Ralf Tooten’s AWC – Asian Workers Covered
In Thailand, completely covered up construction workers, male or female, young or old, local or foreign migrant, are a familiar sight. Tens of thousands of them toil in intense heat on skyscrapers and along roadsides. They clean out drains and climb rickety, scary-looking bamboo scaffolding. In their lunch-breaks, they sit by the side of other people’s dreams they have been recruited to build, and laugh, eat and smoke, sometimes without removing their protective clothing - masks, sunglasses, balaclavas, scarves - which renders them virtually invisible to ordinary Thais.
The brilliance of Ralf Tooten’s stark portraits of these AWC – Asian Workers Covered – rests in his ability to make a social taboo highly visible – he has crafted a series of images with so much simple seductive force and exhibited them in such prominent locations that it’s difficult not to stop and take a second or third look.
Tooten shot the original AWC series between 2006 and 2009. He set up his mobile studio – a dark background, a few lights – in quiet corners of Bangkok’s construction sites and photographed scores of workers from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma, all too aware that getting permits was dicey. In 2012, Tooten shot a second series of portraits in Ratchaburi, a small town in central Thailand, and went on to spread his work across 2000 square meters of vinyl banners on the town’s public structures – the first time contemporary art was made accessible to so many people in Thailand.
The photographs, all taken on a mid-format Hasselblad V on negative film, are deceptively simple. There’s a fashionable and yet arbitrary riot of colors at play in the subjects’ head and face coverings that betrays a stubborn vivacity quite in contrast to the wearying traces of their daily travails that jump at the viewer from their blank eyes.
In October 2018, Ralf Tooten was invited to exhibit AWC at the inaugural Bangkok Biennale. Once again, the photographer achieved an incredible feat. He found a way to present his poignant images of Thailand’s working class in unusual environments and contexts in the Thai capital. He transported the workers’ visual stories back to the street on which they originated, something the Biennale’s main curator, Prof.Dr. Apinan Poshyananda dubbed the ‘Tooten Attack’. And he makes his subjects look cool. His 14 by 14 meter portrait of a female worker looks out over shoppers at BACC (Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre), while screens in downtown shopping centers flash his portraits at passing Bangkokians.
Of course, Asia’s laborers cover their faces for reasons that have little to do with looking cool. Heat, dust and pollution are the obvious factors, but the need for disguise goes deeper than the physical challenges of the work environment. In many parts of Asia, light skin is seen as highly desirable, a visual marker for class and wealth. As a rule, the men and women Tooten captured so vividly fear the sun because it will make them even darker than they are. And as many are illegal foreign workers, they also fear the authorities.
For these rather distressing reasons, Tooten’s project perfectly encapsulates an unseen side of a country that hardly suffers from lack of exposure – some 35 million tourists visited the kingdom last year, yet few are aware that the men and women who built the hotels they stay in are engaged in an existential struggle. More importantly, AWC offers ordinary Thais another view of their country, reminding them how and by whom their cities are built, while lending identity and dignity to people who enjoy too little of either. To paraphrase a famous quote by the Urdu poet Kabir: “He is putting up mirrors in the city of the blind.”
Le Link Gallery has curated the most outstanding images from Tooten’s very first AWC shoots, undertaken between 2006 and 2009.
Fascinated by the aesthetics of visual encounters, the personal radiance of human beings and great architecture of all centuries, photographer Ralf Tooten has dedicated his professional life to architecture & portrait photography.
Born in Germany’s Rhineland, Tooten completed his apprenticeship in architectural photography with master photographer Clemens Hartzenbusch in 1978 and worked as a stills photographer on several seminal German movies including Volker Schlöndorff’s Academy Award winning ‘The Tin Drum’, based on the novel by Günter Grass, and Margarethe von Trotta’s ‘Two German Sisters’, which won the Golden Lion.
Tooten’s first coffee table book ‘Eyes of Wisdom’, an intimate portrait collection of the world’s greatest religious leaders, received worldwide attention and bagged the distinguished Hasselblad Master Award in 2002.
In 2003, Tooten moved this studio to Bangkok and began photographing the Thai capital at night. His collaboration with acclaimed writer Roger Willemsen resulted in the best-selling book Bangkok Noir, published in 2009.
His more recent collection, Ocean Noir, a series of ultra-low light images of oceans around the world, was first exhibited in Bangkok in 2016.
2002 Eyes of Wisdom, Museum of Arts and Crafts (MKG), Hamburg, Germany
2004 Eyes of Wisdom, The National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand
2008 A.W.C. Asian Worker Covered - Tang Contemporary Art Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand
2009 Bangkok Noir - Flo Peters Gallery, Hamburg, Germany
2011 Bangkok Noir - The National Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand
2013 R.C.A. Ratchaburi Construction Worker Open Air, Ratchaburi, Thailand
2016 Ocean Noir (Nacht Wellen ) RMA Institute, Bangkok, Thailand
2017 Goethe Institute Pop-Up Exhibition – ‘The “worker bees” of Globalization, Cho Why, Bangkok, Thailand
2018 A.W.C. Asian Worker Covered - Selected Artist for Art Biennale Bangkok 2018
Born 1958 Homberg am Niederrhein, Germany
1975-1978 Study architectural photography with Mr. Clemens Hartzenbusch