Light, shapes & shadow
5 min read

Light, shapes & shadow

Beautiful lessons from a Bangkok street photographer
Light, shapes & shadow

Phichai Kaewvichit has an amazing eye for beauty in the smallest details. His eye, his passion, and his way of working reveal how honing one's craft can be done even when options appear to be limited. His work shows us that the only limitation one faces is the way in which the world is seen around them

"I think about art all around me," he said. You could always tell he was smiling, even though his mouth was covered with a mask. "I look for shapes and lights and shadows. It all just comes from a feeling."

Outside of his day job driving a motorcycle taxi around the sweltering roads of Bangkok, he spends 2 hours a day wandering around the streets with his compact camera taking remarkably vibrant, often abstract, photos. He always felt he had it in him to be an artist, but the path hasn’t been easy.

Originally coming from a modest home in Northern Thailand, he has spent the last 20 years shuttling citizens across Bangkok on a motorbike to support his family. The days can be long and the rewards slim: for a 2 km ride on his bike the fee is around 80 cents USD.

Kaewvichit never had any formal training in photography and never went to art school. It simply wasn't possible for him and his family.

"Many years ago I was interested in photography," he told me as we strolled around Talat Noi, narrow streets in the old town of Bangkok teeming with markets and food stalls. "I saw amazing photographers travelling the world, with really expensive equipment. I couldn't do that - so I carried on working."

However, as time passed he started taking photos on his smartphone and publishing to Instagram. His passion began to take over.

"Around 2 years ago I started taking photos more seriously," he said. "I sold a motorbike to buy this compact camera and spent time each day between working taking photos."

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What initially seemed to be a limitation started to become a strength. With no interest in 'gear' (a common trap amateur photographers can find themselves in, obsessing over the most ideal camera with the sleekest bodies and biggest lenses), Kaewvichit stuck to his vision and started taking hundreds of photos. Slowly, he built up a his following on Instagram.

When asked how he came to find his style Kaewvichit says, "I liked abstract paintings and many street photographers. But I've had no training. I only really know the basics in photography. So many people know much more than me. I just go with my feeling. I like the mystery."

I enjoyed how simple he made it sound, how he wasn't bogged down in conventions and certain ways of working.

He had his modest camera, his vision, and his passion, and by applying them each and every day for 2 years he began to find success. His Instagram now has over 85,000 followers and he currently has an exhibition in Bangkok's high-end art and antiques mall, River City.

As we walk, he suddenly stops. We’ve stepped out of a narrow alleyway and he is looking across the yard: "Can you see that?” He asks me.

On one side sits an old Buddhist temple, on the other other two men sit under the shade of a huge tree. He’s pointing at what looks like a garage door. I look  closer and slowly see what he sees: a white gate with irregular lines highlighted by a bright pink wall behind it.

It took me about 20 seconds to see when being told to look. Kaewvichit saw it in a split second.

"I just look and look, take my time. Sometimes I will turn back as well, to make sure I don't miss anything."

When I ask how he 'sees' the world around him, he points up to a cluster of buildings. "I don't see buildings. I see lights, shapes, and colour."

He then snaps two photos on his little camera. He shows me and they are both stunning. My eye follows the abstract lines and shapes, and I look back to the building to understand where they sit in the real world. It's a beautiful thing to see art created in real-time simply from what is right in front of us.

When asked about his exhibition, he says he is pleased to share his work. But just as important, he says, is that he wants to encourage other aspiring artists to feel that it is possible to create and share their own work with the world.

"Anyone can do it, you just need to trust your feeling and your vision. And just keep trying.”

What I learned from Kaewvichit

I have always been a keen photographer and admit I have sometimes fallen into the gear trap. Knowing there was always a better camera or lens out there often planted a seed in my head that 'this photo could be better with a better camera'.

I've since learned how this is utterly wrong, but Kaewvichit really drove this point home.

Gear, whether it be cameras, computers, software and so on, does not need to define your work. In fact, limitations helped sharpen Kaewvichit’s focus and vision, and improved his creativity. It’s just his eye and his point-and-shoot camera - no distractions.

This lesson can perhaps be translated to a host of areas such as online courses, productivity systems, and research. They can all be useful but too much can hold you back from actually doing anything.

The concept of 'working inside the box' comes to mind.

By limiting your options you create space to focus and tap into your creativity. On the other hand, if you give yourself limitless options, you're likely to become creatively paralysed, unable to choose which path to take for fear of leaving the right one behind you.

In my own amateur photography life, I know I saw parts of the world in similar ways to Kaewvichit. Take these two photos taken years apart in Croatia and India as an example:

These are two among hundreds of photos of varying styles (and quality). There is no consistency in what I produce. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if I was seriously looking to become a professional photographer, sticking to one style and aesthetic is a sure way to hone your craft in a productive way.

Same goes for anything else: writing, video production, drawing, painting, etc.

Kaewvichit also put the hours in, consistently. Two hours per day, each and every day, for two years.

Putting 1,500 hours into any endeavour that you are truly passionate about for two years will put you on the path to success.

One other thing I noticed on his Instagram: he responds to every comment. He really appreciates his followers, and his personality – humble, positive, passionate – is reflected in his online presence.

Kaewvichit is authentic: he is being himself, with his unique eye on the world, and no one can compete with him on that. There's definitely a lesson in there for all of us.

Visit Kaewvichit's work:

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