Pascal Meunier: Witnessing Intimate Spaces

Fascinated by what he calls “timeless bastions” – that is, historically-charged places where time nonetheless appears suspended – and after having long worked in the Arab Muslim countries, the Paris-based documentary photographer Pascal Meunier has turned his gaze to Thailand’s Wat Tham, or Buddhist cave temples, which he photographs without omitting the details of everyday life. While continuing to pay acute and prolonged attention to intimate spaces, this project reveals new facets, including the transition to digital with a Leica M9-P.

Q: Pascal, first of all, could you introduce yourself?

A: I took up photography when I was doing a Ph.D. in political science. I was researching democratic transition in Latin America and was incredibly bored, so I decided to go and see what was happening on the ground. When I got back, I contacted publishers to see if they would publish a travel guide. One of them ended up accepting, on the condition that I also provided the photos. The problem was that I needed to learn! That was nearly 20 years ago.

Despite my training, I soon decided to leave the trials and tribulations of current affairs to concentrate on cultural continuities. “The biggest events – these are not the loudest, but our most quiet hours”, wrote Nietzsche. Experience has shown me that a country’s “intrinsic” culture is often independent from its political realities.

That’s why I don’t think I’m currently of any use in the Arab Revolutions. I’ll go back to those countries to see if much has ultimately changed, which I doubt for the time being. I will also go back to see if I still get this strange sense that for Arab peoples, time seems infinite and inexhaustible, whereas in the West, there never seems to be enough of it.

My pet obsession is to illustrate this everyday force through walking the city streets at night, through improbable encounters, discovering universes that are surviving on borrowed time, through disenchanted places or people who have decided to live in parentheses. I am fascinated by people and things in the margin because when I come into contact with them, I get a sense of being in suspended, frozen time. My approach could be described as seeking timeless bastions.

Q: How did you come across these communities in the Buddhist caves and why did you decide to photograph them?

A: I got the idea for this subject from a conversation with a friend who knows Thailand really well and who knows that I love to play with natural and electric light, like in my work on Cairo’s last baths.

I started researching online: How many caves were there in the country? And to avoid the subject becoming repetitive, how diverse were the different cave temples? Were they still really frequented, or rather reserved for a few local worshipers?

I concluded from this research that there was sufficient material for a visual subject, and above all, to enjoy myself photographically! All the ingredients I love were united, namely slightly strange, confined and mystical atmospheres. Also, I was discovering a new country, a new culture, and above all I was again going to work in intimate spaces where you need to take the time to get accepted.

This report on the Thai Wat Tham – the Buddhist cave temples – is the first I have done for ages outside the Arab Muslim world. Up until now, the Asia I photographed always had a connection with Islam. This immersion in Buddhist Asia was a first for me. It was also my first photo report with a digital Leica.

Q: How did you go about working in these communities?

A: I worked for a month on this subject, but I came back frustrated because I don’t feel like I’d gotten to the end of it yet. I would have liked, in particular, to have met a community of priests who work with former drug users and whose methods to get them off drugs are pretty radical. So I’m planning to go back to complete the work and, more generally, to also photograph cave temples in the neighbouring countries.

This photo report is quite strange because, every day I would arrive at opening time and stay until closing. In the caves there’s no light source and you completely lose all notion of time. For me, who likes working in timeless bastions, I was well served!

Q: Taking photos in caves, in confined spaces, what technical (or other) issues does this confront you with when you are working?

A: The main technical issue is managing the light. Playing with the electric light which, depending on the neon strips or bulbs, brings out the blues, greens or yellows. As for the natural light, which filtered in through the cracks in the rock, I needed to keep a constant eye on it. How did it shift? At what time was it where? Those places are pretty dark and the lack of light could be problematic. With the M9-P, I had to avoid working at over 800 ISO as the camera noise becomes too present beyond this sensitivity.

Having said that, I sometimes got rewards, like in Wat Tham Khao Luang, with this nun in a deep trance in front of the statue of Buddha bathed in sunlight for a few furtive seconds.

I also like mixing the two types of light – natural and artificial – like in the tricolour photo of Wat Tham Khao Yoi where you have the yellow of the light bulb, the green given off by a neon strip and blue from the natural light playing on the rock.

 

Another thing is to know to take your time. And that is becoming increasingly difficult, as, for the press, you first and foremost have to be productive nowadays. Yet taking your time remains an essential factor, particularly as you have to get people to accept you. That comes with time; it’s through taking the time with people that you manage to establish trust. You have to talk to the monks, to show them photos of other caves, explain your approach, reassure them, etc.

You also have to come back the next day, or the day after that, because you didn’t get exactly what you wanted. Nowadays it’s a luxury to be able to work like that, but I can’t conceive of the profession any other way.

One of the difficulties with this subject was also the confinement and the heat. In the totally hermetic caves like Wat Tham Khao Pun, I had to breathe air contaminated by bat excrement all day long and to continue working in this humid heat. When you come back out and see the sky again, it’s like being reborn.

