Chiang Mai: The Art of the Documentary

In 2012, more than 160 participants from around the world attended the Foundry Photojournalism workshop, including many world-famous teachers. [photo: © Ryan Libre]

Our ethos is very much DIY by getting many people involved.

We want to remain truly independent.


The word ‘documentary’ can be applied to both photography and the moving image. The term implies that this image or film is a record of something that exists and is represented, as far as is possible, as a true depiction of that person, place or event. In reality, of course, like written documents, the degree to which the image or film is a true record depends on the honesty of the person making it, the context in which they explain it and the degree to which the viewer is able to recognise the personal, often unconscious, refraction of the author’s own beliefs.

The first time a film was categorised as a ‘documentary’ was when the distinguished filmmaker John Grierson wrote a review of Robert Flaherty’s film ‘Moana’ (1926). Set in Samoa, Flaherty’s movie was far from what today we think of as documentary. The director cast his characters, created fictional relationships and staged events. He was evoking a romantic and perhaps also a colonialist view of the Pacific islanders for consumption back in the USA.

Since then, much has been written and said about documentary practice. Today, the qualities demanded of a truly documentary series or film are much more stringently critiqued than they were ninety years ago. Postmodernist theory tended to deny the possibility of any degree of objectivity in image making, arguing that this fatally undermined the concept of the document. However, others came to realise that while subjectivity is inevitable in any human recounting of a narrative, forms of truth could still be found in such retellings; powerfully so.

Meanwhile, in the West at least, the opportunities to show extended bodies of work in the print media and serious documentary films in cinemas began to disappear. The role of festivals of photography and film became all the more important as places for the presentation of new work, the sharing of skills and the ongoing ethical debates around serious documentary practice.

One such festival, important not least for its focus on Asian documentary practice and for its independence from commercial or political influence, is the Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival in Thailand. This event and the foundation which also runs the year-round Documentary Arts Asia Centre have over the past few years done much to reinvigorate interest in, and the practice of, documentary photography and filmmaking in the region. This has been achieved not by seeking the support of commercial sponsors or government agencies, all of which have their own agendas, but by building on the solidarity among photographers themselves, within Asia and further afield.

To learn more about this refreshing approach to both the media of film and photography, and the discipline of documentary practice, I spoke with the founder of Documentary Arts Asia, Ryan Libre.

Alasdair Foster

A visitor contemplates a photograph in the new Documentary Arts Asia Centre [photo: © June W. Tri-yasakda]


Alasdair: How did the festival begin?

Ryan: It began in 2012. I had talked with many people about establishing a photo festival and offered my support to local partners for them to start one, but no one seemed to have the crazy drive that is needed to undertake such a venture. So, after a year or so, I just decided to start it myself.

I had received an award a few months earlier from the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund –  just $5,000 USD in total – not a huge amount – but with passion and friends it was enough to initiate a series of projects under the banner of Documentary Arts Asia. The festival was one of those projects.

What is the aim of the festival?

The aim has always been for the festival to provide a way for the local people of Chiang Mai and, more broadly, Thailand, to see world-class documentary photography and films. Our ethos is very much DIY [do it yourself] by getting many people involved. We want to remain truly independent.

How do you achieve that independence?

In an effort to keep this festival high quality, free admission and with as much freedom as possible to show what needs to be shown, Documentary Arts Asia organises an annual print auction during the festival to offset some of the costs of running the festival. Many other arts organisations and events rely heavily on money from corporations and embassies. This can often involve undue influence and self-censorship over what those sponsors and funders want (or you imagine they want) you to show. The print auction has allowed us to avoid this problem. I think we may be unique in funding the festival in this way.

Chiang Mai print auction 2014 [photo: ©Luis García Jurado-Centurión]

Who are the buyers?

Mostly the collectors are local people, but we do have a few international collectors who come in for the auction.

Who donates the photographs?

The photographers who make donations are both local and international. Some are big names. It’s a way in which the wider photographic community can support the local Thai and Asian documentary photographers through Documentary Arts Asia.

Why did you choose to focus on documentary work?

It did not reflect a very strong existing interest in documentary photography locally. That is probably a very different approach than most festivals would take. Through Documentary Arts Asia and its festival I wanted to inspire greater interest in documentary photography and film. Our core goal is to develop and mentor Asian documentary photographers and filmmakers.

Is photography popular in Thailand?

Photography has gained a lot of popularity in the fifteen years since I moved to Thailand, but I feel that documentary practice has always been a very small part of Thai photography. That is very different from, say, neighbouring Burma, a country in which Documentary Arts Asia has been working extensively for the last eight years. For various reasons, Burma has a stronger inclination towards documentary.

Why do you think this is?

In Thai culture, ‘sabai-sabai’ (which literally translates as ‘relax, relax’) is the ethos of the nation. I think Thai people like images that are ‘pleasant’ – landscapes and glamourous portraiture, that kind of thing. Documentary photography is not always relaxing and comfortable to look at; it often shows us things in the world that are sad, violent and unjust; things that need to change. In contrast, people in Burma enjoy the challenges such images present; they are fighters. Thai people are more ‘laid back’ and, in most cases, don’t like overt confrontation.

