IMAGO/ZUMA Wire/Varuth Pongsapipatt

LGBTQ+ in Thailand Highlighted: Interview with Varuth Pongsapipatt

Discover firsthand how Thai photojournalist Varuth Pongsapipatt uses his camera to highlight overlooked social issues and underrepresented communities, including LGBTQ+ and those in Thailand’s sex industry.

Varuth Pongsapipatt Interview on The Game Magazine
A portrait of Varuth Pongsapipatt. Image courtesy of Varuth Pongsapipatt.

Varuth Pongsapipatt is a photojournalist based in Bangkok who uses his camera to highlight overlooked social issues and underrepresented communities, such as LGBTQ+ and those involved in the sex industry in Thailand. In his work as a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, Varuth approaches his subjects with profound respect and trust, whether capturing candid moments at Pride Parades or documenting the social issues and complex lives of LGBTQ+ in Thailand.

Through his projects like “The Unhinged Stories”, which showcases the complex lives of Thai people working in the sex industry, he becomes what he calls a “highlighter pen” for societal issues, specifically the taboos of the sex industry in Thailand.

In an interview with The Game Magazine, Varuth explains his journey into photojournalism, his approach to capturing the essence of social issues and LGBTQ+ in Thailand, and his experiences documenting sensitive and neglected issues in Thailand.

“I only believe that my photographs are just a highlighter pen that makes people recognize various lives, not just a myth or an image representation of a stereotype in one’s mind.” – Varuth Pongsapipatt.

Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt
IMAGO / Zuma Wire / Varuth Pongsapipatt | LGBTQ activist in Thailand seen waving a rainbow flag during the pride parade. Pattaya.

What first drew you to photojournalism, and how did you begin your journey in this field?

Since university, I have been interested in photojournalism. After I joined the photography class, which is unrelated to my faculty (Future Forward PartyI studied in political science), I thought photojournalism was the best way to describe and portray the inequality issues in Thailand. Photographs have the power to persuade people in society to focus on neglected issues.

My first job was in an entertainment magazine, which I chose because I wanted to get experience as a professional photographer. At that time, there were few photojournalist positions in Thai media.  After I resigned, I started working as a television news reporter before I realized I preferred to stand behind the camera. After I resigned from being a television news reporter, I spent almost one year documenting a photo documentary about male sex workers. The gender issue came to mind since I studied gender and politics at university. When my project is done, I face a hard time pitching this project to Thai media because of the taboo about sex workers in Thailand. When my project was first published in 2016,  I realized there were no places for junior document photographers in the Thai media industry. So, I started working as a journalist in a Thai business newspaper.

After working as a journalist for three years, I found that sometimes I must take photographs at the same time, and I still have a passion for photojournalism. I quit my role as a journalist in the first half of 2019, about the same time as the beginning of Thai political tension between pro-democracy protesters and the Prayut Chan-o-cha government. I started pitching my photostories to Thai media outlets in 2020, then joined SOPA Images as a contributor. Now, I continue my role as a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer.

You often photograph the candid moments and impressions from several parades. Could you describe your typical process on the streets for events like Pride Parades and others? How do you prepare yourself?

First, I always reveal myself as a photojournalist by hanging the press card. When I am at the place, I need to find a schedule from the staff or try to ask people around to get as much information as I need. Then, I roam around to find interesting things to shoot. If I find other photojournalists, I always share the information with them.

When the event starts, it is better to open your eyes wide and predict every movement. Some shots will come in front of you suddenly, so keep awake but not too alert. But for events like Pride Parades, you should enjoy the moment while taking photographs and be friendly to people. The right shot will come at the right time.

“Let them be themselves. Be friendly, shoot with respect, bow your head, and make eye contact.” – Varuth Pongsapipatt.

Varuth Pongsapipatt photographing LGBTQ Parade in Thailand.
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt

How do you approach capturing the essence and emotion of LGBTQ+ activism in your photos?

Let them be themselves. Be friendly, shoot with respect, bow your head, and make eye contact. Always reveal yourself, not sneaking and hiding behind the camera. All of your nonverbal language could be used as a signal of a sentence like “Could I take a photograph of you?”. If the answer is not, it means no. If the answer is yes, you might get a good shot.

