Interview: Luke Cassady-Dorion: Photographer and Linguist

Luke Cassady-Dorion RAM

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Interview: Luke Cassady-Dorion the linguist…

I never tire of reading about the language attributes of linguists. Luke, a talented photographer, just happens to be studying for a Bachelor’s Degree at Ramkhamkaeng University (Thai Major, Japanese Minor). In addition, he has taken on Spanish, Sanskrit, Lanna, and Burmese at the university level. Impressive.

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In Luke’s bio he states that he:

…doesn’t really see much difference between the study of languages and the study of photography.

Now, I’ve read about the connection between music and programming, but never photography.

So Luke, could you please explain your mindset?


You’re the first person who has asked me about that, which I find quite surprising. Anyway, it’s a great question. When taking a photograph, we need to pick the right angle, framing, light, lens, etc … in order to communicate the message we want to get out there. Herni Cartier-Bresson was famous for not allowing his photographs to be cropped when printed in magazines or newspapers, something that I think pretty much all photographers would like to be able to require. The message that we’re communicating, something that we usually decide on before pushing the shutter, can be changed significantly if there is a slight modification to the cropping.

When communicating using words, we – taking into account our audience – have to use vocabulary and grammar in order to communicate a message. Getting people to agree with us, or even just chose to listen to us depends so much on the words that we choose and they way that we speak. Politics in USA is a great example of this. Barack Obama is a great statesman, but I doubt that he would have been elected had he spoken like George Bush.

So with both photography and languages, you’re communicating a message using a defined set of tools. Of course, your tools are different, but your chance of success in both areas depends on your mastery of your tools.

When did your aptitude for learning languages surface?

It may be in my blood …. my father has his PhD in Spanish and my mom learned Spanish when she and my father were living in Spain during Franco. Unfortunately they didn’t teach me Spanish as a kid, they mostly used it to talk about stuff that they didn’t want my brother and me to understand (or to swear). What’s interesting is that as I grew up, I found that my subconscious scatological speech was much more likely to come out in Spanish than in English. This is something I’ve noticed with my Thai friends too. In the midst of a long stream of Thai, I often hear them throw “shit” in as a loan word.

In middle school (grade 7) we had to pick a foreign language to study. I picked up French, adding Spanish in high school. My original plan when going to university was to study a degree related to languages. I ended up going for computer science because I thought I could make more money during that whole internet revolution thing. After making (and losing) lots of money and realizing that I didn’t want to spend my life sitting in front of a computer, I quit to teach Yoga. I find it rather ironic that at age 29 I enrolled in a Thai-language university to major in Thai.

If you could give one amazing piece of advice to students of the Thai language, what would it be?

Take a scientific approach to your studies. There are loads of different books and classes out there. If you try something for a few months and it doesn’t work, then figure out why and try a different approach. At the same time, don’t assume that there is a magic book or teacher who can make you fluent overnight. Unless you have a stellar memory, there’s no way around sitting down every day and studying.

How do you plan on combining your duel passions, photography and languages?

I hope to do just that in my next photography project. I’m starting on a project to use photography and video to document Thailand’s 74 living languages. The project is still in the early stages. After I get through this opening I am going to put much more energy into it. I am looking for grants and sponsors, so if anyone reading this is interested, please do get in touch.

Luke Cassady-Dorion RAM

Luke Cassady-Dorion the student…

This statement of Luke’s caught my attention too (scroll over the Thai script to read the transliteration):

From the first day that I started classes at Ramkhamheang University, I knew that a photography project would grow out of it. I had been in Thailand for two years at that point, and had never seen anything quite like the university.

วันแรกของการเรียนที่ม.รามคำแหง ผมทราบทันทีว่าตัวเองจะต้องทำโปรเจ็คต์ถ่ายภาพที่นี่ ตอนนั้นผมอยู่เมืองไทยมา 2 ปีแล้ว แต่ไม่เคยเห็นที่ไหนเหมือนที่รามมาก่อน

Luke, in what way is Ramkhamheang University different from other educational institutions of its caliber, Thai or western?

It’s different from other Thai universities in that they allow anyone to access a higher-education. Ram did away with the entrance exam requirement, doesn’t require you to go full-time, doesn’t check attendance, and doesn’t grade your homework. I don’t think that the coursework is the hardest in the kingdom, but it’s one of the few places where students have to take full responsibility for their own studies. If you don’t go to class or pass in the homework, there’s no teacher who is going to be hounding you to get your butt in gear. There is homework which is collected and graded, but your final grade for the class is based solely on the final exam. It is for this reason that Ram graduates are known to be hard-working and self-motivated.