A forum on photography in Burma: ‘What it’s like to shoot in Burma’ 2014 [photo: © Ryan Libre]

Why did you decide to include both still photography and moving image when many festivals choose only one or the other medium?

When I started the festival, the gap between the medium of photography and that of film was getting much smaller. Most filmmakers had switched to shooting movies on cameras that were essentially designed for still photography and many photographers began working with both the still and moving images. I was also working in both fields and loved them equally. I think this is where documentary is going. Many festivals have evening screenings of ‘slideshows’ of still photography, I just evolved that element of a festival to feature documentary films. To me, it seems a natural alliance.

I called this a documentary arts festival. The word ‘art’ is useful in two ways: one, it is shorter than saying “documentary photography and film festival” and, two, it suggests that the photographs and films that the festival shows are a blend of art and journalism.

Where and how do you show the work in the festival?

Over the years we have used more than one hundred venues for the festival… from museums to public plazas. Right now, I’m more interested in showing outdoors. It reaches a more diverse crowd who see the work and that is very important for me. I want to spread an appreciation of documentary practice outside of the relatively small circle of those who visits galleries and museums.

Is the festival themed each time?

No. Our program consists mainly of new long-term works made by Asian documentary artists in their home country. That in itself is already quite ‘niche’. If we tried to make a theme inside that niche it would simply be too limiting. For now, that is effectively our theme. However, as the amount and quality of work in Asia grows every year, I hope that perhaps soon we will be able to have themes inside of that niche while still presenting a varied and substantial program.

Who are some of the photographers you have shown from across Asia?

In 2013 we showed work from Shahidul Alam’s series ‘My Journey as a Witness’. Alam is a photographer, writer, activist and social entrepreneur who has documented the social and artistic struggles in his native Bangladesh. Although to outsiders it is a country known mostly for poverty and disasters, his work focuses on the drive for social justice.

The work of Suthep Kritsanavarin, which we showed in 2012, also focused on issues of social justice, this time on a global scale drawing attention to the plight of Rohingya people who have been rendered ‘stateless’ by Burma and Bangladesh. Years late, this became huge international news.

Meanwhile, in 2015, Park Jongwoo used highly charged landscapes of no-man’s land to explore the nature of ideological tension. His series ‘Forbidden Forest: DMZ’ presents a place that is uninhabited but under constant surveillance from both sides: the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

[Left] © Kajal Nisha Patel ‘Fabric’ 2011–2013; [Upper Right] © Maika Elan from the series ‘The Pink Choice’; [Lower Right] © Jannatul Mawa from the series ‘Close Distance’

Do you mainly show solo exhibitions?

Yes, I think that is important, because now everyone sees lots of single images online. We want people to have more familiarity with, and develop greater appreciation of, extended photo stories. However, we also present group exhibitions. For example, in 2013, Yumi Goto curated the ‘Asian Women Photographers’ Showcase’ which included work by Maika Elan from Vietnam, Kajal Nisha Patel from India and the Bangladeshi artist Jannatul Mawa.

Do you also show work by artists from outside Asia?

Right now we only show Asian photographers, but when we began we showed a lot of overseas photographers who had made work in Asia because we wanted to show just how powerful high quality documentary work could be.

© Tim Hetherington Trust ‘Tad Donoho, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan July 2008’ from the series ‘Infidel’
Tad Donoho screams with pain having had a ‘pink belly’ administered for his birthday. Each member of the platoon strikes his stomach until blood can be seen to rise, hence the name ‘pink belly’.

In 2014, within the frame of the F/28 festival (which has now combined with The Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival) we presented the work of the late Tim Hetherington. He was a prominent British photojournalist killed while covering the siege of Misrata during the 2011 Libyan civil war. We showed his series called ‘Infidel’, which focuses its attention on a US platoon posted to one of the most dangerous regions of Afghanistan during the war against the Taliban. What makes this series so poignant is that he focuses not on displays of bravura and heroism, but images that prove surprisingly tender in their depiction of the soldiers’ camaraderie and vulnerability.

© Ekkarat Punyatara ‘It’s Personal’ 2013
Buddhists clearing snow around the temple area. This kind of chore will be undertaken by Buddhists without the monk’s request.

Ekkarat Punyatara, a National Geographic Thai staff photographer, is based in Bangkok. Although he is firmly focused on Asia and Thailand, he knew that he must go to New York to get the training needed to take him to the next level. However, as soon as he had got that training, he came right back to shoot in Thailand. He has received scholarships from Foundry Workshop (2012) and Angkor Photo Workshop, Cambodia in 2013. His first solo exhibition at our festival ‘It’s Personal’, initiated a media controversy within Thailand for the way in which it challenged the traditionally conservative depictions of Buddhism in Thailand by documenting a group of Thai monks living in New York City.

