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Making all the difference

A fashion photographer's new project sets out to broaden the narrow definition of beauty

With a love of orphaned dogs and working with disabled children, Surachai Saengsuwan, a fashion editor and photographer at L'Officiel Thailand, draws inspiration most from those who have the odds of success stacked against them.

One of the most famous fashion photographers in Thailand, Surachai believes that his talents are best put to use when raising awareness about animals and human beings who have had it harder in life.

Surachai recently launched a new photo project alongside a Bangkok charity for abandoned and stray dogs, featuring images of handsome cadets posing with dogs who were neglected by their owners.

The project is called "What's wrong?" It stars professional models from previous projects he has worked on posing with special needs kids. In the photo shoot, he puts all his former subjects into one picture frame, from dogs and children to transgender models.

Disabled children have long been mistreated by the media and peers for behaving and looking "different". Although they have the potential to integrate socially, people often cannot get past their initial appearance of difference.

As for transgender people, they may seem like the life of the party -- fun-loving and cheerful in media portrayals. But in reality, they cannot always afford to be this way.

In Pattaya, for example, they have been cast as criminals and are regularly barred from entering entertainment venues.

Some hotels in Pattaya have even begun placing signs on their businesses stating that dogs, durian and now transgender people are prohibited from entering the hotel premises.

With such discrimination at play, it is clear they are still not considered socially acceptable. They are not afforded the same respect as others are.

Based on these observations, Surachai sought to combine the people that society has cast as "wrong" and place them in the same frame as part of a high-fashion collection photo shoot.

This was not a part of his day job -- he only wanted to launch this project to show that there is real beauty in everyone.

The project started when Surachai and his friends were introduced to Tharinee Wipuchanin, founder of Pic-a-Pet4Home, a charity for abandoned and stray dogs based in Bangkok. Since then, he has created several projects involving Ms Tharinee's dogs.

He started by using the dogs in photo shoots and later hatched the idea to also use them in therapy sessions for disabled children. He contacted several psychologists to assist with his idea, but none of them had the time nor the experience to lend him a hand.

So Surachai decided to teach himself how to work with disabled children. He contacted the Association for Parents with Intellectual Disability of Thailand (Apid) and proposed to test-drive his dog therapy idea to the founder.

The founder, intrigued by the proposal, began allowing Surachai to run story-telling time for a group of Apid children, using dogs as characters. The parents of the children say that since Surachai has started coming in, their kids' learning abilities have grown stronger and they seem more able to concentrate on work afterwards.

Some even say that the kids' memory abilities have improved through this therapy.

Several kids can be scared of the dogs on first contact, but usually this fear is only ever temporary.

Surachai begun his photo project in August, the month of Mother's Day in Thailand. He publicly launched the >> >> project a couple days before the holiday and had his photos exhibited at a few different venues around Bangkok.

"The concept for the latest photo shoot is based on the question 'What's wrong?'" said Surachai.

"I just wanted to convey that there's nothing wrong with any of the people who appear in these photos. Just because they are different doesn't make them wrong.

"I also used motherhood as a guiding concept for this photo shoot. But I don't interpret this term in the traditional sense that mothers must be housewives who stay at home and take care of their kids.

"I used modern women, fashionable mothers and transgender women to express the diverse roles that a mother can take on."

Several celebrities were invited to join his project. Among them was Grace, the most recent winner of The Face Thailand who smashed Thai beauty stereotypes with her strong appearance and dark skin.

Hana, a transgender model who was the most talked about contestant on the show, was also featured in his shoot.

The famous Miss Tiffany winner from 2004 and actress Nong Poyd makes an appearance too.

Surachai cites Renaissance-period Dutch painter Jan van Eyck as the inspiration for his photos. Van Eyck's paintings depict women who want to help and protect people like mothers, regardless of their gender and sexuality.

The models featured in van Eyck's paintings were a mix of women and cross-dressing men.

"As a photographer, the subjects that we found challenging when trying to coordinate them on set for the photo shoots were the children and dogs," Surachai explained. "But we still managed to fit everyone in the same frame and it all went surprisingly well.

"One of our models told me that children and dogs are the two subjects that can't be placed in the same frame due to the difficulty of managing them. But somehow we pulled it off successfully. The model said it was because everyone felt connected by love, which I agree with."

The photos that emerged from it show that the subjects look radiant and authentically happy. The dogs proved easier to control than first believed, and the children were nothing short of camera shy.

As for the professional models, they added a predictable touch of poise to the photos.

The disabled children from Apid are not necessarily from poor families. Their parents have spent money on the children's education and clothing to make them feel as normal as possible. They are also sent to regular schools alongside children who do not have learning disabilities, with the hope they can eventually fit in and not feel shame for being "different".

"I asked all the parents if they wanted to wait to do fundraising for the photo shoot but all of them said they didn't want to raise funds -- the only thing that they wanted to raise was awareness and an understanding towards those who are different," Surachai explained.

"At the end of the project, it really confirmed to me that everyone is connected by love regardless of disability, gender or any other differences."

best face forward: Models, disabled children and stray dogs star in a special photo shoot. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF Surachai Saengsuwan

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