories are different things? Experiencing something or saving it as an image are almost mutually exclusive acts. As a photographer, I must hunt for the truth, track it down, frame it up and capture it. My mind slips into a different mode. And once I have that photograph, subtly, everything changes.
As time passes, the pictures you take become the memory of the place. The image supplants the experienced reality. The real depth of your thoughts and your emotions are leached of their meaning, replaced by a pixel-perfect technical artefact.
For me, a camera gets in the way of experiencing life. I have been a professional photographer and cinematographer at several points in my career. I usually never take a camera with me unless someone is paying me.
On my own time, the reality of life is what I want; the truth of a place filtered – albeit imperfectly – by my emotional state, by my conscious and unconscious editing of what is there.
It is not a high fidelity replica I want to store away in my memory. It is not one I have consciously manipulated by posing things, moving them to aid composition or putting light where there was none to cut into the shadows and render the scene perfect. That is business. A craft. A job.
What is significant to me is what was in my eye as I watch, something that remains in my mind as I recollect. Not the perfect. Not anyone else’s reality. Just something genuine, unaltered and accurate enough at the time. For me alone. To be recalled or maybe not, but at least truly experienced. As if such a perfect thing can exist.
So what about this shot? It was snapped on a tiny camera while I waited for my coffee. I remember taking it sitting in my usual chair, not bothering to frame it particularly or to make the lighting better. Then I forgot about it.
I discovered the image many months later in a folder of photo files about some business project I was reviewing.
In its original, it is a rather cold clinical shot. The focus is OK. It’s sharp and well enough exposed.
What you can’t see, but I still remember, is a bookshelf with a small selection of English and European language books to read. The wind rustling the leaves of the living trees you can almost see. The calls of the little birds in the cage. The wind chimes are rotating slowly in the breeze. A fan buzzing ineffectively on a steamy morning. The anticipated swish of the curtain as my food is brought out from the carefully hidden kitchen, located in the darkest corner of the café.
So what was it that I wanted to express about this small part of my life in a noisy, crowded Asian city, a place where I was just another white, middle-aged businessman? And, here, in the seedier parts of Bangkok, is there a lower form of life?
What you will never know from the photo is that the service provided by the two Thai women is polite, professional, but not deferential. I don’t know their story, but they were women, not girls. Their faces remained beautiful, though their eyes had seen a lot. Now they have created a peaceful place, honest and full of grace.
The digital file I re-discovered was not the same as my memory of the café. So I set about working on the only raw image I had, trying to recapture the feelings I experienced in the place by using a little dramatic license in Photoshop. Just like I used to do in the darkroom when I still believed in photographic art.
For a start, you can see the café is empty. It looks a bit lonely, as I was at the time, travelling a lot by myself, dislocated from my family. Trying to pull together a business deal that I had long since become disillusioned with.
Sitting alone at a small table, I was generally the first customer of the day. The two Thai women are off to the right and out of the shot. Left out because I knew they didn’t want to be part of my happy snap. Or left out because they were not essential to my memory. But, most likely, because it was a simple casual snap and getting them in the shot was too much trouble. The latter, I think most likely.
This lovely picture emerged: enhanced, reworked, and now slowly replacing my actual memory of the place. It is the imperfect summation of many hours spent quietly reading in this beautiful café of lost souls.