“Till I Bloom” captures rare moments with transgender women in Thailand

Ekkarat Punyatara is a photographer for National Geographic Thailand and a freelance photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. He is currently working on a series of photographs titled “Till I Bloom” which documents the lives of transgender women in a new light. UNAIDS spoke to him about his project which has captured his attention for almost a decade.

(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)

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Credit: Ekkarat Punyatara

UNAIDS: Could you tell us about your photography project “Till I Bloom”?

Ekkarat: There are so many photographers who take photos of transgender women in Thailand, but it seems like everyone is interested in only some parts of their lives I feel like there should be more angles for us see.

I can see the social pressure that we put on transgender women and how that is difficult for them. I have done this project for a very long time but I still see it as ongoing because I don’t know how to end it. I want to make it the best I can.

I want to create something that would help transgender women on some level – maybe because I’m an artist and living as an artist is not easy in the beginning. You have to prove something; just like transgender women. That’s why I think this project is very important for me.

UNAIDS: Why did you pick the name “Till I Bloom”?

Ekkarat: You can interpret that name in many ways. “Till I Bloom” could mean: Till you get accepted or till you become a beautiful transgender woman or till you can live your life freely, but there are different ways to get accepted anyway.

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Credit: Ekkarat Punyatara

UNAIDS: When did you begin this project?

Ekkarat: I guess, seven years ago. I started a couple of years after I graduated from university. I was photographing for a few years. Then I went to New York, so it is on and off. When I start to work on an aspect, I’ll look for a transgender woman who could portray that aspect, talk to her and ask her if I can shoot. It’s like you connect the dots until it becomes a big picture.

UNAIDS: What sort of story or messages do you want your photos to tell?

Ekkarat: Everyone wants a good life. Often with transgender people they just live their lives and they just want to be accepted, having a normal life as normal people. Through the project I want to show how normal their life is. If you photograph just sex workers, it’s just a surface aspect; it’s too shallow. We, media are focusing too much on just that aspect of transgender women, which it’s not fair for them.

UNAIDS: Thailand is considered to be a paradise for transgender people; did the subjects in your photos show that to be the case?

Ekkarat: I disagree a little bit, when others say that transgender people in Thailand live more freely or live more equally than other countries. I believe that there is social pressure, but we all express it in different ways.

When I grew up, I had a lot of transgender friends. I saw their struggle for acceptance. When I was young, if you were a transgender person if you wanted to get acceptance from friends, you had to be a joker. You had to be a guy who can make people laugh. Sadly, most of the jokes they make, it’s to make people laugh at themselves.

UNAIDS: What have you learned from the transgender subjects from your projects?

Ekkarat: We all just want a better life. When I was photographing a farmer transgender woman, I was there for five days with her family. Her Dad used to be a police officer. It was very interesting, in a Thai family, if your dad is a police officer, it’s very difficult to be accepted as a transgender person. Her family accepted her. One person who I photographed worked in a cabaret. Another one was a student. Many of the people I photographed became my friend. I’m still in contact with them.

There was one transgender person, who works as a comedian at a cabaret who I photographed seven years ago. She told me that she adopted a kid and showed me a picture of the little kid. Six years later I went back to photograph her again but surprisingly the kid grew up having a similar face like hers. What have I learned is to see this beautiful side of transgender women. I’m thankful and I feel very lucky that people opened up their hearts to share their life with me.

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