Interview: NICK NOSTITZ
All of the material in this book review and interview is original.
It is all copyright Stickman (c) 2001.
Nick Nostitz is a freelance photographer based in Bangkok and is the photographer and author of the fine photography book, "Patpong: Bangkok's Twilight Zone". I first met Nick at one of the Nanapong dance contests in Patpong and found him to be a most interesting fellow with an incredibly interesting job and life. Nick and I stayed in touch and he kindly accepted my request for an interview. Preceded by my thoughts on the book, we discuss life in Thailand. This was an interview with an extremely interesting, intelligent and downright intriguing fellow.
While there have been many novels set in the Bangkok nightlife zone, a photographic book on Bangkok's nightlife makes one salivate at the very thought. Pro photographer Nick Nostitz is perhaps the first person to produce such a book.
As you turn the cover and start to flick through the pages, you notice that this book is unusual in several aspects, the first being that there is no name on the cover, rather just the name of the publisher. The photographs are predominantly black and white and they are not glamorous. The text has been written using an old typewriter and mistakes are just written over, sometimes scribbled out. Some of the photos are also accompanied by hand written descriptions. There is an extensive interview with someone who entered the scene and fell all the way down the slippery slope and a few newspaper clippings from days gone by have been included too. All of this contributes to making you feel like you are right there with the people in the shots, right in the very heart of it.
The photography here is exquisite, and reminds of shots taken by those mad men carrying cameras in a battle scene who will do almost anything for the ultimate shots. We're not talking stereotypical shots of flashing neon but snapshots of reality from someone who got right inside the scene, to the very heart of it all. There is a depth to some of the photos that makes you keep picking up the book again and again, looking at all of the shots over and over again, steering into the girls' eyes, examining the backgrounds, wondering if you are perhaps somewhere there amongst it all. Every time you pick it up, you find something new, something that you missed the last time around.
It must be said that there will be some people who will not like this book and even some who will hate it. Some people can't accept the truth. The book is no TAT marketing brochure. This is reality, a look at what really goes on behind the scenes. No one likes to be reminded that what they are doing is less than wholesome, but Nick never pushes this viewpoint on you. While some of his photographs will shock, for me it is the impartiality of his text that shows a huge maturity and compliments the photography beautifully.
This book was obviously put together with real passion and the final result reminds me of the odd off the wall Oliver Stone movie that I have enjoyed because it so different and original from anything else. But that makes it hard to compare it with any existing material. It dares to be unconventional and originality can be a recipe for disaster if the average consumer's expectations are not met. But when we talk about Bangkok nightlife we are not talking about the average consumer, but the many thousands of Western men who fall in love with the working girls on Thailand every year.
For those who live (or are thinking about living) in Thailand primarily for the nightlife, this book is a wake up call and it is highly recommended reading. Deferred thoughts of falling down the slippery slope will come thundering home and after the initial shock of the book has faded and the ideas in it have begun to sink in, you realise that this book is very much a look behind the scenes at the shocking truth.
While it may linger on the very negative aspects of life in Thailand's farang twilight zone, the text is written with balance and maturity and leaves the reader in no doubt that in the preceding seven years, the author has felt the extreme highs and lows that only a Bangkok based can expat feel. There is a depth to this book that I have seldom felt – in any form of published media.
If you are prepared to be shown what lies behind the bright neon lights and smiles that many identify with Bangkok's nightlife, then allow Nick Nostitz to show you what life is really like for those who work and play in the industry.
Whether you want a photographic record of the Thai nightlife scene, a collection of very classy artwork or an explanation of why we fall into this great big trap that is Bangkok at night, then this book is for you. I would never say that any thing is a compulsory purchase, but if you are one of the many thousands who dreams about Thailand's nightlife, then this book is perhaps the most important book you could buy.
When did you first go to Thailand and since then, how much time have you spent there? What was it that first attracted you to Thailand?
First time, I think '89, passing through from Indonesia to Sri Lanka with a surfboard under my arm. I was backpacking with a surfboard.
