The Photobooks of Tiane Doan Na Champassak, an appreciation by Robin Titchener

I became aware of Tiane Doan Na Champassak pretty much from the time his books started to appear. His work instantly stood out as fresh and interesting without ever seeming forced or contrived. In other words original. I can’t claim to have loved everything that has been released…but then again I wasn’t a fan of every album Bowie released either, and it doesn’t stop me from still considering him to be one of the greatest musical artists of our time. Thankfully we all take different things from art, and taste is completely subjective. What follows is a brief overview of his output to date. It is not meant to be a philosophical dissection of the work, and many of the titles are already long out of print. However I hope that the following proves useful, and helps to draw attention to those who have yet to discover one of the finest artists and photo book makers currently working.


A study of transsexual communities around the world, Le Sexe des Anges from 2003 (Editions de la Martiniere), not only heralded his arrival, but also looked at a subject matter that has since been a recurring theme in many of his subsequent projects, gender politics. With regard to time, Le Sexe des Anges sits alone from the majority of Champassak’s books. However, after a gap of eight years he returned, in full artistic control and launched an amazing body of work that started to appear with a speed and regularity that is matched by few outside Japan.


In 2011 The King of Photography (edition of 500), was released. A self published collection of images culled from the Internet. The subject was Thailand’s late king Bhumibol Adulyadej. An avid photographer who was, it seems, rarely without a camera by his side. This has become one of the most prized books in Champassak’s entire canon of work. Although King of Photography is widely considered to be the debut publication, it should be noted that creeping in before this was No Photo, a title that he chose to revisit some years later. Published by Bellyband Books (edition of 189), this is a collection of black and white images of Amsterdam sex workers covertly captured plying their trade in the famous windows of the city’s red light district.  I consider this book to be important for a number of reasons. amongst them the fact that it was issued with an original signed print, and also, with regard to the progression of his work, more importantly, it shows how an artist is driven to revisit their material, to reedit, design and reprint when they feel the time is right, and when the control is fully theirs.


The next release, just a matter of months later was the equally desirable Looters (edition of 150), another selection of screen grabs. This time grimy distorted cctv images of the eponymous criminals from the London riots that took place in the August of 2011. Looters was, again redesigned and issued in a second edition of 300 ( plus a special edition of 6+1). Both impressions risograph printing.


My fondness for “original” work meant that I passed over KoP and Looters. I appreciate that there is imagination and concept behind each project, but at the time I suppose that whilst I remember considering them, I just was not charged with the desire to hit the buy button. I think the recognised industry term here is Muppet. With regard to the subject matter, I still don’t crave the work, but the importance of these two books within his overall evolution, and the continuing use of appropriated material in later projects, means that they are pretty much essential.


One of my personal favourite books, in fact the first one that I acquired, appeared next. Tantra (edition of 137,and a special edition of 7) was released in April of 2012. This is an altogether different proposition. This dark almost provoke style series of images taken by Champassak in Kolkota’s red like district, were inspired by a series of yantras designed some thirty years before by his father. Yantras are beautiful complex geometric symbols, used in tantric rituals to enable participants to heighten their levels of sexual awareness and coital pleasure. With regard to the design of the book, the yantras are placed on pages adjacent to the corresponding “activity”. This tiny little zine like book is a wonderful piece of work, made all the more special by its almost home made feel.


Also from 2012 was the whimsical The Father of Pop dance (edition of 700). A reproduction spiral bound photo album from 1967 featuring a collection of photos of Tiane’s father dancing in a studio in Los Angeles.


As well as producing solo work, Champassak is a founding member of the AM Projects group. A shifting collective who get together to produce themed publications on an occasional basis.. In 2012 the first “book” Nocturnes (edition of 600), was released by Calin Kruse’s equally innovative and fearless Die Nacht Publishing. This (at the time) relatively unknown collaborative comprised what is now – a mere five years on – some of the most highly regarded artists working in their field. Aaron Elroy, Daisuke Yokota, Esta Vonplon, Gert Jochems, Oliver Pin Fat and of course Tiane Doan Na Champassak. The collection of six volumes (one for each artist) all produced using different papers, and housed in a slipcase is indeed a landmark publication. As with many of these titles, Nocturnes is long out of print. However should the opportunity arise, I highly recommend investing in a set.


