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How does a conservation photographer understand and communicate intangible cultural heritage?

Hmong children and a candle-wax batik. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

How does a conservation photographer understand and communicate intangible cultural heritage?

Angela Srisomwongwathana

By Angela Srisomwongwathana

Co-Founder,
Little People in Conservation Group,
Chiang Mai, Thailand


If cultural heritage as a subject of investigation could be compared to the body of an individual person, then it would imply two distinct, but interdependent parts: the material body and the soul, representing the tangible and the intangible aspects of heritage, respectively.

In the past, when cultural heritage was referred to, it was usually tangible, material heritage, e.g. buildings, monuments, and so forth. Indeed, most decisions on conservation of heritage in Thailand in the past emphasized the tangible, or the ‘bodily’ aspect of heritage. The intangible components, e.g. a sense of ownership, a sense of pride, traditional knowledge and the underlying artisanship, were not taken into consideration when planning conservation or restoration projects.

In recent years, however, more attention has been paid to intangible heritage. This has been fostered in part by the widespread adoption of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

In South-East Asia, each country has its own distinct culture, and there is commonly an appreciation for both tangible and intangible heritage. In Thailand, for example, many people believe that they earn great merit in building or helping to restore traditional sacred places, such as Buddhist temples. This explains, in part, why there are so many temples being built and rebuilt throughout Thailand.

Temples play a major role as cultural spaces and are the centres of community life. Traditionally, they are places that unite people through rituals and ceremonies conducted by resident monks. As the finest arts were traditionally created for temples, many temples serve as learning centres for Buddhist and ceremonial arts. At such temples, monks and abbots transmit their traditional craft skills to future generations. In such cases, temple-based cultural industries can serve to create income for the surrounding communities.

An example of a temple that serves as a learning and craft centre is Wat Puak Team, in Chiang Mai, where sacred Lanna umbrellas or parasols are produced. Similarly, in Nan Province, abbots make traditional naga long boats, thereby leading the way in the safeguarding of this traditional knowledge. In the case of Nan, many capacity building activities have taken place to help local communities to revitalize their naga long boat tradition, including a UNESCO traditional arts and crafts workshop, which has helped to strengthen a time-honoured society of boat craftspeople.

 

Visual communication works by CMU undergrad students for traditional naga long boat, Nan province. © Angela Srisomwongwattana
Visual communication works by CMU undergrad students for traditional naga long boat, Nan province. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

‘Safeguarding’: A new word leading to conservation rethinking

In 2015, a workshop titled ‘Words of Heritage through Texts’ was led and supported by the L’École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Paris-Belleville (Ensa-PB), in collaboration with the Indonesian Heritage Trust and the Little People in Conservation Group (LPICG). The Paris workshop discussed how terminology taken from languages such as French and English were interpreted in other countries, in particular in Thailand, Indonesia and other Asian countries, and how the varied interpretations could affect understanding of the principles and processes of monument conservation in those countries. At the workshop – as in hundreds of other events over the last decade – the concepts of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and safeguarding were brought into serious methodological discussion by professionals in the field of tangible heritage conservation.

It is not a common Thai practice, for example, to preserve or conserve the ruined state of a monument. Thai people have long preferred to repair, restore and rebuild. The workshop participants suggested that to find a middle ground between the Thai preference to build anew and the globally-accepted concept of preserving the historical ‘authenticity’ of heritage sites, Thailand needed to focus on ensuring that the traditional building artisanship, including masonry, carpentry, wood carving and other structural and decorative arts skills, be well ‘protected’ through the intergenerational transmission of these bodies of traditional knowledge.

One of the most important factors for successful ICH safeguarding, is to ensure ‘sustainability’. At the heart of a successful sustainable impact are the people of a community. The UNESCO 2003 Convention emphasizes that the community is the owner of heritage. The people of a community play a major role in determining whether their ICH should or should not be safeguarded and/or promoted. When we say ‘community’, the term refers to all generations, genders, ethnicities, professions and classes of people that are associated with the ICH under consideration. Consequently, it is impossible to avoid conflicting interests and approaches by people of different groups.

When conducting a situational analysis on the viability of local cultural heritage, it is quite normal for researchers to encounter feedback from elderly community members expressing the perspective that younger members lack interest in their heritage. But young people complain about the difficulty in convincing older people to surrender their secret know-how and teach them the traditional skills. For that reason, it is necessary for  a middle person to bridge the generation gap and to encourage mutual respect, as well as also develop intergenerational relationships and foster greater awareness of the shared benefits of cultural heritage conservation for all peoples of a given community. In this case, this would involve bringing the elders’ ICH knowledge and experiences to engage the creativity and technological capacities of younger generations. If this can be accomplished, safeguarding and building on ICH achievements can be sustainable.