The festival and gallery must have inspired a number of local photographers and helped them on their way in their career…

Yes, I think so. A couple of names come immediately come to mind. Hkun Li has been documenting refugees in the Kachin State of northern Burma on the China border. These are ‘slow’ projects which he will work on for a long time before he will show any images at all. The other is Hkun Lat, who is still only 19 years old, but already making a big name for himself. He has been shooting for the Associated Press and has been an invited guest of Visa Pour L’Image festival in Perpignan, France. Both have established careers right now and, for sure, the gallery and festival helped with this.

How might a photographer become involved in the festival?

To be honest, most of the work from the festival comes from invited artists whose work I see in portfolio reviews, exhibitions and at other festivals, but we always look at the submissions and do choose some works to show via this process. And, aside from the festival, we are always looking for exhibitions to program year-round at the Documentary Arts Asia gallery. So, readers, please apply! We are looking for long-term projects made in your home country, preferably close to your home so that you get the full depth of the story.

[Note: since this interview was made, the festival has closed, but the Documentary Arts Asia gallery will soon be reopening and once again seeking submissions. When updates become available, they will be posted here]

© An Rong Xu ‘My Americans’ 2013

Have you shown the work of Chinese photographers before?

Yes, of course. China is a close neighbour of Chiang Mai, and there is a real interest in Chinese photography.

We showed ‘Last Summer’, Wenjie Yang’s poetic documentation of the old Shi Ba Ti neighbourhood of Chongqing, which, although lacking modern luxuries we now take for granted, reminds her of the kind of community in which she was raised.

As an organisation we focus on two approaches: one is work by Asian photographers of their own locality and the other is about the Asian diaspora. An Rong Xu is a good example of the latter with his series ‘My Americans’.

Could you tell me about the Print Exchange? How this idea did come about and how does it work?

I first participated in a print exchange at Foundry Photojournalism workshops [a photography workshop to teach visual storytelling, held each year in a different international location], it was fun and simple to organise. Every artist can bring up to three prints and exchange them for the same number. I always walk away with three nice prints of others’ work for just the price of printing my own. Nothing to lose. As most people have not done it before, first time some just come to watch, but then they see how ‘cool’ it is and say they wished they would have brought prints to exchange.

Tell me about the Photobook Showcase. Why is this important in the age of the internet?

The book showcase is one of my favourite parts, and it attracts a lot of people that stay for quite a long time. I think it is important to explore the value of photobooks today because, after all, when was the last time you looked at over a hundred and fifty images on a screen and it kept your attention? These days, the photobook has become an art object. You can experience more deeply how the photographer wants you to engage the work, based on scale, paper stock, design and so on.

[Upper Left] A volunteer mixes mud and straw for the production of adobe bricks [photo: © Ryan Libre]; [Lower Left] Non Tiddin, who was the assistant director at Chiang Mai Documentary Arts for its first four years, rests for a moment from making adobe bricks. [photo: © Ryan Libre]; [Right] A volunteer works on the metal fittings for the new gallery. [photo: © Isa Pengsagun]

Tell me about the new Documentary Arts Asia Centre. How did it come about?

We raised about $13,000 USD through crowd funding. The gallery is built from adobe bricks, which a team of volunteers and I made ourselves from mud and straw. It took over 160 cubic metres of mud to create the 5,000 large blocks with which we constructed the building. We did it all: laid the foundations, built the walls. I did the electrical work. It took us about six months, but then it was done and we opened to the public.

The new adobe-built Documentary Arts Asia Centre [photo: © June W. Tri-yasakda]

I think it is wonderful that you and your volunteer friends have built a public facility with your bare hands. What’s the new centre like?

It’s a beautiful natural-feeling semi-open-air gallery. The gallery is about 90 square metres inside. We have a very busy program: we host almost two hundred events a year. We screen films, stage a new exhibition every month, host talks and workshops … but we also let other groups such as local NGOs use the space. We don’t get too involved in the issues of those organisations, what we want to do is help support people and organisations who are seeking to use documentary photography and film.

What makes your festival different from other festivals?

We focus on Asia and Asian Artists. We embrace both film and photography. And we are totally independent!

Biographical Notes

Ryan Libre left the US Army to take a degree in Peace Studies. A photographer, curator, media educator, filmmaker and social entrepreneur, he brings a remarkable range of experience to each project he undertakes. He was awarded grants from the Pulitzer Center, and from the W. Eugene Smith Fund to promote visual literacy in Thailand. He has developed workshops for UNESCO, the European Union and the Olympic Committee, and delivered two TEDx talks. In Kachin State in the north of Myanmar, he also directs Sakse Agency (media group), the Naw Ming Media Award and Everyday Kachin, which promotes the emerging visual art in that region. He has called Asia home for two decades.

Established in 2012, Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival was held in the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a biennial event alternating with the Chiang Mai month of Photography. The festival closed in 2017 when its founder, Ryan Libre, left Thailand to work in Myanmar. Information on past festivals can be found here:

While the festival has now closed, the Documentary Arts Asia Centre will soon be reopening and once again seeking submissions from photographers in Asia. When information becomes available it will be posted here:

This article was first published in Chinese, in the November 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.