During my frequent visits to his website I was always drawn to two bodies of work. “Why have you not done anything with these ?” I asked on several occasions. Always polite, the replies came, that I should “watch this space”.  When the first collection appeared it did not disappoint. It turned out to be a beautiful collection, printed by the independent Morel books. Spleen and Ideal (edition of 500, and special edition) was the first of several volumes to look at the subject of gender, desire and identity. The photographs, all taken in Thailand, juxtaposed treated images of nudes with architectural details from the areas in which they were taken.  The book contained not just some of the most beautiful work produced thus far but also, thematically, some of the most challenging.

In 2013 he released the self published Credo (edition of 200, and special edition of 9+1) A beautiful small format, hand stitched soft cover. Sinuous, mystic, and with a charged sense of the erotic. This risogaph printed sequence of monochrome images took it’s reference point from the faiths of both India and Haiti. Champassak has used either religion or politics to fuel many of his projects, and this sometimes abstract, oblique collection of images is one of the strongest examples.


Independent publisher RVB has also worked with Champassak on a number of occasions. the first being the disturbing Dick999 (edition of 100). Once again images pulled from the internet were bought into play, although this time they were manipulated, deconstructed and treated to further the artists point. With regard to the content, there is, dare I say, a cowardly, even misogynistic slant to this book. Images were taken from sites and blogs from the Indian subcontinent featuring swingers and exhibitionists. Why such a strong reaction ? Well, the men that posted the pictures all went to great lengths to disguise and hide their identity whilst many of the women are never fully given the same courtesy. If this is all done consensually then I will happily retract any statement of concern, but to me it raises a question of inequality and even exploitation. Not one of his most widely known books, but certainly one of the most thought provoking.


To redress the balance somewhat, came another under the radar title, which also shows Tiane’s lighter more humorous side. Sale (edition of 400) is a large format catalogue of sex toys which were offered for sale by an American adult film star on her website. Ironically all the toys were destroyed in a fire…and the website closed down. Shame as there was this neon pink jiggly thing that I…..but I digress.


Collaborations with some of the best publishers around continued in 2014 with the sumptuous Kolkota (edition of 500 and special edition of 25) by Editions Bessard. Inspired by the writings of his uncle, this is Champassak’s evocation of the city. The streets, the people, the culture, probably the most diverse collection of subject matter assembled by the normally laser focused artist. Completely understandable as it only reinforces the image of this frenetic metropolis. Stunning saturated images on heavy stock papers all bound in jute. Very evocative.


As mentioned earlier, his study of Amsterdam’s sex workers No Photo appeared in 2011. In 2015 the reworked No Photos (edition of 275, special edition of 25) was released. This superior incarnation featured a completely redesigned book, and a new title. The dual meaning of No Photos alludes not only to the forbidden act of photographing the girls in the first place, but also the fact the images were intentionally printed on very old photographic paper and had started to fade away. This combined with Champassak’s decision to print the book on matt black paper stock lent the images a ghostly transient quality. A beautiful, melancholy book.


Ovr Sxe Desir from 2015 is the one thing that I truly regret not purchasing when I had the chance. Using a scrapbook found in Thailand, the original found book was a hand assembled collection of cuttings taken from vintage adult magazines. Ovr Sxe Desir the artist’s book is a faithful recreation of this scrapbook. Not only was it reproduced to form the resulting artist edition, but the original scrapbook was then dismantled, with one page being placed in each of the twenty five copies produced. Making each unique. As the original book was discovered with it’s cover partially torn off, each reproduced copy also had it’s cover torn by hand to match, and the finishing touch, each edition was presented in a custom tote bag.


The second of the two projects that I had fallen in love with on the website was also published in 2015, This time by Editions du Lic. Sunless (edition of 500, special edition of 30) is a stunning piece of work. Following on from Spleen and Ideal, and looking at similar subjects of sex gender and desire. This time the nudes are printed in single saturated colour images of either red white or blue (the tricolour of his native France’s flag). Again the juxtaposition of monochrome architectural details, this time from the hotels in which the photographs were taken. The colour images on shiny varnished paper, the monochrome on matt white. The book was also released with three different covers, again using the tricolour format.


2015 also saw the release of the second AM Projects book, Abstracts (edition of 750) published by Adad. Adopting a more conventional format than the unique Nocturnes, this time for the subject matter, each photographer presented their take on the notion of the abstract. The line up of the collective also changed, this time the group comprised five members, Antony Cairns, Champassak, Pin Fat, Vonplon and Yokota. The book was printed with five different covers. with each artist having one hundred and fifty copies of their own image.


