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A revered photographer remembers (Part I)

A revered photographer remembers (Part I)

Boonserm Satrabhaya famous for his historical pictures of Chiang Mai

Nopniwat Krailerg and Preeyanoot Jittawong

“In the past, whenever people saw me standing on a road to take pictures of mundane things, they thought I was clown, but nowadays those pictures have become very valuable,” Boonserm Satrabhaya told us when we finally managed to get to talk to him about his life.

Boonserm Satrabhaya, now 76 years of age.

Now a man of 76, Boonserm lives on Chareunmuang Road Soi 8. His residence is called “Kru Pap Kao Muang Chiang Mai”, roughly translated as the “Home of Chiang Mai’s Old Pictures”, where he keeps pictures of historical buildings, places, temples, people, cultural images and important events in Chiang Mai from the past.

Boonserm used to be a reporter for “Khon Muang” publishing and pioneered photographing the Mlabri (Yellow Leaf people) living in the forests of Nan province. This brought him national recognition and throughout his life he has collected a large number of both black-and-white and color photos. Some of these photos have been used for Chiang Mai calendars and as wall hangings which have decorated many households over the years.

A prize for the best national feature (about Mlabri people), received in 1964.

We found Boonserm in a nostalgic mood and he told us a little about his life. Before becoming a reporter he was a fertilizer merchant living at Ton Lam Yai Market. His store, “Pui Wattana” opened in 1950 but even then he was interested in photography and enjoyed taking pictures with his Leica camera. A brother-in-law who was involved in photography persuaded him to take pictures throughout the northern region for which he became well known in journalistic circles. In 1953, Khon Muang newspaper was established and he was asked to travel to Burma with editor Sa-ngad Bunjongsilp to record an historic event there.

The news at that time was Burma informing the UN that the 93rd division that was defeated by Mao Tse-tung’s forces had fled to Burma and were raping and pillaging, and trading in opium, which was troubling the Burmese. The UN set up committees led by the USA, and joined by Thai forces, to expel this division from Burma. There were not many reporters who dared travel to cover the story because the Mae Sai border was difficult and dangerous to reach. Only two or three Thai reporters from Bangkok’s Siam Rath and Pim Thai newspapers dared to go - the rest of the press contingent were from foreign news agencies such as UPI and Reuters. The bulletins and pictures sent by Boonserm and his editor brought him fame but he was not yet a full time reporter, as he still ran his own business rather than working full time as a news hunter.

Mlabri people news that was published in Khon Muang newspaper.

Later, he became involved in the “Yuttakarn Doi Pakha” affair, which covered the Haw Chinese living in Chiang Mai who had set up an opium production factory behind Doi Pui, a Hmong village. Pol. Gen. Phao Sriyanon, commissioner general assigned as border patrol and police of Dararasami Military Camp (present name) joined with parachute troops and four helicopters to assault the factory. Again, Boonserm and his editor joined the police to record the story and had to travel several days and nights, taking shelter in Doi Pui villages. The two brave reporters even had to hide weapons under mattresses for their own protection. They walked for more than two days until they arrived at their destination. Finally the attack on the factory was mounted and it was seized. Many Haw Chinese criminals were killed and arrested and raw opium was confiscated. To report the news at that time, they needed to use military radio to the base at Suan Dok Temple, where others would transcribe the reports and send them on to local newspapers. Totally unlike the preferred treatment journalists now enjoy, at that time reporters often had to wait at train stations to seek out VIP’s to get information for their bulletins.

Mlabri people news that was published in Khon Muang newspaper.

Even though Boonserm had produced several headline news reports, he still did not regard himself as a real reporter; nevertheless, he was always asked to take pictures whenever any beauty contest or other event took place. He also took pictures of the King and Queen’s activities when both were visiting the northern region. He used a news agency press card because his brother and brother-in-law worked for that agency. Using his own money he followed the King and Queen to Phitsanulok, Sukhothai, Tak and Lamphun, but he was requested to remove the press card before entering Chiang Mai because the US Consulate had set up in Chiang Mai. He told us smilingly that by then, he no longer needed a borrowed card as government officials had begun to know him as a photographer in his own right.

In 1960, he quit the fertilizer business as Khon Muang newspaper became a daily rather than a fortnightly publication, covering major news events, and he became a full time reporter.

The second part of Boonserm’s account will be published next week.

Songkran Festival at Mae Ping River under the old Nawarat Bridge.

Different kinds of collected cameras, and displayed in Boonserm’s showcase.

Boonserm photographing the Yellow Leaf people.

Songkran Festival in 1964 at Nawarat Bridge, when the bridge still was an iron structure.

Some of Boonserm’s photo collection.

Another of the first pictures of Mlabri, or Yellow Leaf people in the world, taken by an anthropologist remembered as Dr. Bernard, who wrote about the Mlabri people in Thailand.

Boonserm amongst the Yellow Leaf people.

First pictures of Mlabri, or Yellow Leaf people in the world, taken by an anthropologist remembered as Dr. Bernard, who wrote about the Mlabri people in Thailand.

Last week’s flood was “the worst in 40 years” – this is one of Boonserm’s photos of that flood 40 years ago.