Community temple collection photographic documentation, Wat Sai Moon, Chiang Mai. © Angela Srisomwongwattana
Community temple collection photographic documentation, Wat Sai Moon, Chiang Mai. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

A visual communication approach to unleashing the potential of local communities

The significance of an item of heritage – tangible or intangible – is sometimes overlooked by its owners, mostly because they are overly familiar with it. In such cases, the Little People in Conservation Group (LPICG) steps in to present the heritage in a new light, drawing attention to it and raising awareness of the need to safeguard it. The LPICG acts as a bridge not only within the community, but also between the community and other stakeholders.

Through my involvement with the LPICG, I was invited to join two CRIHAP-UNESCO workshops to train ICH national facilitators. The workshops greatly enhanced my understanding of the principles of ICH safeguarding and the 2003 Convention, as well as how people from various sectors – governments, NGOs, universities and communities – can play coordinating roles to help small communities in Thailand develop while they remain true to their socio-cultural roots. The workshops also demonstrated how constructive communication – using both words and visuals – can positively impact safeguarding outcomes. From my years of experience, I have found that visual communication is one of the most effective means of highlighting heritage and the need for safeguarding heritage. Photography, graphics, video and drawings present heritage in a remarkably universal language.

A young Hmong girl demonstrating candle-wax batik drawing to friends during the fieldwork of Training of National Facilitators on Developing Safeguarding Plan, 2019. © Angela Srisomwongwattana
A young Hmong girl demonstrating candle-wax batik drawing to friends during the fieldwork of Training of National Facilitators on Developing Safeguarding Plan, 2019. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

During the fieldwork undertaken as part of the workshop, Training of National Facilitators on Developing Safeguarding Plans, in 2019, participants assisted community members to develop a safeguarding plan for Hmong Hemp Batik in Doi Pui village in Chiang Mai, and the community members prepared an ICH map. We also engaged the villagers, from elders to schoolchildren, in generating cultural data; and we encouraged especially the youth to reach out to certain people in the village to learn more traditional knowledge from them.

After gaining permission from the community, we recorded (in writing) their verbal dialogue and took photographs of the various batik patterns, as well as of each of the individuals in the community. We then developed photographs of the villagers and framed them for a photographic exhibition that was held on our last day at the village as a gesture of appreciation to the community, and to commemorate the completion of the safeguarding plan. These photographs were eventually given to the villagers, and the fieldwork team were rewarded with a host of prideful, beaming faces. To us, this was an ideal way for our team to show recognition of, and respect for the community.

Safeguarding plan presentation day at Doi Pui Community, Training of National Facilitators on Developing Safeguarding Plan, 2019. © Angela Srisomwongwattana
Safeguarding plan presentation day at Doi Pui Community, Training of National Facilitators on Developing Safeguarding Plan, 2019. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

Through this experience, we realized that ‘free prior and informed consent’ (FPIC) could be performed via photography, rather than only via signed documents. By turning our FPIC into material keepsakes, we empowered members of the community to be aware of how they identify with their ICH, and indeed how it is priceless.

Another example of how photography can be used to broaden community awareness and appreciation of ICH was when the Chiang Mai journal, Fuen Baan Yan Vieng featured in 2012 a photograph on its front page of rickshaw riders. The same photograph was enlarged to life-size and installed at the Chiang Mai Old City exhibition. The journal and the exhibition received positive feedback, especially from local rickshaw riders, who said they were very proud and had never thought of seeing their pictures displayed in a public exhibition and a province-level publication.

Museum collection photography by undergraduate students. © Angela Srisomwongwattana
Museum collection photography by undergraduate students. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

Since completing the national facilitator training workshops, I have continued working with Chiang Mai University and at facilitating activities to assist undergraduate students to gain appreciation for their heritage through temple collection management. Often, local schoolchildren are welcomed to join the classes and assisted and guided by students in classifying, cleaning, logging and otherwise documenting artefacts. I enjoy hosting sessions in which all participants get to know each other and gain deeper knowledge of their shared heritage, prior to taking conservation actions.

Visual communication tools and temple collection management can also contribute to reviving cultural heritage. A particularly notable example is the recent documentation of a collection of 54 jataka painting scrolls (80 x 120 cm), which depict the last ten lives of the Lord Buddha. The scrolls are kept at Wat Pong Sanuk, in Lampang Province. These scrolls in two sets were documented through professional photography, and replicas were created to enable further close study of them. Careful visual analysis of these replicas revealed a long-vanished religious ceremony, and thereby drew renewed public attention to the scrolls. Monks and preachers from temples across Thailand then visited this collection. The renewed public attention also led to further inspection at other Lampang temples; as a result, almost 200 additional, impressive jataka painting scrolls were rediscovered.

