No Secrets – Photographing the Monks of Thailand

I received an email this morning from a nice Italian man asking about photographing monks in Thailand. As I was typing my reply the thought came to me that this topic may make a good blog post.

A man is helped putting on the orange robes of a Thai Buddhist monk for the first time

I have many photographs of Thai Buddhist monks, especially in rural Thailand. In fact, Thai monks became a subcategory of my main project to document life in rural Thailand. I found after living in rural Thailand for a while, that it was impossible to separate rural Thai life from religion. The main group of people I’m working with are very devout Thai Buddhists. I always try to use the word “Thai” when I describe Buddhism here, because it is a unique form of the religion, incorporating many ancient beliefs and customs.

The procession for 3 Men who will become Thai Buddhist Monks

Wolfe Lowenthal wrote a book about Cheng Man Ch’ing, a T’ai Chi Chuan master, titled “There Are No Secrets”  It was one of my favorite books as a youth. The book was written at a time when some people believed that the reason master Ch’ing was so powerful in his martial art was that he possessed some kind of secret technique, passed on to him by his master and the rest of us could never reach his level of skill until we knew that secret. Wolfe Lowenthal dispelled that myth. The secret was, there is no secret, to achieve a level of skill that master Cheng Man Ch’ing had achieved, all you need do is work very hard all day long and well into the night every single day of your life practicing your art. If you do this you will be as good as master Ch’ing. I know this to be true on a personal level, having studied the martial arts for 20 years as a much younger man. In photography, photographs must come from the heart, you have to feel it before you push the shutter. The better you can transfer emotion from your heart to your eye and then the viewfinder, the better your images will become. This takes practice. For me that means shooting every day.

A soon-to be Thai Monk is praying at the spirit house on the temple grounds for good luck.

When it comes to shooting monks, or any person for that matter, there is a deeper personal philosophy involved. I simply believe that everyone is created equal, and therefore it is my job as a photographer to show equal compasion, and give equal dignity to anyone I photograph, and to try my best to tell their story. People sense the compassion I have for my subjects, and because of my actions and demeanor most people feel OK with my photographing them, and let me get very close. This would be very difficult to teach others, as my method of interacting with people comes from a lifetime of being a “people person”.

A Head Shaving Ceremony Before a Thai Ordination

The man who wrote the email this morning had been to my Flickr albums and had looked at my work. He noticed that the majority of my work was in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand. Although he had been to Thailand several times he had not heard of Nakhon Nayok, and asked where it is. This is not unusual, Nakhon Nayok, is not on the tourist maps. It is, as a friend of mine calls it, Nakhon Nowhere. The gentleman asked where Nakhon Nayok is in hopes to find a place where there lots of monks to photograph. My answer may have been a little disappointing. I told him it is estimated that there were over 251,997 monks and 69,907 novices in Thailand in 2009. Close to 95% of Thais are Buddhist, and since the majority of Thai men become a monk for at least a short time in their lives the actual number of Thai monks in Thailand is difficult to say, but there are a lot of monks. I’m sure there are as many Buddhist monks in Thailand as most Buddhist countries anywhere in the world, and probably more so, at any given time, so you don’t need to search out Nakhon Nayok to photograph Thai monks. You will find an abundance of Thai monks everywhere in Thailand.

An Image that Appeared in National Geographic Magazine, 100 Monks Trek across Thailand

 Where to Photograph Monks:

The easiest way to photograph monks in Thailand is to catch them on their morning walk for alms. This morning walk for alms is tradition in Thailand. It is a Buddhist requirement, that the monks walk for alms each morning. There are exceptions however. Here in rural Thailand there is what are called “monk days” when the people bring food to the temple and the monks do not go on their morning walk. Every location is different and here monk day is usually Wednesday. There is also Buddhist lent, Khao Phansa Day, and a myriad of other local holidays which they do not walk, so asking a local is a good idea. My rule of thumb is, when I’m traveling, if I don’t see monks by 6:30 to 7:00 AM it is a holiday. That’s an over simplified  explanation, but you catch my drift, if you don’t see monks wait until tomorrow and try again.

Morning Alms Walk in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

A monks day usually begins at 5 AM and by 6:30 AM you will find them making the rounds for alms. So you will need to get up early to photograph monks on their morning alms walk. They are usually finished by 7:30 to 8:00 AM and return to the tempe. In rural areas monks walk along the main roads stopping for alms at local homes. When traveling, I usually find a market to photograph monks in the morning. In Bangkok, Khlong Toei Market is the world’s largest open air market and you will find plenty of monks there at 6:30 AM and shortly after. In a rural area it is easy to find a local market, they are everywhere. It is just common sense to look for Monks in the markets, markets are where the food is. Monks do stop and allow people to make merit by giving alms everywhere they go on their alms walk, so the early morning almost anywhere in Thailand is ideal for photographing monks.