Q: Daily life, whether that of the monks or the worshippers, is an element you choose to include in your images. Why?

A: In the West, caves have a bad reputation. They are associated with the devil, evil spirits, and spells. In Thailand, they are places full of life. Since the origins of Buddhism, these cavities have attracted monks and hermits. They withdrew there to be alone, to meditate. Even the Kings of Siam, Rama the4th and Rama the 5th, frequented them. The caves allowed them to keep a low profile as they traveled. In Wat Tham Phraya Nakhon, where a royal pagoda stands wreathed in sunlight in certain seasons, you can see the two kings’ signatures on the walls.

Over the centuries, the monks have gradually become the guardians of these troglodytic temples. The Thai people thus come to meet the monks. Certain caves today are more popular than others. At Wat Ban Tham, for example, there reigns a very serene, peaceful, silent atmosphere conducive to meditation. Other more frequented caves, on the other hand, are real hang-outs: kids and adults play in the rays of light, people take each other’s photos, yell to hear their echo. Monks give blessings, families come with bags full of food for offerings, automatic machines pump out prayers that echo round the cave, the nuns in charge of the cleaning take a nap.

 

All the caves are run by communities of monks that can range from five to fifty members. Some share little houses; others choose to withdraw into the cavities. At Wat Tham Seua, you have to climb a long forest path to reach their cells that measure two square metres where they spend most of their time. Some are troglodytic, but all of them are completely bare of any decoration. The Thai people I encountered liked to have their photo taken, but certain monks didn’t give me an easy time! I had to come back several times, show pictures of other caves I’d photographed, tell them what I’d already seen before they finally agreed to let me take a picture.

Finally, the Wat Tham also have a social function. Some communities take in orphaned children. One might imagine that they lead an austere life, but in fact they live just like other children. The caves indeed become their playground. In one photo of Wat Tham Khao Pun, we see two teens larking about while someone’s trying to pray. Just before, a group of about a dozen young monks were chasing each other round the narrow passageways of the cave!

They are fascinating places. Whether they are silent or noisy, isolated or busy, mystical or vibrant, there’s always this feeling of floating. They are worlds apart, parentheses in which, strangely, the confinement, humidity and darkness are not oppressive.

Q: How does this work fit in with your earlier work?

A: The immersion in these cave temples is inscribed in the same vein as my work on the Arab Muslim world’s last hammams.

I again had to have the patience to catch the rare and precious moments of fleeting light. I also had to fit in with the Bonze and worshipers’ daily routines without disturbing their meditation, as I previously had to get myself accepted by clients at the baths without disturbing their well-being. In these mysterious troglodytic temples, I discovered the same smell of saltpetre you get in humid caverns, this impression of being enveloped in a cocoon, this notion of timeless bastions. But above all, I was once again witness to these intimate spaces where people bare their souls to Buddha.

Q: You used a Leica M9-P for this series. How did it help your project?

A: For a long time, I was happy with my M cameras (M4, M6, MP). For a whole host of reasons, I resisted going over to digital.

I wasn’t at all convinced by the M8. When the M9 arrived, it was considerably more tempting, but I found it pretty expensive for a camera you don’t have the time to become attached to. I found, and still find, it hard to accept the idea that you no longer keep your camera for fifteen or so years. But at the same time, finding the funds for film stock, developing and scanning was becoming unreasonable. So in 2011, I finally took the plunge by looking into Japanese digital cameras, thinking that for my pet photos, I’d still use a Leica film camera.
To be honest, I lost a lot of pleasure in taking pictures and I also felt trapped with certain Japanese lenses. To get homogeneous files, you really have to play with the diaphragm. I didn’t feel free to choose my diaphragm settings any more.

Years ago, I convinced a photographer friend, Olivier Touron, to throw away his big SLR and discover the pleasure of working with an M6. It was this same Olivier, now a fervent Leica enthusiast, who brought me back to Leica by showing me that my problem with my Japanese SLR file’s lack of homogeneity would be resolved with the M9.

For the subject on these low-lit caves, I needed lenses that would give excellent results even when completely open. That’s why I finally decided to get the M9-P. The pleasure returned, even if I often suffered from not being able to increase the ISO enough!

I have just received the new Leica M. The question of noise on high ISO settings has considerably progressed. Other M9 shortcomings have been resolved. But I am going to miss the M9-Ps, at times eccentric white balance, and the result of the CCD sensor (at least up to 400 ISO).

I’ll therefore complete the rest of this study of the caves with the new Leica M, which will allow me to go beyond 800 ISO. This will also allow me to continue my work on public baths in the Arab Muslim world, which means that this new M will be really put through its paces in the hot and humid rooms of the hammam! So, the question playing on my mind is, “Will my Leica M be as sturdy and trustworthy as my old M9-P?”

Thank you for your time, Pascal!

- Leica Internet Team

Read Pascal’s interview in French here. Visit Pascal’s website to learn more.