So, how old were you then?
And was surfing in Thailand the reason for coming?
No, it was just from the waves in Indonesia to the waves in Sri Lanka. I remember that I wrote in my diary Bangkok is a place in the world that I never want to come back to, never ever!
I can relate to that. So how many times did you come here after that before you decided to settle?
Many times, I was always passing through to Indonesia, to China and coming back and on to India.
So when did you move here?
And you've been living here ever since?
Yep. I left a couple of times for good.
What made you leave back then?
It was all just totally crazy and when you have an intense life, things just get overly crazy and I just couldn't handle it any more.
Tell me more about your book. Isn't this book seven years work? Did you plan to do this book when you first arrived?
It's a funny story. I was in China and I was still a backpacker, I didn't have any energy and I didn't want to go back to Europe and I was just too tired to go to Africa. Most places in Asia I wanted to travel I have already been. I was really tired and depressed, a bit unhealthy. It was a rainy day in Hangzhou and I walked into this book store. I was always an amateur photographer and I pulled out this book from a Japanese photographer – I can't remember his name but I still have the book in Germany. I read that book and it just blew me, completely and absolutely blew me. It was photos of this guy's life in Africa, the women he screwed, just the whole thing, so personal. It opened up a new world for me. I though that is what I want to do, because I had already started playing around in the nightlife. I thought it would be great getting immersed in this nightlife scene and at the same time taking these photos.
Before you started on the book had you had much exposure to the nightlife scene?
A little bit, you know, after six months in India more or less living like a monk and you come to Bangkok and its like wow, women, wow, never seen these creatures before!
<both of us laughing loudly>
Has the book been profitable?
In which aspect?
I don't know, I didn't even think about that because you don't make a book like this for money. The cash that I would get out from this book is less than a two week's assignment from a good magazine.
So money was never your main ambition with this project?
No, not really. I was just driven to do that book, this nightlife scene changed my life so much, and the life of all my friends from that time, I just had to do it. But I won't say that I did not benefit financially indirectly. Since that book got published I got some very nice assignments from magazines. Coming out with a very unusual book will get you a lot of attention. In terms of profit I would prefer to think much more on a personal level. How much that lifestyle formed me, what I have learned about me, life in general, but also what I have lost in the process of taking these photos, like large parts of my naivety. No amount of money can replace these experiences.
OK, how many countries is the book distributed in?
I'm not sure but I think all around the world. I don't really know that much about the distribution part of it.
When I first looked at the book, I thought it paints Bangkok in a very negative and dark manner and it actually made me feel pretty bad for a while which is good because it shows that the book really effected me and I like that. But have you had any really negative feedback from anyone as the book is not at all glamorous?
Actually I was prepared for very negative feedback, but most of what I got has been very positive. That was a big surprise, because the book is not really politically correct in both ways. I don't view the nightlife scene from the angle that a lot of the Western journalism does, in terms of the exploited third world girls. I do not condemn anyone, but also at the same time I don't admire or adore this nightlife and I'm very critical of it in my book, but from a very different viewpoint basically. The feedback which blew me most was from this guy Jo Turner who writes stories and publishes them on one of the nightlife websites. He did a review that brought me close to tears.
What did he say?
He said that it brought alive the Bangkok he knew. He knew a lot of the people I portrayed in the book, some of the women much closer than I did. His review brought the old days somehow back, the way he wrote it, the feeling of honesty and why he liked it so much, seriously, I was close to tears.
You are German but you wrote the book in English – was that difficult to do?
No. it would be almost impossible to write it in German. The language of the nightlife is English. Everyone speaks English the bargirls have their own way to speak English, which can be very cute. If I would translate bargirl English into German it would sound awful. I wouldn't know how to say all that in German. I don't think in German when I am around in the bars. I do not want to have it translated into another language.
So what about you, yourself, your life in Thailand. You're a photographer, a journalist, or a bit of both?
