Through the lens.
The past two months of staying home, watching people from his apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown, could not stop 24 year-old New York-based photographer Sippakorn “Mickey” Ponpayong from going out and snapping some photographs for work. Suddenly, however, his focus has shifted from his usual muse, architecture, to the biggest cultural moment in modern American history, as protests over the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have embroiled the country, especially the Big Apple. We caught up with him to find out more about life behind the lens in America today.
How long have you been working in photography?
Since 2016, but I’ve always been interested in photography. Before Covid-19 started, I was working as an assistant for an architectural photographer, Connie Zhou. I’ve been working as her administrative and on-set photography assistant for roughly three and half years now.
How did you end up in New York?
I first came to the United States for college. I went to L.A. first and started attending school there. I ended up in New York, because I wanted to go to Parsons; I thought it was a really cool school with a modern curriculum. I attempted to transfer there during my first year in L.A. At first, I applied for the photography school and got rejected. The next year, I reapplied and was accepted into the strategic design and management school.
How do you approach photographing the protests?
Photographing the protests is quite hard; you have more control in fields like architectural photography. With protests, it’s hard to expect what will happen, so you have to always be observing. When I go to the protests, I don’t really start shooting right away. I try to absorb and let everything happen before I pick up my camera and start shooting.
How does it feel being in the middle of such a politically charged moment?
This is a really historical moment. I definitely feel empowered to be there as an observer. Actually, it’s a difficult topic to talk about. There’s a lot of pain and suffering that people in this community feel, but at the same time from this gathering you can totally feel the power and the connectivity between people from different social backgrounds and cultures. And they’re all there to support one another.
Have you felt in danger or at risk, especially as police have confronted protesters?
I see the organizer of the protests pretty regularly. They’re always pushing for peaceful protests. Whenever there’s anybody doing something out of line, they make sure that everyone remembers to keep it peaceful. So, I’ve never felt afraid, but there have been times when I feel a bit uneasy, [like] when a crowd of protestors were approaching the police headquarters. There was a big group of policemen. I felt unsure about the situation, what they were going to do. It was my first time seeing those two parties so close together. But in the end it was fine.
What are you hoping to capture or express through your photographs of the protests?
As a Thai person, I can understand the problem to some level, but I can’t truly understand the whole perspective of the New York community. So my only goal is to be an observer and to be able to capture this moment, how the people [of this city and the black community] feel in this really unique time. I just want to be an observer and storyteller to help spread the word to more people.
What’s happening now? What’s the latest?
The protest is ongoing. There have been a few changes that have happened with the government in multiple cities. In Minneapolis (the city where George Floyd was killed), there have been some changes that happened with the police department. The city is going to restructure it. In New York, there’s a new law (50-a) that has been passed, where police disciplinary records are now becoming public.
Do you think there are any lessons that the politically engaged in Thailand can draw from what’s happening in the US?
This is really a delicate topic to talk about. The most important part is to educate ourselves to better understand the tension between the police and the black community. I know that in Thailand we’re not directly related to this [protest movement]. But this is something that is really global.
Check out his work at: sippakornponpayong.com/i-cant-breathe
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.