This Pow-wow takes us to Thailand, where our Bangkok correspondent Adulaya Hoontrakul meets photographer Cattleya Jaruthavee for a chat about her practice and what it means to be “pretty” in Thai society. 

One fine Monday afternoon, I met with Cattleya Jaruthavee (“Katie”), a Thai-British photographer, based in Bangkok with her son and husband. A Master’s graduate in Photojournalism from the University of Westminster, Katie pursued this degree after finishing a Sociology undergraduate course from Bristol University.

Cattleya Jaruthavee, 2017
(Holding her son off frame with her right arm)

I’ve been a follower of her work since her first solo show at a small Bangkok gallery in 2011. Lonely Land was a series of photographic works about the Esarn region of Thailand. Majority of the younger population in the Esarn region have departed to seek better opportunities elsewhere, leaving the aged and dry land behind. Katie’s sensitivity to the stillness in the air of the region caught my eye.

Lonely Land One from the Lonely Land series of works

I would later find out more about this sense of intuition as we talked over lunch at her home.

I buzz her phone and she opens the door swiftly, welcoming me with a warm hug. The table is set with fresh vegetables and smoked salmon, putting my own lunch the day before to shame – suffice to say, it was fried at least twice! We sit down and her husband joins us. I get the art conversation going:

So what made you interested in photography?

For me it’s always been about the truth. Since I can remember, I’ve always been an avid believer that whatever is true has to be told. Everyone has a voice and the right to tell their story. I hate unjust situations, where for example someone’s been framed or has had harm put on them and other people are not speaking up on their behalf. I don’t want to point any fingers but I grew up in Thailand seeing many unfair situations, which are still going on now.

I actually always wanted to be a photographer, but it wasn’t encouraged by my family because they’re very traditional. So I put that interest on hold and did Sociology at university as I was interested in human interaction. After that, when I was figuring out what to do with a Sociology degree, I started to become interested in cameras again. And so, I began looking at social issues with my camera.

The two interests merged?

Yes, I would say so, because I was never a tech geek who would look for the latest model (of camera). The photography didn’t come from the gadget, and I enjoyed the story-telling part (of things). It’s definitely more about the subject inspiration. I’ll then choose a suitable camera for a particular body of work.

Would you categorise yourself as a documentary photographer?

This whole “pigeonholing” thing – I did it at the beginning when I started my Master’s degree. I called myself a “photojournalist” – until I actually started on photojournalistic projects – then I just felt like I wasn’t one, as there are so many ways of telling a story.

I also realised that war zones were not for me, though I have tremendous respect for those who dedicate their lives to documenting them. When I started doing my first real project, I realized that I enjoyed spending time with my subjects and getting to know them. So that’s when I started to feel a bit more like a documentary photographer. But then, I started coming up with all these ideas of “fine art” photo projects. I then thought that I should just call myself a “photographer” because who knew, maybe one day I’d want to do product photography?

I think when you’re an artist, no matter in what form, you (should be) open to exploring different media all the time. So that’s why I prefer to just say that I’m a “photographer.”

Can you tell me more about your first project? What was it like and how did you prepare for it?

My first project was called Pretties. That was actually a really complex one. A “pretty” is technically a type of female model used in Thailand to promote products like cars, or even washing up liquid!

You know you see them in malls, but I started seeing different sides of “pretties” with advertising signs saying “นวดโดยสาวพริตตี้” (“Massage by young pretties”) or I would overhear conversations between men saying “ไปเล๊าจมาพริตตี้สวยมาก” (“Went to a lounge, pretties were so hot!”). So it seemed that lounge hostesses were called “pretties” as well. It was strange as the term “pretty” was changing to also encompass sexual-related work. The term just became very muddled, with no defining role. I decided then to research and photograph every (kind of girl) who is called a “pretty.”

You have to read between the lines alot when the girls talk to you. Some of them are quite open like, “Oh my parents don’t know…” or “My parents do know but they don’t mind because I’m sending money home to them…

I went to one of the girls’ apartments and I knew she couldn’t afford the rent for a place like that on a freelance “pretty” salary. She only worked maybe one job a week – it was definitely not enough to pay for the place. Obviously, one can’t jump to conclusions but I’m sure she was getting help – which is not a problem – but I felt like I had to navigate the situation to get the truth from her about her life.

I don’t know if it’s because when you work as a “pretty”, in a way you are never yourself? Perhaps, the facade that you are always creating eventually becomes part of yourself? You don’t know where the truth starts and where it ends? I found that part really complex to get my head around.

Untitled from the Pretties series

Is there some sort of magician’s code for documentary photographers? Like how to get information or stories, out of people?

That was the other complication in this project. Because so many girls overlap as escort girls, especially in the coyote clubs (Editor’s note: Coyote clubs are upmarket Thai nightspots which feature attractive, sometimes semi-professional club dancers), I couldn’t document their clients (who are mostly married men). I wasn’t allowed to photograph any of that. I got into a club purely through connections with the police.

You went in as a journalist?

Well, I never lie when I’m doing my research, so I told them I was doing my Master’s project on “pretties” and asked if I could interview the staff members. Obviously, I didn’t have full reign in selecting the girls, because the club made the selection. The manager was sitting there with us the whole time – honestly, I felt like I was surrounded by thugs. It was an expensive place, but I felt like I was in some sort of Tokyo Drift – type dodgy club! The manager sat with us to monitor the situation. I was really hoping for some woman-to-woman interaction. The girl told me what she could tell me, but it was really hard actually.

The work Puen which sees a “pretty” under surveillance

Some of the Pretties series was shot at the girls’ homes when they were getting ready, hanging out—did the conversation there flow better, since the nature of the environment was one they could control?

They definitely told me alot more at their homes compared to conversations at the club where their “guards” were. But like I said, because the girls might have male sponsors, and because they’re so used to living in deception, it’s almost as though the deception has become a reality. So even if you’re in their bedroom at their apartment, there’s still an element of concealment. That being said, I’m sure that was the most I would ever get from them, because they themselves might feel like (the deception is) the truth now.

Did you put in any visual elements? In terms of editing, light and colours for example?

Well I don’t usually enhance my pictures, unless I feel that it serves a purpose.

So those were the aesthetics of the environment?

Exactly, so, the shot of Blythe Dolls in this series – it’s really interesting because the girl actually collected the dolls and they cost like 20,000 baht per doll, as they are collectors’ items. She had a few, which was really surreal. She said that’s what she likes to spend her salary on.

I’d like to touch on the concept of gender a little more. What role did it play for you on and off the field?

Well, with the Pretties project, people would say to me that I was lucky to be able to do the project because I’m a woman.  If you compare photos taken by male photographers of, let’s say, sex workers or escort girls, they tend to be more sexualised. I don’t know if it’s the way the female reacts to a male presence or if the girls are just so used (to behaving that way).

At the same time, I really like the photos I managed to get because the girls were not “in action,” throwing their boobs out for example, which is what I’ve seen in some works by male photographers. I was getting really mood-filled portraits from the girls, which maybe no male would be able to get? The mood was just  different. Even if a male photographer didn’t have the intention of showing the girls in (a sexualized) way, it could just be the way the subjects are used to reacting to a male figure.

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As we finished our lunch and decaffeinated coffees (served in the most amazing mugs), I thanked Katie for making room for this interview. As a mother, she’s clearly a master of multi-tasking (feeding her adorable son intermittently as we spoke) – as a mother and an artist, I’m convinced she must have 8 extra arms tucked neatly away somewhere. Most importantly though, she gives a voice to those who need to be heard. Her art helps to facilitate social justice, and I’m all for it.

If you are too, find out more about Katie’s work here.