The fact that there is no entrance exam does have the downside in that popular classes can be very crowded. This is especially true for kids majoring in English or Law. Fortunately, there are few people interested in subjects like “Ancient Northern Thai Writing Systems”, so I often find myself in a class where I sit at the same table as the professor and two or three other students.

In comparing Ram’s system of education with my experience in USA, I do see stark differences in the way the student / teacher relationship impacts studies. Teachers in this country are put up on a pedestal, which means that students are often afraid to engage in debate with their professor. I do see evidence that this is changing, perhaps as a result of teachers first studying abroad and then forcing Thai students to engage in debate that is so common in the West. Unfortunately this still has a lot way to go. I was in a composition class where attendance dropped from 30 to around 4 once we were required to grade our fellow student’s essays in front of the whole class.

You are obviously impressed with Ramkhamheang. If you had chosen a different school, do you feel that the opportunity for an exhibition would have materialized?

Well … not sure that I can definitively answer that 🙂 I will say that Ram spoke to me on many different levels. The large classrooms speak to an effort to bring higher-education to a growing population, and to help people better their lives and have more opportunity. The smaller classrooms show Ram’s commitment to offering a wide range of classes, even obscure subjects that have two or three students. There is a series of new buildings being finished, which may mean that some of the more run-down buildings will eventually be torn down. I hope that this project serves as a record of them for future generations of students.

How did you prepare for your RAM studies?

I said above that there is no entrance requirement, but this isn’t true for foreign students (there are approximately 20 foreigners in the non-international program at Ram: one Korean, one Australian, one Cambodian and lots from Laos). There is a language-proficiency exam that all foreigners are required to take before starting classes. Honestly though, I don’t think the exam is a good metric of university-level language skills. In stark contrast to my TH101 final exam, I found the entrance exam ridiculously easy. The government P6 exam I took after a year of studies or so was much harder than the Ram entrance exam.

Before sitting for the entrance exam, I spent about a year and a half studying with private teachers. I would meet with a teacher for ~10 hours per week and then spend at least that much time memorizing vocabulary and sentences. My first year here, I forced myself to socialize with Thais almost exclusively and told them to just speak Thai in front of me and not worry if I understood it or not. Now I have a circle of friends that includes foreigners, but that first year I stayed far away.

Luke Cassady-Dorion RAM

Luke Cassady-Dorion the photographer…

I’ve taken thousands of photos of Bangkok, but I’ve never seen the inside of a whole lot of classrooms. Luke has.

So many people experience a sheltered version of Bangkok, not venturing past the reach of the Sky Train or a few polished tourist attractions. I wanted to show how the city is really used, specifically the parts used by the populace as they go about trying to better their lives through education.

หลายคนคิดว่ากรุงเทพฯ มีแค่รถไฟฟ้าและแหล่งท่องเที่ยวหรูๆ ผมอยากจะถ่ายทอดผ่านภาพถ่ายให้ทุกคนเห็นว่า จริงๆ แล้วผู้คนอาศัยอยู่ในเมืองแห่งนี้อย่างไร โดยเฉพาะย่านที่เต็มไปด้วยประชากรที่กำลังดิ้นรนเพื่อชีวิตที่ดีขึ้นผ่านกา ศึกษา

Luke, how do you find your subject matter? Are the majority of your photos from the university you attend, or do you go in search of the perfect shot elsewhere too?

With each of the four shows that I’ve had in Bangkok (including this one), the subject matter found me. Once I knew that I was going to do this project about Ram, I spent many days walking around the campus with my camera and tripod. I am indebted to Ram’s public relation’s department and specifically a woman named P’Lanna who supported this project from the beginning. P’Lanna opened many doors for me at the university, getting me into places which would have been otherwise hard to access.

My next project about Thailand’s linguistic landscape will require a different approach. I’m going to have to do a lot more research into finding subjects, as well as travel to meet them.

What camera and lens do you use? Do you have a favourite all around lens?

As you can see from the photo that you used in the banner, I have WAY too many cameras. I shot these with a Yashica 124G which has a top-down viewfinder. It takes a bit of practice to learn how to use it properly, but has the advantage of not looking like what people consider to be a camera. I found that people were wont to ignore me as they didn’t really know what I was doing. I recently bought a Mamiya 7, which is a beautiful camera; I will use it for my next project.

