Uniformity and Identity in Thai Schools

Watsamon Tri-yasakda documents Thailand’s youth in full school uniform, questioning how the strict rules on dress deprive sexual minorities of an expression of identity.

© Watsamon Tri-yasakda, from the series 7465

During 2017, Watsamon Tri-yasakda created an online open call to high school students of any gender identification who wear male uniform to school, but do not feel comfortable in it. Through this poll, the photographer learned of the stories of young LGBT students from across her country, many who confessed to feeling like outsiders in a nation known for its acceptance of sexual minorities.

7465 is a personal project that looks to represent a hidden identity in Thailand, exploring socio-cultural issues that may not appear, at first glance, in classic school portraits otherwise. As a Thai photographer, she hopes this project can make people reflect upon identity rights and learn to accept one to another.

Can you talk about the meaning behind the title of the project; 7465?

7465 is a student ID number that belongs to one of the people I photographed: a trans-woman who went to an all-boy school. It’s not actually her official student identification number, however. After some issues were caused by school alumni who were against her wearing light makeup while wearing the school uniform, she made her own student uniform with her own acronym of school and an ID number sewn to her shirt. I chose the number as the title of the project after I heard this story.

There are so many stories about the Thai LGBT community, but you could hardly find one about LGBT youth. Many people see the LGBT youth as 'sexually confused,' 'experimenting' or 'just following a trend.' Personally, I see nothing wrong with self-experimentation and self-discovery. Somebody was born this way while it may take decades for some people to feel comfortable in their own skin and learn to love themselves just the way they are. It is the same as saying that nobody knows whether they would love photography until they take a chance to try. Youth, especially those years in high school, is such an important period in life. It is the age for self-discovery, but you hardly hear any stories being told about them. I think it is important to document their journey.

© Watsamon Tri-yasakda, from the series 7465

Why did you decide to focus on the young LGBT community in Thailand?

7465 started out as a project for the Southeast Asian Photography Masterclass with an assigned theme of Youth. I have always wanted to create work about Thai students' uniform since it plays an important part in our youth culture, for 19 years of our lives, from kindergarten to university. I decided to take on this topic with a conceptual approach, which I have never done before.

In Thailand, students’ uniform is not just an outfit - it represents unity, hegemony, hierarchy, class distinction, and patronage. But what is it for the students who wear the uniform? After months of research on issues relating to this in both socio-cultural and visual contexts, I concluded that the focus of my project would be on young students and how they express themselves in school uniforms.

Why have you decided to focus only on young boys? Are all the boys from the same school? Why did you photograph them wearing their High School uniform?

There are several reasons that I chose to focus on the young boys. I feel like boys have to face more pressure trying to express their identity that does not fit with the ‘social norm’ and ‘ideal masculinity’. They are forced to follow school regulations from head to toe - hair style, outfit, socks and shoes, whether they go to public or private school. During the high school years, most male students are required to have military hairstyle as many participate in the Reserve Officer Training Cops Student (ROTCS). They have to be trained by soldiers and follow the strict rules.

Personally, I have also been forced to wear a school uniform and had to follow school regulations for 19 years - that’s over a half of my lifetime. From my own experience, I felt like female students have a bit more freedom on hairstyle during high school. Many of the female students wear shorts underneath their skirts or some even choose to wear gym uniform with long pants everyday instead. Thai youths only have their freedom on their hairstyle during university years.

© Watsamon Tri-yasakda, from the series 7465

Why did you photograph them in the studio? Were you looking to recreate a High School portrait approach?

One of my original visual ideas was to recreate the classic student portrait, a formal shot with the student in front of a white or blue background taken in the studio. It would be easy to organise with everybody - my team and my subjects come from all the over and some did not live in Bangkok.

I also thought an option could be to take photographs at school, but that would require too much paperwork, endless explanation, a bigger budget, and a high chance to being rejected. Finally, I went back to my original idea of shooting in the studio, which suited the project’s workflow and the message very well.

© Watsamon Tri-yasakda, from the series 7465

Do you think the LGBT community of Thailand is a topic that has been exploited, especially by foreigners? How does your project as a local photographer with an understanding of growing up in Thailand differ from the foreign eye?

I think it’s hard for me to say whether the topic has been exploited or not. There are both pros and cons about this issue. There are advantages when foreign media covers local LGBT stories that benefit the community. Sometimes, you are too close or familiar, which causes you to overlook some details, but these are noticed by the ‘outsider’. Also, foreign media can work on their projects with more freedom that has been limited by the local laws such as censorship. On the other hand, there is a lack of diversity on stories being done by the foreign media since they seem to focus on the most colourful, wildest, or darkest parts of the LGBT community. Sometimes, the visibility only emphasises the stereotype.

As well as local media, the story of LGBT communities has become more ‘trendy’ in the last few years. It is good to see more visibility and diversity in the media, even though mainstream outlets still have a lot to catch up on. Sometimes the local news would pick up stories on Thai LGBT community from foreign media agencies and translate into Thai, which is good exposure too. But, they should also give a space to publish stories done by local photographers and writers as well.

For instance, in my project 7465, I think I have focused on an alternative aspect of the community. This does not mean that other photographers whether they are local, or foreigner cannot do this. There are a thousand ways to do a project about students’ uniform with different styles, approaches and contexts. Yet, I felt like I have done this project based on my personal experience as a young photographer.

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Watsamon Tri-yasakda is a Thai freelance documentary and editorial photographer based in Bangkok. Her work covers stories in the Asia region. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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