Pride Parade in Thailand
IMAGO / Zuma Press Wire / Varuth Pongsapipatt | Performers wearing fancy costumes seen performing a show for an open ceremony of 2024 Pattaya Community Pride Parade. The SWING foundation Service Workers IN Group held its third pride parade. The participants include sex workers, ex-sex workers, activists, and the community of LGBTQ in Thailand. – The Game Magazine

What equipment do you prefer for those events and why? Are there specific lenses or camera settings you find indispensable?

I always use Canon R6 with RF 24-105mm F4 lens and Canon 5D mark3 with EF 70-200mm f4 IS lens. But somehow, I think it’s too exhausting to carry two bodies of cameras. So, I stopped carrying Canon 5D mark3. I use only Canon R6 with RF 24-105mm F4 lens and EF 70-200mm f4 IS lens.

Nowadays, I carry only Canon R6 with RF 24-105mm F4 lens or sometimes with Godox TT350C. This set makes me flexible to move, and the lens range still covers what I need. F4 is enough, and 105mm still gives me some telephoto shots (not an extreme close-up, but I chose comfortable instead). This set also doesn’t make my appearance look like a soldier carrying heavy gear running around in the parade; it’s a much more friendly look.

“At first, I just wanted to photograph a story of male sex workers in Thailand as a personal project to highlight the abandoned problems in Thai society that LGBTQ sex workers face in everyday life.” – Varuth Pongsapipatt.

LGBTQ in Thailand
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt. The community of LGBTQ and sex workers in Thailand

Last year, you launched a photo project, “The Unhinged Stories,” that showcases the complex lives of Thai people working in the sex industry. How did this project come about? What did you aim for with this project?

The Unhinged Stories project was the project I started around eight years ago. At first, I just wanted to photograph a story of male sex workers in Thailand as a personal project to highlight the abandoned problems in Thai society that LGBTQ sex workers face in everyday life. Luckily, I got support from a male sex workers community called SWING Foundation (Service Workers IN Group). They provided contacts, information, and also an opportunity to join the community. I spent almost one year finishing the first phase of this project (5-6 months to get acceptance for photographs). After I found that this issue was prohibited in Thailand due to publishing, I postponed this project and started to work as a journalist for a Thai business newspaper.

When I resigned from a Thai business newspaper and began working as a freelance photojournalist, the taboo of Thai sexual content got attention from society because of the arrest of Onlyfans creators with the charges of “violates a good moral, and must keep it in secret”. An editor in a Thai online media outlet who saw the male sex workers’ story saw the opportunity. Then he called me to cover another sexual issue in Thailand, and this project has been continued. I continue this project with a good relationship with the male sex workers community called SWING Foundation (Service Workers IN Group). They provide contacts of sex workers, and I set the project goal as various stories of Thai people in the sex industry purpose to tell stories of them as humans in everyday life, not as sexual fantasy objects.

This project gathered collections of my photographs about various stories of Thai people in the sex industry and narrated them in a photo essay and was greatly supported by my friends, Assist. Prof. Karntachat Raungratanaamporn and Jamas Kositvichaya. The photobook finished and was published in June 2023.

“Male and transgender sex workers also face pressure from their families because LGBTQs and sex work are still unacceptable in many communities in Thailand.” – Varuth Pongsapipatt.

The community of LGBTQ and sex workers in Thailand
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt. The community of LGBTQ and sex workers in Thailand

While preparing this project, did you face any challenges or intense situations?

Due to the consequence of the sex worker issue in Thailand, prostitution is not illegal in complicated ways of Thai law but with the circumstance that it should not be a “shameless manner or … nuisance to the public”. This definition lets the officers have the authority to judge by themselves and have an opportunity to get a bribe from sex workers. Male and transgender sex workers also face pressure from their families because LGBTQs and sex work are still unacceptable in many communities in Thailand.

These consequences made me build trust with the sex workers’ community for 5-6 months before I started to photograph my first sex worker portrait. I could say that sex work is a sensitive issue because this community has been abused by law enforcement and rejected by society for a long time. To cover this story, trust is the most important thing I need.

