Bangkok’s Neon Underbelly


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Bangkok, Thailand – a city that is known for its seedy ways and neon-lit back alleys.

South African photographer Duran Levinson recently spent two months in Asia, burning dozens of film rolls shooting, “Faces of Bangkok.” Shot on film with Pentax ME-Super and a Contax T2 on various film stocks, the series is filled with all the people your parents told you never to talk to. From the red-light districts of “Soi-Cowboy” to the heavily guarded Airplane Graveyard (where you have to bribe crack-heads to let you in), it’s a unique collection of photos featuring characters Duran encountered on his strolls, including gang members from the Khlong Toei ghetto to visitors of Thailand’s nighttime debauchery. We chatted to Duran about his experiences in the notoriously sordid city.

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“Soi Cowboy is one of Bangkok’s most famous Red Light District areas, an open-plan area with three-storey clubs. It’s got the typical seedy feeling and filled with people who you wouldn’t want to bring home to your parents. It’s fun to go there to experience it, and I enjoyed getting to shoot some portraits there, but if you go to visit clubs and see some crazy shit you need to keep composed and make sure you don’t get charged exorbitant drink prices and robbed/ ripped off. I suppose just knowing that this sort of sex industry thrives so much in Thailand is a sign of how corrupt the government and cops are. You will regularly see groups of police partying, hitting on the girls and drinking in strip clubs on duty. It’s all very ‘normal’ apparently.” 

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“I found out about the Airplane Graveyard through one of those ‘click-bait’ websites that promote top underground attractions in Bangkok. Before I travel somewhere I like to do research on locations where I can do look-books or take people’s portraits. This location looked perfect, but I was made aware it’s quite a mission to get to it, and then you have to bribe locals who live in the abandoned airplanes. It’s all very corrupt and makes for a stressful experience if you rock up there with a whole crew and models. It’s  a unique and strange experience seeing these abandoned airplanes on the side of a highway.”

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“I was commissioned to shoot a look-book for a local streetwear brand called Criminal Lax, we ended up shooting our friends who are all alternative and heavily tattooed people. I then asked my friend Jean to organise some punks for me to shoot for fun, and he was able to do that quite easily. We all had a lot in common music wise and ended up spending the whole day drinking and chatting instead of shooting.”

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“This is my friend Dave. He is originally from Amsterdam, but now lives in Bangkok. He is a wonderful guy who is fluent in Thai and very keen to show his friends who visit the real side of Bangkok, with its ghettos and hard edges. He took me around some ghettos to photograph gangsters and meet the people who live in these areas. I took his portrait in the Khlong Toei, which is the biggest slum in Bangkok.”

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“Thailand is filled with such amazing people, but there are a ton of crazy characters on the streets. I photographed many, but I once stumbled upon quite an intense cock-fight going on under a bridge. I met the main ring-leader of the chicken fighting scene in that area. He was a full-on gangster who apparently had some of the best fighting chickens in Bangkok, he seemed pretty bad-ass.” 

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“Thailand is a great place for street photographybusy and filled with activity. It’s got so much charm and culture, one of those countries that you can end up getting totally immersed in, as there is just so much to offer. It’s a beautiful country, not without its problems, but it’s pretty impressive for South-East Asia and street photography.” 

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Check out more of Duran’s Instagram @duranite or get your hands on some of Duran’s prints and mags right here.

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