Each year in the Thai city of Phuket, a Vegetarian Festival is held during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar year. Local residents of Chinese ethnic ancestry observe a strict vegan or vegetarian diet for ten days as part of a spiritual and physical cleansing process, displayed in a variety of public rituals and processions. One of these tends to involve driving swords and hooks through their own flesh and having other locals launch fireworks directly at them - rising above pain is just a part of the process.
Lifestyle photographer Guillaume Mégevand was among some of those documenting the event last year, so we figured we'd get him to share the inside scoop with us. From dodging fireworks in flimsy flip-flops to his journey as a self-taught photographer, we find out how he got from the streets of Geneva to Thai coastline in a few short months.
First off, what initially got you into photography? What do you think triggered your visually creative spark?
I started photography in my late twenties. Three years ago I traveled around the world with my girlfriend; she was the one taking the pictures with our small point and shoot. At some point I started to play around with the camera and realized how good it felt to take photos. We were in the most remote places and the camera allowed me to have an incredible connection with the indigenous people.
Since then, I started shooting like crazy. I kept using the point and shoot until we got back home and I purchased my first DSLR. In Geneva, I started shooting different stuff, more lifestyle/portrait-oriented. I still love travel photography though. Now I shoot a bit of everything and I hope I'll be able to keep it that way for a long time.
How did you end up splitting your time between Geneva and Bangkok? What drew you towards Thailand as a country?
During our "world tour", we fell in love with Thailand - we knew we were going to go back some day. It happened sooner than expected. In 2011, I met Tom Hoops, a portrait/fashion photographer from the UK. A few months later, I found out he was looking for an assistant in Bangkok so I grabbed the opportunity and called him up. Luckily for me, it worked out. I don't regret a bit. Bangkok is booming, there are a lot of opportunities and the food is sooooo good. I will probably stay here another year or so and then return to Geneva.
We've heard that you're entirely self-taught. At which stage did you start to see photography as a way to make a living and not just a hobby?
It's been over a year. After returning from my trip, I started to work part-time in Geneva and shoot the rest of the time. I immediately knew that I could never go back to a "normal" job. It can still be difficult moneywise, but I don't care. It's getting better and better.
Your Blood & Firecrackers series is awesome. How did you hear about the Vegetarian Festival?
Tom Hoops told me about it: I think he'd gone there each year for the past three or four years. We went together with some other photographer friends. And I'm definitely going back next year!!
Once there, how easy was it for you to document the festival?
It was pretty easy. It lasted nine days and there was great stuff going on every day. The only thing was you had to be prepared to get close to the action. They're just crazy about firecrackers and it got a bit dangerous sometimes. I didn't know before going and I showed up wearing shorts and flip-flops. Bad idea. Many photographers there were dressed like warriors - army style suits, caterpillar shoes and goggles. I'll be "disguised" like them next year!
How open were participants to being photographed?
There was no problem. In Thailand most people like being photographed. During the festival it's the same. Sometimes they would even strike a pose for you while having three swords stuck in their cheeks.
What were the highlights of the nine-day festival for you? Did you manage to capture them all?
The piercing stuff is great, but for me, the processions were the best part of the festival. It's just so crazy. The participants who follow a vegetarian diet over ten days claim to be protected by the Chinese Gods against pain. They walk around the city carrying shrines and the crowd throws huge amounts of firecrackers at them. And they're not like baby firecrackers, it's serious stuff :) I got hit by a few myself and it was already freaking painful. Those guys rock.
I loved those processions, especially on the last night when all the temple members gathered together and walked around the city for hours. During that time, Phuket was more like a war zone rather than the quiet tourist town we all know. A war zone of joy and faith.
See more from the
Blood & Firecrackers series and Guillaume's other work on his website.