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Where there's life, there's hope

Adam Birkan goes against type for his latest work based on photos taken from his Bangkok apartment bedroom window

'Hope Land' at JAM Cafe. Photos: ADAM BIRKAN

Walking into "Hope Land" -- Jam Cafe's latest photography exhibition by rising American talent Adam Birkan -- some may appreciate the minimalist shots of people going about their day, soi dogs standing around in dumpsters, and the typical scenes of Bangkok's bustling chaos. Some, however, may also think that all of this is nothing new.

Taken from the bedroom window of his Sukhumvit apartment for a period of 18 months, Birkan, who's been named one of Magnum's 30 Under 30 among other prestigious lists, first got the idea for the project after seeing a neon "Hope Land" sign flashing on top of an unknown establishment.

Waiting for the right moment at the right time, he then focused on finding hope in everyday situations -- taking snapshots of the various activities happening below his bedroom window. All well composed with striking colours thanks to his good eye, the high angle of the photographs makes his subjects appear vulnerable, lonely and almost hopeless. Birkan, however, sees something else.

Usually known for his cynical style and long-term documentary works focusing on social and economic issues, "Hope Land" is one of his most optimistic series yet. Life talked to Birkan on his artistic processes and the meaning behind his work.

How did you get started on this project?

When I moved into this apartment that I'm currently living in, I got lucky and got a really nice view and it was just natural. I got a good view, I'm a photographer. Easy project.

I think the name of the exhibition is a bit more interesting because I saw that 'Hope Land' sign in the distance. I was like wow, I can work with this. It's a nice metaphor. After I took that picture, I kind of built the project around that idea.

Could you explain the idea of Hope Land then?

The idea is that Hope Land is everything I can see -- everything is kind of tied together by this one idea of hope. That's the one thing we all have in common no matter who we are, where we are. It's small, it's big. It's kind of just everywhere -- everything. I can take any picture and say here's the hope in the picture or lack of hope or whatever. So it's kind of just an ambiguous way of creating a project. But at the same time it definitely has a solid framework. It's a solid idea built around hope.

You must have taken a lot of photos in the 18 months that you did this project. How did you choose your final photos on display?

It really just took a long time because it's all luck. I'm just waiting for the universe to give me something. The way I chose my photos -- I just wanted as diverse a set of photos as possible. I wanted to mix in landscape to kind of give it a nice energy, a good vibe. Photos that didn't have much content but were pretty -- that kind of spoke more about feeling and was more metaphorical and emotional than literal. But also photos of people just going about their day. Just to kind of keep it as diverse as possible. Obviously I have a ton of photos, so many that I didn't show. But I feel that it's better to have less good photos than more mediocre ones.

Your last exhibition was quite profound -- what message are you trying to send in this exhibition?

Well most of my work is quite cynical -- kind of sad. Most of my work is documentary work. Long-term social issues. So I was kind of maybe hoping for more of a positive vibe this time. It's not really like positive for me, I think it's just the images themselves are positive. I'm still a cynical person. My photography usually has some dark dark humour or some sad joke in it. But I think as far as these photos go, I'm trying to convey a sense of hope. I don't know a better word than hope.

It's interesting that your photos are so bright but send quite a cynical message.

Right, that's kind of like the sarcasm I guess. I'm almost telling a sarcastic joke. Like look how great everything is! But not. I guess that's just where my photography is right now. Maybe in a few years it won't be like that. It wasn't like that a few years ago. I guess that's just kind of a creative phase. My style is always changing and I feel like this current project is definitely an evolution of my style. I don't think I'm gonna do another project like this, but it's definitely gonna impact how my work is moving forward.

Do you think there's still hope in this country?

Of course. If there was no hope, what else is there? Cities are living things. They are organisms. The streets are the veins and the buildings are the organs and the people are the cells. But hope is kind of like the energy for all of that. You look at old towns in the US, maybe mining towns are boomtowns, basically when the natural resources dry up and the money leaves, the town just dies, and there's places like that all over the world. Those are places where there's no hope. Those are places that aren't coming back. But a place like Bangkok isn't really reliant on one thing or one idea. So I think there's always hope. Even though there's no hope in one spot there's always another spot. You just got to find it.


'Hope Land' by Adam Birkan runs until Sept 24 at Jam Cafe, Soi Rong Nam Kang (Charoen Rat 1). Visit www.facebook.com/JAMCAFEBKK.

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