Bangkok Noir

Ralf Tooten’s journey through Asia’s nocturnal underbelly

My first contact with Thailand was through my friend, Bernhard Strathmann, who introduced me to the study of Tao and invited me to the launch of the book, The Eyes of Wisdom, which he had worked on with photographer, Ralf Tooten, as editor and publisher. Ralf’s photos in that book about spirituality, some of which were shot in Thailand, inspired me to see the country with my own eyes.

During my first trip to Thailand, I visited Ralf in Bangkok, where he took me along to explore the city at night for his new photo project at the time, Bangkok Noir. The first photo he shot during our excursion didn’t make it into the book (see above). But it remains on my desk as a constant reminder of that initial exciting encounter.

In a recent interview with our mutual friend, Tom Vater, Ralf spoke about how he came to live in Bangkok and the birth of Bangkok Noir—a visual homage to the city with lyrical texts penned by another mutual friend of ours and long-time Hamburg resident, the late, illustrious Roger Willemsen. – Sibylle

I love Bangkok. Everything here is spiritual, from the nightlife to the Buddhism. And as a photographer, I feel free here. Unburdened, because I don’t belong here.”

Photographer Ralf Tooten has lived in the Thai capital since 2003. It’s been a long and productive love affair for the award-winning 58-year old German.

In 2006, Tooten, a tall lanky guy, whose Leica appears to be an extension both of his easy charisma and his physical presence, set out to capture his adopted home and spent two years chasing light and shadow across the city.

Eventually he teamed up with celebrated writer, Roger Willemsen, and created Bangkok Noir, a sumptuous and bestselling book on Southeast Asia’s most vibrant city at night.

Ralf and Roger in Bangkok

Tooten remembers the beginning of his love affair with the city. He had just finished his incredible Eyes of Wisdom project, a series of portraits of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders—and the photographer really did capture the most enigmatic religious icons of the time, including Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. The project took him to several Asian countries, though not to Thailand.

While on holidays in Thailand in 2002, I met Katharina von Ruckteschell, then the director of the Goethe Institute in Bangkok, and she agreed to host a travelling exhibition of Eyes of Wisdom. It went on the road in 2003, from Bangkok to Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Manila, and Mindanao. At the time, I was looking for a Buddhist country where I could easily live and work. Thailand fit the bill perfectly.”

One year later, Tooten had set up base in the city.

Bangkok is a long way from Hamburg. I can experience things here that I don’t need to comment on. I can experience life visually because I don’t understand the language well. That was a major draw for me.”

Tooten was clearly a risk taker. He was 45, at the height of his career, the recipient of prestigious prizes, including the Hasselblad Masters Award in 2003. And he seemed to be throwing it all away to disappear to the Far East.

My decision was intuitive. Had I stayed in Germany I would have had a different career. But I felt it was more important to have a personal experience. Some people at the time doubted it was a smart choice. But that wasn’t important. My mother and my friends were very surprised because I made my decision to move to Bangkok so quickly.”

Once ensconced in the Thai capital, Tooten had to start from scratch. “I didn’t have a great deal of money and I had to pawn my lenses. It was hard.”

Much like any huge metropolis, Bangkok is not an easy city to navigate for a newcomer. “First I tried to do commercial work and set up a company. I shot ads with Thai celebrities for clients like Panasonic. But it didn’t really work. Thailand proved fickle—natural disasters followed political ones—floods and coups. The country was unpredictable.”

But where others might have given up, Tooten stayed and dug in.

I had enough of Europe. It had been time to go. I was fascinated by Buddhism and the nightlife in Bangkok. And I loved observing the daily lives of the Thais.”

Tooten learned the rudiments of the Thai language, bought a motorbike, and set off into the Bangkok night.

I was always interested in low-light photography, and Bangkok gives a lot at night. I did thousands of kilometers and tried to shoot a cross-cut of the city—street vendors, luxury hotels, short time hotels, the sleeping areas of the elephants that used to roam the city.”

Bangkok can be an edgy metropolis in the small hours, and Tooten relished the risks involved in his work.

It can be dangerous here, especially for the photographer who goes out on a limb to capture the night. Shooting Bangkok’s elephants was challenging. Both the animals and the mahouts, its owners, were on drugs. The elephants were terribly mistreated, and there was a lot of gambling going on. It was rough.”

Tooten had always planned to turn his new body of work into a book.

At some point during my nocturnal wanderings, I decided I wanted to call the project Bangkok Noir. I approached my friend, Roger Willemsen, with the idea, and we made a proper start in 2007. The advance I got for the book was most welcome and gave me a lot more space to really focus on the Bangkok night.”

Bangkok Noir was published in 2009 and hit the German bestseller lists, where it stayed for a considerable time. Tooten’s half-lit, stark images and Willemsen’s lyrical, free-flowing narrative formed a near perfect mirror of the city.

And Tooten, his project wrapped up, stayed.

I feel at home here. I feel that I will leave my body in Thailand. Buddhism really helps. The first thing I do every morning is to meditate for an hour, no matter what. If I have to leave for the airport at six, I will get up at four to get my hour of silence. I’ve never felt this affinity I feel here to another country.”

Bangkok has changed a great deal since the publication of Tooten’s book. Thailand is now under military control and the city continues to modernize rapidly.

Asia is fast, and things change quickly here. Bangkok has become smoother, less edgy, and more globalized. So many old buildings have been torn down, replaced by condos and malls. Bangkok Noir was a certain moment in time, and that moment is gone. I am interested in other subjects now, and yet the city remains my place to be.”

All photos © and courtesy Ralf Tooten.

 Bangkok Noir

By Ralf Tooten (300+ photos) + Roger Willemsen (text)

Published by S. Fischer, 2009, language: German