I like using medium-format film, as I feel that it forces me to be selective about my pictures, and to put time and energy into setting things up before pressing the shutter button. Plus the quality of print you can get from a medium-format negative is hard to pull off with a digital camera (well … unless you have 10K USD).

How did you get into photography?

It started back in high school, but then when I got busy with university and then work, I stopped shooting entirely. For years, I stopped making art, but did continue collecting works and going to museums. I think there are two reasons that I started shooting again when I moved to Bangkok. Part of it was having more free time (and drinking less that I did in California). In addition, I am suspicious that the visual part of my brain was reactivated once I started to study languages with different alphabets. First the Devanagari (Sanskrit) and then the Thai alphabet forced me to associate new shapes with sounds, carving out a new visual pathway in my brain.

Which photographers inspired you?

Without a question, the book that most inspired me is Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. I was blown away when I saw how he could take the most ordinary thing and take a beautiful photograph of it. I tried to do the same thing at Ram. To show that even though many of the classrooms look old and beat-up, there is a certain beauty to them.

A book I picked up this past Christmas is Mitch Epstein’s American Power. It documents the way in which people view “power” in the United States. Mitch wrote a fascinating essay to accompany the book where he talked about being chased out of towns for photographing power stations, even though it wasn’t against the law.

I am also a huge fan of Manit Sriwanichpooom who runs Kathmandu gallery where I will be showing next. His work constantly pushes the envelope, causing people to reconsider where they stand on important political and social issues.

In addition to studying a Bachelor’s degree in a foreign language and working on your photography projects, you also work as a Yoga teacher and are writing a book. How do you find time for everything?

555 …. A friend of mine calls me the gay Tasmanian devil because I’m always running around doing a billion different projects. I’m glad that you brought up the Yoga, as I feel that it is the foundation that supports all of my other projects. I’ve been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for almost 12 years now. And I’m presently on a work visa to teach at Absolute Yoga. When I was writing computer software all day long, I realized that even on days when I hated my job that I could deal with those feelings much better when I was practicing Ashtanga.

Focusing your energy on a variety of projects requires a healthy body and a mind that isn’t easily distracted, two things that I’ve developed (slowly) though this practice. The book I’m writing, tentatively titled After the Inhale, traces my life over the past fifteen years and the way in which it has changed as a result of the Ashtanga. How I stopped caring about making piles of money and buying lots of things, how I learned the importance of breathing deeply and creating a lifestyle which leaves time for personal interests and hobbies. I’m writing it in Thai (with lots of editorial help from a friend) as I think it’s a story which will be helpful to people in this country.

Luke Cassady-Dorion RAM

A photo exhibition by Luke Cassady-Dorion…

On the 5th of June, RAM, Luke’s fourth photography exhibit in the kingdom, will be open to the public. The opening party of June 5th from 6:30-9:30pm is a great opportunity to discuss the work with him in person.

RAM: A photo exhibition by Luke Cassady-Dorion
5 June – 30 July 2010 | 11 AM to 7 PM (closed Mondays)
Kathmandu Photo Gallery

For more details: Goldenland Polygot
Oo WLT: Luke with Farang Pok Pok

4 thoughts on “Interview: Luke Cassady-Dorion: Photographer and Linguist”

  1. Observing good photography / listening to a lot of Thai… I can only speak for myself, but being around beautiful photos is what got me started into photography. My father was a hobby photographer (our bathroom was often converted into a darkroom) and I’d watch his experiments evolve. With modern printing capabilities, a high level of photography is used to promote products these days, but you do need to be receptive to their beauty. Some people shrug because they just can’t ‘see’. Others have the ability to see but need to be taught, nudged in the direction of seeing. Isn’t listening to Thai sort of the same?

  2. I took 6 years of Spanish and stopped in high school. I hadn’t really thought about photography being like a language, but I guess it has a lot of similarities. So I guess with that concept, people should really start photography by observing a ton of really good photos before ever taking a photograph.

  3. Talen, isn’t Luke great? I’m an amateur photographer too, so when I saw his statement I grabbed for it. I just had to know what he meant.

    Btw – Luke has a few posts in the works. One is planned for next week: Grokking the Writing System: Part 1: Consonants

  4. Another great interview Cat, I was very interested in this one as I am a photographer as well…an amateur one but one none the less.

    I hadn’t thought of the Thai language in photography terms but there is definitely a connection in setting up a shot and getting the basics done.

    Alas my picture taking skills still far exceed my Thai language skills but hopefully that will be rectified soon enough.


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