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Sam Gregg: Neon Dreams
Neon Dreams, 2015Courtesy of Sam Gregg

Documenting the beauty of life inside Bangkok’s biggest slum

By 2022, the Klong Toey slum will be gentrified. In a bid to raise awareness, Sam Gregg lenses the lives who will be displaced

In the centre of bustling, neon-ridden Bangkok, tucked away by the Chao Phraya river lies the notorious Klong Toey slum. Home to around 100,000 residents, the area is a symbol for the dichotomy between the city’s political and economic corruption, and an area struck by socio-political stigma and abject poverty. While the area is heavily neglected by the government and wider Bangkok society, for its residents, Klong Toey is a place to call home, and to consume the many qualities that come with claiming space: safety, identity, community, and happiness. But despite the fact that so many people (families, women, children) rely on the area to live, Klong Toey will be entirely gentrified by 2022. 

A photographic witness to the importance of Klong Toey to its residents is London-based photographer Sam Gregg’s photo series Neon Dreams. Having lived in Thailand for three and a half years, Gregg spent nearly every weekend for a year with the locals of the slum, eating, drinking, getting to know, and lensing the lives whose worlds will be destroyed in the process of gentrification. In Gregg’s starkly honest portraits, much-needed humanism is restored to the media portrayal of Klong Toey.

Following a recent decision to fast-track the gentrification of Klong Toey, below we speak to Gregg about why it's important to remember the people at the heart of Klong Toey:

How did you start shooting the residents of Klong Toey?

Sam Gregg: In 2012, I finished university at UCL and went to visit my uncle who was living in Thailand. I was meant to be there for two weeks, but it turned into three and a half years. I soon discovered the Klong Toey slum, which I ended up moving really close to. Over the next year, I would spend my weekends in Klong Toey, wandering down the railway, mingling with the locals, drinking and eating with them, and I began photographing. The crazy thing about slums is that it's right in the middle of Bangkok, but nobody knows it's there. If you walk ten minutes in the other direction, you can go to a shopping mall and buy all these designer brands, but ten minutes away people are living in abject poverty.

What is life like for the residents of Klong Toey?

Sam Gregg: Everyone lives in little shacks, there’s rubbish everywhere, high levels of violence, and a high HIV population, especially in the sex work industry. On the surface, it’s very grim, but there is a strange contrast between the reality, and how happy and friendly the residents are.

How did you make sure you weren't acting from a point of privilege through your photos?

Sam Gregg: I never directed around anyone. I walked around with a sign that said ‘pose in the way that's natural for you’ in Thai. I would also always go back and give them the prints I took of them. Many of the residents had never seen a print of themselves, so I'd always try and make it a reciprocal experience. Even the very vocabulary of taking a photo is a strange thing for me, taking something from somebody. This is important because these people are already very vulnerable. It’s your duty as a photographer to pay them respect.

You formed close relationships with Klong Toey residents. Can you tell me a bit about them?

Sam Gregg: I got really close to this guy called Yap. He's one of the prominent figures you see in the series with the full-body tattoo. I met with him every Saturday or Sunday to drink rice wine. I spoke a bit of Thai, he spoke a bit of English but we somehow managed to get by on only sign language. He had a really interesting backstory. He was in jail for 30 years in one of the worst jails in the world. In Thailand there’s a huge crystal meth problem, because Burma is the biggest producer in the world, and it comes through the border. He was just trying to provide for his family and ended up getting caught with a tiny amount, but because they're so strict in Thailand, his life was ruined because of it. He went to prison with no tattoos and he came out like a tapestry. I just felt for him, because his story was emblematic of so many people in the slums, seen as outcasts, not necessarily bad people, but they've been pushed to the fringe of society for various reasons.

A lot of Klong Toey residents live in constant fear of being evicted. Why?

Sam Gregg: Well, gentrification. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the recent decision to fast-track the destruction of the Klong Toey slums following a devastating fire that occurred last year. They plan to turn the area into high-rises and parks by 2022, which although theoretically sounds like a good idea, the likelihood of all the slum residents being accommodated is highly unlikely. Corruption always has a hand to play in Thai society and money talks. With the positioning of the new high-rises overlooking the Chao Phraya river being a prime location, rent is likely to be far higher than what most of the residents can afford. If the plans go through then we're looking at a displacement of around 100,000 people. 

That’s horrible...

Sam Gregg: Thailand in general has quite a negative reputation in western media, and I think this is just one of the blemishes that they're looking to cover up. They don't really care so much for the wellbeing of the inhabitants there. Through my photography and also other people like photographer Jacob Aue Sobol, a lot of people are becoming more aware of this situation.

This highlights how important 'space' is to everyday life. What do you think about Klong Toey as a space is important for the residents? 

Sam Gregg: It’s their home and something they've created by themselves. And for many, it's more than just a home – it’s somewhere they can feel welcome and be themselves. A lot of these people have been rejected from society, so this is an area where there's no prejudice. In some ways, although the conditions are horrible, it's in many ways a beautiful thing because they've all banded together and created this society for themselves, where otherwise they would be rejected.

You can follow Sam Gregg here