“Respect and trust are also the primary keys of this project, and I inform my subjects about what I will do.” – Varuth Pongsapipatt.

IMAGO / Zuma Press Wire / Varuth Pongsapipatt
IMAGO / Zuma Press Wire / Varuth Pongsapipatt | Participants hold rainbow flags during the 2024 Pattaya Pride Parade and the community of LGBTQ in Thailand.

How have your subjects responded to being part of your photo projects?

Respect and trust are also the primary keys of this project, and I inform my subjects about what I will do. Use the consent form if it’s needed. I always noted to myself that not every subject wants to reveal their story or photos because of the various consequences they might get after revealing themselves as a sex worker. So, if some say no, it’s all okay, and you can just find someone else. The situation of sexual taboos in Thailand is the main reason that this project took several years. When someone allows me to take photographs and interviews, I always work respectfully and photograph them as I want to be photographed.

Suthep Kritsanavarin, a Thai documentary photographer, told me, “Be friendly. Go to make friends, not just go to take photos.” This sentence always reminds me of this.

How do you believe your work captures or reflects the nuances of society?

I only believe that my photographs are just a highlighter pen that makes people recognize various lives, not just a myth or an image representation of a stereotype in one’s mind. But they are the story of people with lives, feelings, and problems, just like everyone else in Thai society.

“The ones who should get credit are all my subjects who let me take photographs to tell their stories in my works.” – Varuth Pongsapipatt.

Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt | “Aging male sex workers who do not quit the industry usually rise to the rank of “Mamasan,” presiding over lesser experienced sex workers. Mamasans are general managers who do for the well-being of sex workers under their wings, as well as screen the clients to protect the workers from potential violence.”

Through your storytelling and lens, do you think these issues have been brought more into the spotlight and addressed?

At first, I never thought about that. But as the year passed by, I met a lot of people from various backgrounds who once read my article and saw my photos about male sex workers and also a series article of people in Thailand’s sex industry which was written by Jamas Kositvichaya (My colleague, I work as a photographer). Somehow, my works make some people realize what is going on about the taboos of the sex industry in Thailand. By the way, I can’t claim that my work should get credit for that. It is just a little project in the ocean of content on the Thai media landscape. The ones who should get credit are all my subjects who let me take photographs to tell their stories in my works.

Male Sex Workers first published:

Varuth Pongsapipatt on The Game Magazine Interview. LGBTQ+ and social issues
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt | The project of Male Sex Workers on the press on the101.world

male sex workers in Thailand
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt | The project of Male Sex Workers on the press on Prachatai English.

My works with Jamas:

LGBTQ in Thailand
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt

LGBTQ in Thailand. Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt | Varuth’s published works with his colleague Jamas Kositvichaya on The Matter.

LGBTQ in Thailand
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt | Varuth’s published works with his colleague Jamas Kositvichaya on The Matter.

What do you love most about photography? What makes a good photo story?

What I love most about photography is that it expresses the identity, perspective, and intention of the photographer. In the other way, photographs also shape the photographer to become a person who is the medium of their photographs. It could be said that “you are what you shoot.” The photograph you take expresses yourself and becomes yourself, either way.

For me, a good photo story must have strong content and a strong narrative that could cover the complexity of the issue context. Intimacy is the most important component that could make a strong narrative that appears clearly in photographs. It connects subjects to the viewer with a sense of reality. Intimacy in photographs also can’t be tricked by the focal lengths; it shows the perspective, position, and intention of the photography.

Varuth Pongsapipat, photographing LGBTQ in Thailand.
Photo by Varuth Pongsapipatt

IMAGO/ZUMA Wire/Varuth Pongsapipatt
IMAGO/ZUMA Wire/Varuth Pongsapipatt | A demonstrator seen wearing a drag queen costume during the pride parade in Bangkok. Various groups of demonstrators gathered at Silom road for the pride parade rally, dressed in colorful costumes and demanding for gender issues such as gender equality, gender rights on LGBTQs, sex worker rights, same sex marriage, etc.

See The Game Magazine’s Series for Pride Month.

Before the terror, there was glitter: The queer haven that was 1920’s Berlin

A Visual Timeline of LGBTQ+ Progress in Germany