Throughout the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, r. 1946-2016) photography gained significance as a means to construct and articulate national identity. During this period, the monarchy has come to play an increasingly centralised role in these nationalist discourses as a result of the strategic deployment of King Bhumibol’s image by military governments and by the palace itself from the late 1950s, as well as through the establishment of a public space governed by royal taboos. These efforts have situated the monarchy as the limit and source of representations of moral Thainess, and are most apparently indicated in the sublimation of individualised historical narratives to those of the Thai nation, legitimised through the monarch’s moral leadership. That the monarch’s photographic image could be simultaneously an indexical representation of a historical personage and the iconic image of the divinely-legitimised King (devaraja) meant that the medium’s relationship to ‘reality’ was invested with a large degree of ideological power. In this way, the absolute faith in the photograph’s ability to represent reality made it the ideal space from which to establish a hegemonic discourse of Thainess in order to reify inequitable power relationships. Yet, in some photographic genres, such as photojournalism, the power of photography’s reality effect could be seized to construct alternative narratives of Thainess with the potential to disrupt the dominance of this discursive construction. This project historically articulates the formation and reification of a conventionalised photographic discourse based on a royal-moral vision of Thai identity (Thainess, Thai: khwampenthai). In particular, it maps the boundaries between what is representable and un-representable within this particular discursive stratum and identifies the possibilities for alternative constructions of Thainess outside this framework.
Thainess Framed: Photography and Thai Identity,1946-2010
Dr Clare Elisabeth Veal
SEA History, Culture, Policy
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