HOW THE Rocketmen of Yasothorn SAVED MY CAREER

By the spring of 1995, I was already a year into my so-called photography "career". I had started well apparently - fresh out of a photography graduate program in 1994 in Chicago, my first assignment was a three week assignment with the legendary editor Kathy Ryan at The New York Times Magazine, hired on the basis of a project on Cambodian gangs I did in the US. By June of 1994 I had moved to Bangkok with my then girlfriend, and now my wife, Jennifer, and I had plans to base myself there and learn the ropes. Within weeks I had assignments with The New York Times in Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. Wow, this is easy!

Then the phone stopped ringing. For a year.

I had to sell my workhorse 80-200mm lens to pay rent. I went back to teaching English at the same school I had worked at in Bangkok in 1988 when I lived there as a student studying Thai. I did a few random assignments for the Associated Press but had no clue what they needed or how to deliver the work and was clearly not cut out for wire work. Even though our rent was only $160 a month, by May of 1995 I was close to quitting photography when a friend suggested I go to northeast Thailand, often called Isarn, and photograph the rocket festival they have there at the beginning of every rainy season. I had so little money, I had to take the cheapest, non-air conditioned bus from Bangkok, the one that stopped at every village along the entire ride, which was close to 14 hours. But the bus was filled with Isarn farmers returning home, drinking, singing and reveling the whole time. I was on the right track, and on the right bus. I was also part of the whiskey-bottle-and-fork rhythm section while my traveling companions sang and did ramwong folk dances in the aisle for most of the journey.

When I arrived in Yasothorn, the two day event was under way and I threw myself in - I had 10 rolls of Tri-X film, two cameras, two lenses (28 and 85mm) and little to lose. My Thai language skills gave me good access to rocket teams, who plied me with rice whiskey, morning, day and night. My Thai also let me skip pass organizers and police keeping tourists at a safe distance; a polite wai and a few flattering words in Thai, and I was in. When I returned to Bangkok and developed the film, and made prints, something astonishing happened. I knew I was on the right path - the work was good, but most importantly, it was the kind of work that made me want to be a photographer. Again. Later at the legendary Bangkok journalist bar The Front Page, I showed the work to my friend and fellow photographer Ben Davies who suggested I go - they were, in his opinion, some of the best images he'd seen of the festival. To this day I remember where we were sitting at the bar when he told me that.

The spark was reignited and the next 3 years in Thailand were some of the most productive years of my career, constantly working on stories, assembling edits, trying to sell them to small magazines around Asia. The assignments came back too, editors learned who I was, but I also learned how to deal with the lulls. My path as a photographer was back, simply by doing the work. What was true in 1995 is, of course, still true in 2023: Do The Work.

Images and my original text from 1995 below.



"Please stay at least ten meters away from firing rockets," the Thailand Tourist Authority's (TAT) announcer warns. Seconds later a fifteen-foot rocket bursts into life and roars off its rickety launch pad. A middle-aged farmer, wandering in a drunken stupor under the pad, gets caught in the rocket's raging exhaust. As the pungent, caustic smoke clears, the rocket screams into the clouds two thousand feet overhead. The farmer staggers through the smoke, his hair and shirt covered with soot and smoldering. He grabs a bottle of lao khao - rice whisky - and takes a hefty swig. Soon, he believes, everyone will be blessed by rain.

This is the annual Bang Fai (firework) celebrations held every May in Northeast Thailand, commonly called Isarn. The centuries old festival is an appeal to the rain gods in this the driest and poorest part of Thailand. Rockets are launched throughout Isarn but nowhere with the passion of the Yasothorn contest where for one day the focus of the country falls on its most maligned region. The Isarn are derogatorily called Lao by Bangkok Thais for their cultural similarities to their Laotian cousins to the north. For the Isarn, though, it's a badge of honour that distinguishes them from the slick and slippery folk who hail from the capital to the West. Today in Yasothorn they refuse to allow the authorities from Bangkok to tame their wondrous, and often uncontrollable, celebrations.

"You see that tent over there on the hill," says a young mud-soaked man, "that's where all the Bangkok people stay because it's dry and we can't throw mud on them. They all drink Singha beer; we only drink rice whisky". The rocket-maker is referring to the official sponsor, a huge Bangkok-based conglomerate that's come to make a baht from the bang fai. A quick glance around and everyone is drinking rice whisky and the huge banners and party hats from Singha are not inspiring sales.

"The Tourist Authority of Thailand welcomes all visitors from foreign countries to the Bang Fai celebrations. Please be careful of your belongings at all times". The Isarn, though, are not dressed well enough to hide any hand-picked loot and are more interested in wallowing in the mud pools that have formed in rice paddies. Everywhere people dance and roll in it. One young man dons a monk's muddy robes and mimics collecting alms—an act that would be a profoundly sacrilegious on any other day but today brings only laughter. The mud, like the rain, represents life in Isarn - a drought only twenty years ago meant famine. Nowadays, it can mean serious economic hardship or foreclosure by money lenders and banks.

Another rocket lifts off its pad, sputters, and barrels off back into Yasothorn. "Maybe it'll hit the bank," a rocket-maker comments, almost conspiratorially.

Despite TAT's warnings, the fun at the Bang Fai celebration is within the ten meter safety zone—the fighters' circle. Here the 48 rocket teams, covered in mud, bring in their rockets, singing and waving 'V' signs. Most are teenagers, with a few adults to coordinate their less than sober movements. As a team comes in, a young man says next year will be his turn. His older friend says he did it last year. The Bang Fai festival is as much about the coming of age as it is rain.

Ten people are needed to carry a rocket to the pad. They are made from PVC and bamboo and packed with solid rocket fuel. Some are painted, some have lucky Buddhist scriptures scribbled on them. All are dangerous, especially when mixed with the copious quantities of alcohol and cigarettes being consumed. Once on the pad, the teams step back to watch the rocket launch. The anticipation is intense—they've spent all year planning for this day and it all ends in 30 seconds of fury.

The announcer counts down. "Sii, saam, song, nung (4, 3, 2, 1....)" and the rockets explode. The sound is deafening and shakes the ground. The rockets spew out unburned fuel and melting PVC that lands in burning, bubbling puddles. Some rockets go straight up, others spiral away leaving trails of white smoke that delight the audience. Some, like Cruise Missiles, skim the ground, no doubt surprising farmers hard at work in the fields beyond. Some simply blow up on the pad.

TAT's efforts to bring their brand of respectability to Yasothorn pretty much evaporate on the launch pad. Here the spontaneity of the Isarn is irresistible as they dance with joy over a every successful launch.

A farmer walks over as the announcer makes yet another warning. When asked if anyone gets hurt, he shrugs his shoulders. "No. The drunks sometimes fall over. In the old days, though, nobody stood this close, it was too dangerous". Moments later a rocket explodes over spectators' heads showering them with flaming debris that sends everyone fleeing. Most laugh as they trip over paddy walls. I learn later that people are killed pretty much every year during these rocket festivals across Thailand and Laos.

As the day wears on rain clouds appear. The skies open up and start pouring down an answer to the rocket-makers' explosive pleas.

"See, it works", the referee says squatting under an umbrella he's sharing with an entire family. No doubt, the fact that it's been raining all week is irrelevant.