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–Interview by Michael Sawatsewi–
Po Ariya Bunyapamai is an alumnus of RIS from the Class of 2008. Now based in Zürich, Switzerland, Po is living the dream and traveling the world as an accomplished photographer. At just 29, he has already been to and collaborated with well-known businesses and brands in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Although Po specializes in food photography for restaurants and magazines, his portfolio—not to mention his gorgeous Instagram feed—attests to an adeptness at product studio photography and lifestyle shoots as well. Known professionally simply as Po Bunya, he is constantly on the move on assignment but, luckily for us, is currently back in Bangkok. We were able to catch up with Po for a chat when he reminisced about RIS, talked of his travels, gave sage advice on photography, and shared news of his recent solo exhibition.
What are some of your favorite memories from RIS?
Well, I actually met my wife [RIS alumna Mandy Boontanrart] in Mr. James Pop’s homeroom in fifth grade. We sat at direct opposite ends of the classroom, but she still left an impression! My favorite parts of RIS were the field trips, especially the ones to Kanchanaburi in 9th and 12th grades, because we went for days and almost everyone from the grade was there. They were the best! Having lived abroad, I can also look back and say our cafeteria food was really good!
Did you take pictures in RIS?
That’s a funny story. At the end of fifth grade, we were given a list of electives to choose from for sixth grade that we had to rank from one to nine—one being the most desired. I don’t remember even noticing it being on the list, but when my sixth-grade class schedule came I was assigned photography with Mr. Sam Lor for the first semester. I remember complaining to my mom about the class being useless. All there was to do was press a button, so I thought. Why would someone need to go to class for a semester for that? Boy, was I so wrong! [laughs]
How did you land in photography as a career?
I consider myself very lucky; my passion found me. You know, I dropped photography during my undergraduate studies and chose to study Product Design [while at Pratt Institute, New York.] I couldn’t see how photography could make me any money. However, six years ago, a fellow RIS underclassmen—Nep Punwatanawit, RIS Class of 2009—was interning at a food company and contacted me to create new photos for a website revamp. (He said he remembered I was really into photography in high school and wondered if I still was.) The resulting photographs were so good! I think it was the combination of being under pressure and having external expectations that helped me create good work that was so much better than the stuff I was photographing for myself.
From then on, I knew the only way to improve was to take on even more assignments. I have to thank Nep because if he hadn’t reached out to me that day, I don’t know what I would be doing today. Because my first portfolio piece was food, my work and client base naturally went in that direction. In hindsight, food photography was a good fit because I have an affinity for composition. I also like to cook.
Aside from food, what are your favorite things to photograph?
I like photographing people. Portraiture is fascinating to me because it captures the mood between the subject and the photographer. Five professional photographers could photograph the same model in the same studio for an hour, and the facial expressions and emotion between each photographer’s set would not be the same. A portrait shows how I make the subject feel in that instant, and that emotion lives on forever in that photograph.
What’s your favorite camera or device to shoot with?
I shoot a lot with my Olympus E-M5 Mark II. I use it for my personal work as well as most of my food photography. It’s light, the lenses are small, and the camera is just so intuitive. I love it! However, I would like to add that phone cameras these days are so good! With the exception of needing a proper camera for a specific application or a really huge print, my iPhone 8 Plus camera has been excellent, and I’ve even used photos from it in exhibitions and prints.
Your social media shows how well-traveled you are. What have been some of your favorite places to shoot?
Hands down, Cuba. It was such a rich country, then communism destroyed the economy and impoverished everyone. You can see remnants of such grandeur amidst the crumbling streetscape. There is no place like it, and the visual beauty plus dereliction creates such a unique atmosphere. At the same time, Cuba feels very safe, and the locals are so friendly. The capital, sort of frozen in time, gives the vibe of a very worldly, cosmopolitan village. And I say village because, even with two million inhabitants, Havana still retains the chillness of a much smaller-sized city. It is also very difficult and expensive to use the internet in Cuba, so it is liberating when I am there with a group of friends and no one is playing on their smartphone! We’re all hanging out. It’s all these juxtapositions, both visual and cultural, that makes Cuba such a special place in the world for me.
Ahhh… hence the theme for your recent exhibition. Tell us more about La Familia Cubana
This exhibition combines my love of portraiture with my love of Cuba. I was sent there on assignment with a good friend of mine in 2016, and we ended up staying an extra week to explore. We’d wake up at dawn and walk the streets, meeting locals, trying to absorb as much culture as we could. I hope this exhibition will impart our sense of excitement and energy during our time there.
You’re now based in Zurich. What’s your favorite thing about Switzerland?
The nature. It’s so pristine. The river downtown is so clear in the summer. I swim in it at least twice a week. Public transportation is so good that I don’t have to drive or get stuck in traffic. Everything is efficient. I can get from airplane seat to my home front door—and vice versa—in less than 50 minutes. Perfect for a frequent flyer. However, the food is quite boring so I come to Thailand three to four times a year to take on assignments and also to pig out on delicious food.
Well, glad you’re here now. What else have you been working on while in Bangkok?
I have a side business, Bangkok Darkroom Equipment Co., that imports used, high-quality darkroom equipment from Europe. Traditional equipment in good condition is difficult to find in this day and age, and I love printing black-and-white photos the traditional way. I find the process and isolation a meditative process. So far, this venture has received phenomenal reception in the Thai darkroom community. Doing this has sort of been my way of giving back to the photography community in Thailand.
Any advice for budding photographers?
Shoot what you love and keep refining your skill set. Show it to people. But, most importantly, show your work to people who have more experience in the industry you want to get into. It is important, however, to keep in mind that not every single piece of advice is truth. Keep an open mind, and take in suggestions and critique while maintaining your own standpoint. When your work is good enough, having paying clients is an eventuality.
All photos courtesy of Po Bunya. La Familia Cubana, a photo exhibition by Po, will be displayed at Monochrome Gallery, Decho Road (off Silom) from February 1 to 29, 2020. For more on Bangkok Dark Equipment Co., visit Facebook.com/bangkokdarkroom.Check out more of Po’s photos on his official website: www.po-photos.com or follow him on Instagram @pobunya.