Photographic tutorial on documentary heritage conservation. © Angela Srisomwongwattana
Photographic tutorial on documentary heritage conservation. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

I was especially honoured recently to represent UNESCO Bangkok’s Culture sector as a judge, and to facilitate a lecture on ICH safeguarding for Korean, Thai and Hmong participants at the UNESCO-Samsung Hack Culture: Digital Solutions to Empower Women and Safeguard Traditional Crafts in Chiang Mai (2019). This exciting hackathon brought together volunteers who spoke various languages to learn about Hmong ethnic minority cultures, and to come up with digital solutions to safeguard their valued traditional crafts. It was impressive how the digital technology sector was encouraged to seek value and add depth to creativity and innovation with cultural heritage.

UNESCO-Samsung Hack Culture: Digital Solutions to Empower Women and Safeguard Traditional Crafts, 2019. © Angela Srisomwongwattana
UNESCO-Samsung Hack Culture: Digital Solutions to Empower Women and Safeguard Traditional Crafts, 2019. © Angela Srisomwongwattana

Based on my experience in working with youth, I was invited by UNESCO to participate as a trainer in the online Community Heritage for Sustainability Youth Forum Thailand, organized by CRIHAP and UNESCO during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The online forum modality was innovative and allowed me to share knowledge and skills with the youth. This forum revealed the potential of the youth participants, who were highly motivated to safeguard and expand the life of their local living heritage. Given that cultural sustainability can never be realized if there are neither users nor inheritors of culture, the future of our cultures depends on such upcoming generations.

As an educational NGO worker and a professional heritage photographer, I consider it important that the communities involved make their own decisions and determinations in the safeguarding of their heritage, whether this is instigated by community members themselves or encouraged by external heritage professionals, academics and voluntary groups like the LPICG. Given an open mindset among the cultural owners, it is possible to foster deep recognition of the significance of local heritage.

I would like to express my appreciation to CRIHAP and UNESCO Bangkok for opening up another window for me to experience the full process of working alongside local communities, as well as further enabling me to pass my knowledge to the next generation of heritage stewards and professionals.


The Little People in Conservation Group

Established in 2004, the Little People in Conservation Group (LPICG) consists of professionals from various fields, including archaeologists, historians, architects, academics, photographers and travellers. We are tiny segments of society, having no authority, but possessing a worldview of a heritage-driven society. Led by Associate Professor Dr Woralun Boonyasurat of Chiang Mai University, the group undertook its first community-based conservation project in Wat Pongsanuk in Lampang province, at Viharn Phra Chao Pun Ong, and received a UNESCO Merit Award for Asia-Pacific Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2008.

The LPICG believes that it is vital that each community appreciate and value both its tangible and intangible heritage. The key to the lasting success of any conservation project is the people’s pride as co-owners and transmitters of their perennial knowledge and experience.

The LPICG has the following three functions:

Empowering Through research and capacity-building workshops, we increase grassroots awareness and knowledge of heritage values. We focus on enabling people to revive local wisdom that, while being well respected, are being discontinued due to lack of resources and lack of communication.

Engaging – We strive to involve stakeholders of all ages, genders, ethnicities, professions and sectors, as long as they are linked to the heritage sites or elements. This is easier said than done, and this is why communication plays an important role. Through various communication techniques (including photography, videos, meetings and written texts), we ensure that all parties share an understanding of the ICH and an interest in safeguarding that ICH, and are therefore moving in the same direction when it comes to community consent and making decisions about the future of their heritage.

Encouraging – We regard the young generation as the cultural stewards of the future, and therefore aim to provide them with all the required knowledge – both theory and practice – about their national and local heritage.

This is the approach to heritage safeguarding, not merely monument conservation, that LPICG has introduced in Thailand, especially in the northern region where our networks are currently concentrated.


—This article is a slightly adapted version of one that originally appears in the recently published Capacity-building programme on safeguarding intangible cultural heritage in Thailand: outcomes of CRIHAP-UNESCO Bangkok collaboration’, UNESCO Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific, June 2022. —

For more information about the important work of the International Training Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region (CRIHAP), visit: http://en.crihap.cn/


Angela Srisomwongwathana is an alumna of UNESCO-CRIHAP trainings of national trainers for safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. A photographer and conservator, she is a co-founder of The Little People in Conservation Group, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She has worked for the Chiang Mai City of Crafts and Folk Art since its inception in 2014, and she applies photography in conservation and for engaging the public – especially youth and local communities – in safeguarding their cultural heritage. She participated in the conservation of Wat Pongsanuk, in Lampang, which won a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Conservation Merit Award in 2008.