Morning Market in the City of Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

In the Temple:

If you go to my albums you will notice many shots of monks in the temple. A person unfamiliar with me personally may ask, how do I get so many shots of monks in the temple, and how do I get so close? There are no secrets. I live in Nakhon Nayok. I attend most ceremonies in the local temple. I have spent 7 years making friends with the monks. I give the monks disks and prints and used to make a DVD slideshow (when we still used DVDs) with the stills of the photos I make. The monks ask me to come and photograph special events. They trust me. They don’t mind if I get close to them while they are praying, and I know the ceremony well enough to back off when I need to so I don’t become a distraction or nuisance. I realize that my relationship with the monks is not what a tourist is going to have, I have, through hard work and kindness, developed a relationship with the monks that a tourist is going to find difficult to duplicate. That does not mean that as a tourist you can’t make great shots in a temple. My advice is to go to a temple and ask if anything is going on. You may find that there is a ceremony or festival planned, and then just go, anyone is welcome. When you attend there are some courtesies you should follow.

Monks Pray and Bless the Food Before a Community Meal

Wear Moderate dress. This is a church, treat it like one. Men should wear long pants, and women should cover to the ankle. Nothing racy for a woman. Everywhere between the elbows and ankles should be covered at a minimum. Do not wear loads of jewelry.

Take off your Shoes before entering a temple. Some of my  western friends cringe at this idea. What if my feet are smelly? Just do it. It is highly disrespectful to enter a Thai home or temple with your shoes on. You will probably be asked to remove your shoes if you don’t, so avoid the embarrassment. An easy way to know when to remove your shoes in other areas is to look for the pile of shoes. If a store or diner has shoes at the front door, remove your shoes.

Makha Bucha Day, Nakhon Nayok, Thailand.

Do not step on the threshold. There is usually a threshold painted red across the doorway of a temple or ordination hall. Do not walk on this, step over it. It has to do with keeping evil spirits out as well as in some cases high water.

Do not sit or stand higher than a monk. This rule is tough, so it is the attempt that counts. There are many times you are going to end up taller (higher) than the monk. Also it is a matter of context, at a food shop or mall, they require no special treatment, however at the temple while praying, monks are seated higher than the congregation. Just observe how the Thai’s do it. If they need to walk while a monk is sitting they deeply bow low while they walk. If I need to make a photograph and a monk is looking at me I will smile or bow or Wai and make the photo. Don’t be surprised if a monk does not return your greeting, they are supposed to remain detached, that is a principal of Buddhism, and it’s ok. Don’t be a paparazzi, plan your shot, take your shot and sit down.

Don’t use flash. Flash disturbs everyone. I know many churches in the US that have banned photography. Why? Flash, it is disruptive. Most modern cameras (even the less expensive cameras) are good enough you do not need flash so don’t use it. Sorry, but using flash is just plain rude.

Monks pray before a meal given them by devotees for merit in the temple.

There are a bunch of other more subtle rules, in general just do what the Thai’s are doing show respect and smile a lot and you will be fine. The Thai people are very tolerant and forgiving, if you show respect and try to honor their customs they will be very grateful and treat you like a royalty.

The final word of advice I will give is just about photography in general. Treat people well and you will be rewarded. I have read horror stories about the monks being aloof  unfriendly and all the rest. I have found just the opposite. If I see a monk in the park at a table by himself, often I will walk up and say hi. I have found monks usually love to talk, practice English and find out about you, where you come from, what do you think of Thailand?

Happy shooting.

An Image that Appeared in National Geographic Magazine
Art Prints

2 thoughts on “No Secrets – Photographing the Monks of Thailand

  1. Sal Catania

    Yesterday I made a spaghetti dinner for about 28 monks at the temple in Ocheecobee, Fl. USA. I didn’t attent, I asks the girl bringing the food to take a photo of the monks eating. When she returned she said she was not allowed to photograph the monks eating. Why is that, our did she just forget and told me a story.

    1. Lee Post author

      Hello Sal Catania, thanks for posting. I can’t answer that one. I have photographed monks at a meal many times, but … I don’t think it is particularly appealing and actually a little rude to photograph anyone eating. Maybe that is what the monks thought, and wanted privacy. I usually time my photos so it is just after or just before they are actually eating their meal. As far as protocol, the rules of monks in temples may vary about photography from location to location. In this case the monks may have wanted their privacy, impossible for me to tell without being there. It is always a good idea to ask and explain why you want photos. In my case I am a foreigner, and the monks are aware of my wanting to document and record events, and have no problem with it, in part because my family supports the temple activities and I myself have given many donations to the temple. Each group of monks and temple is going to be unique, and may or may not have rules regarding photography. The best rule of thumb is to be nice, smile and ask. Thank you … Lee

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