2016 produced no less than six new titles. The first, My Freedom (edition of 69), featured a selection of colour images assembled during an artist’s residency in Bangkok. This stunning yet unassuming book seems to give us an idea what the images from Sunless would have been like before the processing treatments began. One of the simplest, most understated and beautiful collections thus far, which also included an original c-type print.


The stunning and powerful Siam’s Guy, another publication from RVB was also released around the same time. Another thought provoking title which once again used appropriated images, this time in conjunction with original work. By taking details of his own nudes, and superimposing them over the censored areas of the original photographs he restores the images to a full, albeit stylised nude in an effective comment on the heavy censorship of the sixties and seventies.


Hardcore (edition 120, special edition of 30) again uses Thai adult magazines as it’s source material. It  is an unbound collection of black and white full bleed images. each single image page is an enlarged detail of a pornographic photograph, which can be viewed in multiple combinations thanks to the absence of binding. This abstract collection shows yet another style and design, beautifully conceived and executed.


Moving on to book number three, sometimes a title appears which is so far removed from anything that has gone before that it defies comparison. Palms (edition of 200) is a reproduction of a catalogue for a 1960’s test  printing of a book about palmistry. A lovely stitched soft cover, and a whimsical addition to the ever growing body of work.


Continuing the recycling of adult material, the self published 41.667 (edition of 150) uses damaged Scandinavian adult Super 8 film as its source material. The title refers to the duration time in milliseconds that each frame is seen in a 24 fps (frame per second) film. Spiral bound and designed to look like a calendar, the stills are reproduced on tracing paper to emulate the effect of a film transparency.


The final title from 2016 and the second to be produced by the stylish Editions du Lic, was Tamarind Ghosts (edition of 500, special edition of 20). The rather beautiful title is the name given to the prostitutes who would ply their trade in the area in and around Bangkok’s Sanam Luang Park, an area close to the Thai Royal Palace. Under the cover of the foliage of the Tamarind trees, and due to their silent almost ephemeral presence they became known as Tamarind Ghosts. The book is described as “an exploration of eroticism, censorship and prostitution in Thailand”. This delicate publication comprises four volumes, three of images, each stylistically different, and incorporating different paper stocks, varnishes, and printing techniques, and one featuring an essay by Brad Feuerhelm. The set is presented in a card slip case.


AM Projects returned in 2017 with 3AM this time published by London’s Akina books. For the project the group decamped to Bangkok, and for a month went their own separate ways to produce a body of work which expressed their visions of the city. The 2017 line up consisted of founder members, Champassak, Yokota and Pin Fat. This time augmented by Thomas Vaneberghe, Laura Rodari, and Hiroshi Takizawa. Three new names, who are also making waves in their own right. Although 3AM is a stunning publication, for me it was overshadowed by the set of posters that Akina produced to accompany the project. Released in an edition of eighty and housed in a stitched raw card envelope, this set of six posters, one image per artist is quite simply breath taking. A wonderful treasure, which again is highly recommended.


With regard to solo projects, thus far this year (2017) we have The Strip (edition of 475, special edition of 25). Certainly his most ambitious publication to date, and weighing in at three hundred and fifty two pages, also the biggest by far. Taken in the Patpong area of Bangkok, Champassak was given unprecedented access to the areas bars and strip clubs. This fabulous almost psychedelic collection of images manages to convey the energy and heat of the bars without ever relying on a conventional take on the subject matter. Published by his own imprint Siam’s Guy, The Strip displays the continually growing confidence of an artist, and book maker that is not afraid to push boundaries and take chances.


Over the last decade or so the art of the photo book has come a long way. Tiane Doan Na Champassak is one of the wave of artists who not only understood the importance of the medium, but also embraced, challenged and pushed its evolution. As his own reputation grows, and cements itself, this body of work will undoubtedly prove invaluable. Not only to show how within a chosen subject field, it is possible to explore, question and comment without repeating or relying on previous work to hold your audience, but also to show that whether a hand made zine, or a sumptuous plexi glass housed state of the art publication that could pass as a piece of sculpture, the first consideration is always the work.


I’m just very glad that I able to watch the whole process as it happened.

A selection of Tiane Doan Na Champassak‘s photobooks can be purchased here.

Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.