The photojournalism pays my bills. I do my own projects because I am obsessed with photography, and the things I photograph. I prefer to just call myself photographer, I am not such a good journalist.
What sort of photographic equipment do you use?
Well, it all depends, 90% of the photos in the book were taken with small snapshot cameras.
Really? And the quality from those cameras is good enough to print in the book?
I could not have taken most of them with a big, professional equipment. But the darkroom work was very tedious. It's not the camera which takes the photos. It's choosing the right camera for a particular subject. And then it's up to the photographer.
OK, I've seen you take photographs before at the dance contest and you have this very causal manner about yourself although you're working. Do you normally take pictures like that?
Oh sometimes much more causal. Some of the photos were taken when I was completely drunk and couldn't stand. I'd just hold the camera and go click. It just looks casual, but I am very concentrated and it is very hard work. But for me it is the biggest joy of my life. I really enjoy my work, I love my work.
So is your job your life or your life your job?
Both, it's both.
So you've been in Bangkok a long time, living here almost ten years. So, how is it changed – the city, the people and the nightlife?
It's difficult for me to say. The biggest change in the look of the city has been the sky train which has brought Bangkok to completely new dimensions. But I don't wanna go on with this traffic jam bullshit. The biggest change in the nightlife and in my life here has been the Asian crisis. That was enormous because before the time when I started photographing my book, most of the nightlife were people who lived here and threw their money around. You opened your hand and money came in, and you opened your hand again and money came out and you didn't need to actually do anything, money just came. Money never actually came easy for me, most of the time. I don't have that talent. But it was the general pre-crisis atmosphere of the big ease. I remember when the crisis really hit and half of my friends lost their jobs within two weeks. Everybody left, it was heart breaking. One thing we don't have any more is the amount of wackos, the crazy people, the weird ones, the true artists of life, like the ones in my book. Its a lot more difficult for this type of people to survive in Bangkok unfortunately.
If someone read your book, they might think you are wacko because it is really different and it delivers a thunder like punch ala Mike Tyson. Its tough. Its hard and its most definitely not glamorous.
Well, its not really tough, its very soft I think. I'm not a tough photojournalist. I'm a soft person and definitely I'm a little bit different but I think that is part of the job description of being a photographer. Another big change by the way has been the internet. Look for example at the Thermae in the old days when everybody knew each other. Everybody was drunk. It was just so much fun – with or without sex it was just fun. Now you go in there and its all these guys just off the plane with the hunt in their eyes. It's different.
You talk about the internet – some people argue that with the advent of the internet and the phenomenal growth of the internet, the internet is partially responsible for the huge number of people that come to Asia for one reason – to chase young Asian girls. What do you think about that?
Very stupid. I think it's very stupid. These people read on the Internet for months and months about how to do sex in Asia so come here for this one reason. They don't give themselves a chance to get to know Asia , make the mistakes from which you get wiser. I have a problem with people who come here with one thing in their mind – sex. I have a problem with that. This region has so much to offer, I have been here five years before I really fell into the Bangkok nightlife and I tell you, personally I could have done without it. But I was lucky because I got out of it and it was a struggle to get myself somewhere back to where I was before. Some of this nightlife derailed me for a few years.
You've got one story in your book and I won't say it shocked me because little shocks me living here but there was a story about a young lady in the book where she admitted to you that she was HIV positive and she wanted to have sex with you and you wanted to have sex with her and you wanted to have a condom and she didn't and there was this to'ing and fro'ing and eventually you had sex, with an HIV positive girl, without a condom.
In the morning she said she wasn't but then who knows. I put this story in this book for one main reason. It shows how the minds of people change in this nightlife, how my mind changed. I didn't really give a fuck about it. I really didn't care that time about it and that is really scary. Actually I was pretty strict with the condoms. That was one of the very few incidents where I let it go. Life reduces itself in the scene after a while to a single moment. It happens all the time.
So do people who stay in the nightlife experience a paradigm shift, sort of like their boundaries change?
