Yan Morvan is known for his close-up reportages on underground scenes: in 1974 he spent time with the Hells Angels in Paris; throughout the decades his has immersed himself in civil wars, including Iran-Iraq, Northern Ireland, in the Philippines, Uganda, Mozambique, Kurdistan, Afghanistan and Kosovo, just to mention a few of the places he has been. 40 years ago, equipped with a Leica M 5, Morvan documented the lives of both female and male prostitutes in Bangkok. Even then, the Thai capital was known as the stronghold of quick, cheap sex, visited, above all, by men from Europe and the USA. In 2019, his explorations there have culminated in a photo book titled BKK.
You seem to love hanging out wherever the danger is. How come?
To live is dangerous – and I love life so much that I’m ready to pay a high price to live it to the full.
Do you have any photographic role models? Who had an influence on the development of your own particular way of seeing?
In 1973, I saw a portfolio on the Vietnam war in Zoom magazine, with pictures by Don McCullin, Larry Burrows, and Philip Jones Griffiths. As a result, I decided to become a war photographer. I was 20 years old when I started my career.
How did you get into the Bangkok underground scene? Were you on assignment?
My girlfriend had arranged an appointment for me with some people in Bangkok. I arrived in Thailand in December 1979. I was supposed to cover the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia for the Gamma Agency. It was towards the end; it was the time of refugees at the border, and nobody wanted the story. I decided to stay. I realized people from the western world were going to Bangkok to f… – it was a world of consumption. I thought this would be the story of tomorrow. I didn’t like to do the story. Making love is something different.
Your Bangkok series wasn’t published in a book until now. How did it come about?
Jean-Jacques Naudet, editor-in-chief of PHOTO magazine, published 10 pages of the pictures in August 1980. I had returned at the end of June. Then in September, I started working with the Sipa Agency and was assigned to cover the Iran-Iraq war; so the story slept until last year, when the art director, Loïc Vincent, worked on a lay-out. Then an editor decided to do the book.
When exactly was the series photographed? How long did you spend in Bangkok?
I was in Bangkok for 6 months, from the end of December 1979 until the end of June 1980.
Please describe your visual approach.
I try to be in the right place at the right time – then I set up the frame in my Leica camera (which is easy to do), and shoot when the action is the most intense. I think before shooting – I take very few pictures. The cost was too high at that time. I don’t say it because this is the Leica blog, but Leica cameras are great if you want people to forget about you while you’re shooting. At that point I can get closer and closer…
It doesn’t seem like you used a flash for this story. Why did you prefer to only use natural light?
For this story I chose the dark, because the lives of these poor girls are desperate. No light, underlining the way of death and sorrow. AIDS arrived very quickly after these pictures were taken, and decimated the Bangkok scene.
In addition to seeing prostitutes “at work”, we see them in their daily lives and during their leisure time. What was the idea behind this?
Yes; this isn’t just a story about prostitution… It’s a story about modern-day slavery, and about how some countries have become the brothels of western civilization, and the shame of white men.
As a male photographer, was it difficult for you to get access to intimate situations?
Not really. I’m not aggressive, and I speak to everyone with gentleness and respect – this is the way I am. I never insist if people say “no pictures”. I was a good-looking boy, and they realized I didn’t want to f…. I didn’t care for it.
How did you build up the relationships to the people you photographed?
I spent a lot of time with the girls; I was part of their family. I didn’t have money, so I lived with the people. I didn’t try to “use” them as others foreigners did. We would go to the movies or restaurants together. At night they would go to the bar to work. I explained why I wanted to make a story about them. Some of them felt happy to be photographed.
How do you think the prostitution scene has changed? How different is it to the days back then?
I don’t know. I never returned and I don’t ever want to go back to Bangkok. At the time it smelled of death. Yesterday I went to a gypsy camp; and then a girl was shot down. There are so many places to go. I’m going forward. The worst is yet to come.
The French photojournalist Yan Morvan was born in Paris in 1954. While studying Mathematics and Film, Morvan produced reportages on the Hells Angels in Paris, and on prostitutes in Bangkok. From 1974 to 1975 he worked with the Fotolib Agency, the Normag Agency and the Sipa Agency, and, as of the end of the seventies, with the Gamma Agency. He is considered one of the best contemporary war photographers. His reportage on the civil war in Lebanon earned him the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1983, and two World Press Photo Awards in 1984, as well as numerous other recognitions.
His book BKK will be published by Editions Noeve. The photos can be seen at Paris Photo at the booth of Sit Down Gallery.
A portfolio by Yan Morvan about youngsters in Paris can be found in LFI 3/2018 and on the Leica camera blog.