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life

It just gets betta


Websites around the world share Visarute Angkatavanich's pictures of the fish that loves to fight

SIAMESE FIGHTING FISH have a resurgence in popularity at least once every generation, but the beautiful (and ferocious) pla kad has never enjoyed the global fame it’s getting right now thanks to Visarute Angkatavanich’s photographs going viral online.
Websites around the world have scooped up and shared the images of vibrantly colourful bettas, as the fish are more widely known, perfectly lit and seeming to float in mid-air.
Readers of America’s ABC News and Britain’s Daily Mail online have fallen in love with the pictures, as have followers of the art-and-design sites Paris-based Fubiz and Colossal out of Chicago.
And a lot of those people want to know more about the 43-year-old photographer who produced such dramatic portraits of the majestic, elegantly posing fish that originated among the rice paddies of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The betta’s reputation for enjoying a good tussle precedes it. In the wild, a pair will spar for just a few minutes before one of them retreats, but the modern betta is bred for battle and will keep up the bruising attacks much longer. If not split up in separate habitats, the males might fight to the death.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 2002 classified the wild betta as “vulnerable” on its Red List of Threatened Species, meaning it was “at high risk of endangerment”. Its domesticated and usually commercially bred descendant has no such worries, however. Most pet shops stock Siamese fighting fish. They’re one of the most popular freshwater aquarium fish because they’re so easy to care for and such good-looking little guys.
And now Visarute has made them even more popular. We asked him if there were a thousand words behind his pictures.

HOW DID ALL THIS COME ABOUT?
I started taking pictures with my father’s fully mechanical Nikon FM2 as a hobby when I was 13 or 14, but I didn’t really take it any further until I got older, after I finished by studies in public relations at Chulalongkorn University. I worked as a graphic designer for a year and have been a freelancer ever since, and that’s when I started to brush up on my photography skills – so I could use them professionally.

WHAT WAS YOUR SUBJECT MATTER WHEN YOU WERE A TEENAGER?
I went out at night to take pictures of lines of streetlights. I did flowers, skies and all that. I didn’t have any female friends to pose for me, though, and most of my guy friends were too busy playing soccer and other sports. Taking photos was not considered cool back then!

HOW DID YOU LEARN THE CRAFT?
I learned mostly from foreign magazines. There was no Internet at the time, so I went to the libraries and bookshops and flipped through these magazines to see the latest cool gear and techniques. I still like going to bookshops to look at beautiful picture books and get inspired.

WHAT DO YOU SHOOT AS A PROFESSIONAL?
All things commercial and marketing-related, and mostly in a studio. On the side I take stock pictures of general subjects to sell on five or six websites. The pla kad series isn’t exclusive – it’s available on all the websites.

WHY MADE YOU DECIDE TO SHOOT THESE FISH?
I’ve always been fascinated by fish in general. As a kid I kept local, common Thai fish, including pla kad. As I got older I liked to go to aquariums, go diving, go fishing – and I also like eating fish!
I like pla kad because they’re so colourful, and some of them have distinctive personalities. I wanted to shed a new light on them and present them in a way no one had done before. Pla kad have certain actions, as well – they don’t just stay still like most fish.

WHO WERE THE MODELS?
They’re all my fish I bought at Chatuchak Weekend Market. I didn’t name all 10 of them – I’m not that sentimental! I keep them in separate glass bowls and shoot them individually, or put two together when I want “action shots”.
Some just stare at each other and some like to engage. It takes a little time to get to know each of them.

WHY DO THEY LOOK LIKE THEY’RE FLOATING IN MID-AIR?
I use a Nikon D800 camera with a macro 105mm lens, and you get gigantic resolution – up to 36 million pixels. I also have a specific “studio” tank where I can minimise the appearance of impurities and grain in the image. It’s nothing too special – just clearer, better-quality glass with no scratches.
I make sure the water is as clean and clear as possible, but there’ll always be some debris that shows up in the images that needs to be erased digitally. Apart from that, I keep digital enhancement to a minimum to show the fish’s natural colours.
I don’t put any backdrop behind the tank. The pitch-black background in the pictures is the result of very high contrast between the light reflecting off the fish and the light that hits the water behind it. It’s purely lighting adjustment, and it has to be spot-on to get the right outcome. Most of the time the fish’s colours depend on the angle of the light.

SOME PEOPLE HAVE SHARED YOUR PICTURES ON THE SOCIAL NETWORKS WITH POLITICAL MESSAGES ATTACHED – “FIGHT” BEING THE OPERATIVE WORD. DO YOU HAVE YOUR OWN MESSAGE?
None whatsoever – it’s purely for the sake of fine art. I just want to deliver beautiful pictures that please the viewers, and pictures that sell. I don’t mind how people use my pictures. Once I put them up for sale I have no control over their use anyway. I take pictures for a living, not to boost my ego or get famous.

WHY DO YOU THINK THIS SERIES HAS BECOME SO FAMOUS?
Probably because it’s an unusual depiction of something so common: Pla kad originated in Thailand but they’re known and kept all over the world, and perhaps no one has presented them like I did before. It’s simply a fresh view.

THERE MUST BE PEOPLE COPYING YOUR APPROACH.
Some have tried but, as I said, it’s the precision that creates such pictures, and you can only do this if you’re an experienced photographer.
But why would anyone want to copy them? It’s been done – we should move on to something new. What’s the point of recreating something just to prove that you too can take great pictures of pla kad? I would love it if this collection inspired someone to create something new.
A lot of Thais like to copy other people’s pictures they see online. Every tourist spot has a particular angle that everyone has to get a snap from. I don’t really see the point where everyone has to have the same picture – the same action, even – just so they can post it online, as if to say, “There, I did that, too!”
They should be more creative and find their own style that will inspire others.
 

Published : December 05, 2013

By : MANTA KLANGBOONKRONG THE NATI