I view the nightlife as sort of a subculture, a different moral and ethical zone, which you can't really compare with normal life. Some of the things happen before you know, and suddenly you are going bareback with an HIV positive girl not caring. The way I am nowadays it would scare the shit out of me, but at that time it was more like "I hope she doesn't have gonorrhea because there are some very nasty bugs around, which would throw me off the game for a considerable amount of time". I've been thinking for a long time whether to put that story in but its what we all did at that time. What I did. How could I not write what I did. I wrote all these very personal things about my friends, they gave me all these very honest interviews. I just can't hide behind the camera, that would completely destroy the book. The aim of my book was always showing the life from the inside of the scene.
So just generally speaking, what do you think about the nightlife scene in Thailand, particularly the farang oriented scene?
For me and for nearly everyone that touches this scene, it will have a profound effect on life – it changed my life, altered it forever. As much as India did which was my first country in Asia. It has transformed me a lot. I see it as an addiction – it was for me. It will always be there and you have to learn how to deal with that addiction. No, I'm lucky that nowadays I can just be in Asia without thinking BAR BAR BAR BAR BAR. But there will always be the little devil on my shoulder, which says, when things don't go as I wish, that there is always that refuge open to me. A door once opened that never can be completely closed.
Some people talk negatively about the nightlife scene in Thailand and when they do, they often bring up this image of the stereotypical sex tourist and they are inevitably, fat, old bald and almost always German. What do you think about this when people talk about your fellow countrymen like this?
I don't care. A very stupid, racist stereotype. The phenomenon of sex tourism is not that simplistic, and reducing it to one nationality doesn't bring you any further. I'm looking at that from a very different angle. What brings all of these lonely men here, from all over the world, what drives all these women out of their villages. What is wrong with out societies that drives us into this scene, looking for freedom but creating our own prison.
Many farangs living in Bangkok have a love hate relationship with Thailand but I feel you don't have one? You strike me as being at peace with yourself.
I have had it many times, that love hate thing. Now it is different. I had that always when something was wrong with my life. Now things are lot better, I am much more confident with my photography, have had some success. Before bringing out the book I was very scared of not being able to live here anymore but I brought it out and that has made me a lot more happy. That reflects on how I feel in this country. I've been living with my girlfriend for the last seven years, that also helps a lot.
You mentioned you were worried about not being able to live here when the book came out. Were you scared of the authorities?
Yes. I was scared because the book shows, like you said, the rough side. Not really the image Thailand wants to be known for. I was also scared that a lot of people in the nightlife would definitely not like the book. But I was quite amazed because a lot of people in the nightlife really like the book. I still go to the bars and have a few drinks and still like to take photos there once a while. Nothing bad happened to me so far.
Do people recognise you? Have you become a celebrity?
I don't know, I like to sit in the corner and be my quiet self. One time I heard people at the next table talking about my book, it was quite funny.
How did that make you feel?
Yeah, it was cool. I admit to vanity. I worked every hard for that book. There is a big part of my life in that book.
Finally, a little bit about yourself. What do you do in your spare time?
Taking photos and apart from taking photos, Chinese tea ceremony for about the last ten or eleven years. I read an enormous amount of books, I collect old Buddha images and amulets, I take photos, I take photos, I take photos!
Ok, we get the drift! What about the future? Obviously its photography, but for how long and where do you see yourself. You've had eight years here – is Thailand home. Do you want to say here or perhaps return to Germany?
No, I will not go back to Germany. Somehow I think I'm getting old, I don't seem to resent the fact that I am going to be here in Thailand for a long time. I realise that possibly I'll be in Bangkok for a lot longer. I can't imagine doing anything else than photography, but I promised myself that I will stop when I can't criticize my photos anymore, because then things start becoming routine and my work will go stale.
"Patpong: Bangkok's Twilight Zone" is available in Bangkok at the Bookazine branch on Sukhumvit Road, between Sukhumvit sois 3 and 5. It is NOT available in Asia Books branches.