Snapshots: Thailand’s teenage parents
Teenage pregnancy is a significant problem in Thailand, which has one of the highest rates in Southeast Asia. Emerging photographer ‘Gap’ Tanaphon Ongarttrakul followed the struggles of three teenage couples, who found themselves unexpected parents. His camera captures their struggles with overwhelming responsibilities. His photographic essay was shown for the first time at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok. The fine arts student at Rangsit University speaks with UNAIDS about what compelled him to take on this difficult topic.
(The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS)
UNAIDS: Why did you want to focus your photography project on teenage pregnancy?
Gap: I study photography at Rangsit university. I have had friends, who became teenage parents over the years. I have seen countless cases where teenagers have been completely cut off from their families and society because they were considered immoral. These young parents who are already afraid and unprepared lose so many opportunities because of their situation. Many kids have to abandon their education to take responsibility for their child. I don’t know why but I felt very strongly about this issue. I just felt like everyone was looking at this situation in only one particular way. I wanted to use photography to shine a different light on this issue because change begins with awareness. I wanted to use photography to depict this issue from a different point of view.
UNAIDS: What did you learn from the people you photographed?
Gap: I saw a different side to everything. I saw the other side of a young person’s life, the side that wasn’t carefree, wasn’t full of parties and friends and fun. This experience changes you completely. Once a woman is pregnant, she often has to leave school. Sometimes, the man has to give up his education to provide for his new family. In some cases, the man still has the opportunity to study if his parents are financially supportive. I photographed three couples for this project. All three of them had different situations and yet, life is not easy for any of them.
The first couple has two children. The young mother got pregnant at 16 years old. This couple is somewhat lucky because they are financially supported by the parents of the young man, who also help to raise the child. The father is able to continue his education.
The second couple did not have a good relationship with their families. Both of them had to leave school. The girl got pregnant at 17 years old and so the boy who is originially from Pathum Thani, just outside of Bangkok took a job at an oil factory in Rayong. The couple lives in small workers’ quarters with their three children.
The third couple was the only couple that I managed to photograph while the mother was actually pregnant. I took some photos of her one week before she gave birth and then again on the day that she gave birth. She is 19 years old.
It is a difficult journey. It shows how tough life can be and how we as young people need to learn to take care of ourselves and be responsible.
UNAIDS: What were you trying to capture in your photographs?
Gap: I wanted society to be able to see these teenagers in a new light – as human beings, as new parents who bring their child into the world with mixed feelings. They defy all odds to take responsibility for a new life. They sacrifice their youth and opportunities to take on this obligation. Bringing a child into the world is said to be a beautiful thing, but for them it is mixed with a lot of pain, hardship and sorrow too. They didn’t choose this life. They didn’t want to be caught in this situation where they were unprepared. It is difficult for them to have such a huge responsibility at a young age. They try their best and we need to support them instead of turn away.
UNAIDS: You are a young photographer and a senior in college, how does it feel already have a solo photography exhibition in a prestigious venue?
Gap:I feel great. I am so grateful that people took an interest and liking to my work. I didn’t think it would become an exhibition. When I started this project, I did it for a class. I just wanted to do well in school. I want to do more, the project is still incomplete.
UNAIDS:Thailand has one of the highest rates for teenage pregnancy in South East Asia, why do you think that is?
Gap: Personally, I think that Thai society is unaccepting of teen parents. They see teenagers in this situation as immoral. They feel teenagers should not know about, talk about or engage in sex so there is no conversation with teenagers about how to have safe sex. Adults think there is no reason to talk about sex to teens, as though not talking about it will make them stop doing it. The truth is teens are going to have sex anyway whether it is talked about or not. So we might as well provide information so that they can make better, safer and more responsible choices. The only way we can solve this problem is to stop turning a blind eye to it.
UNAIDS: How did you become interested in photography?
Gap: I think photography is a great way to show reality in art. It captures real, raw and true moments that come across as art and is contemplative. I am still interning at the Bangkok Post and am almost done with my degree. My immediate goal is to continue this project and complete it. I do eventually want to explore and bring to the surface other issues Thailand faces so that I can do a small part for the greater good with my skill. This is just the beginning for me.