NATTAPON NUKULKAM, Madness Motorcycle Club, 2013, digital print. Courtesy the artist. 

Aug 29 2014

Trailing Madness: Interview With Nattapon “Gaow” Nukulkan

by Helen Morgan

Motorcycling gangs—often unapproachable and intimidating to an outsider—carry with them an air of mystery. Emerging photographer Nattapon “Gaow” Nukulkam, who wanted to delve into this closed world to explore the reality of life in a gang, came across Madness MC, a group based in the hills outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Over the course of six months, Gaow integrated himself within this community by following them closely, and was invited to participate in intimate celebrations reserved for the gang’s inner circle. What emerged was a photojournalistic series for his undergraduate thesis that gives a unique insight into an ostensibly impenetrable club. Made up of around 20 members, Madness practices motorcycle gang traditions such as initiation rituals. But Gaow’s project breaks through the typical stereotypes and preconceptions that surround motorcycle gangs. At 22 years old, the young photographer was an unlikely candidate to end up in the midst of such a group, yet he brought sensitivity and perception to the photographs that could only have come from his position as an onlooker. He enables the audience to see past the solid, outer layers of the gang—beneath the tattoos and rituals—and into the humanizing aspects that show the members as unique individuals. Gaow documented how they connect and interact with each other, by playing with different perspectives. In May, the artist showed ArtAsiaPacific around his debut solo exhibition at Documentary Arts Asia in Chiang Mai, which featured his motorcycle gang series, and talked about his experience of making this striking collection of images.

NATTAPON NUKULKAM, Bottom Up During the Initiation, 2013, digital print. Courtesy the artist. 

NATTAPON NUKULKAM, The Birthday Party–Surprise With Cake From His Wife, 2013, digital print. Courtesy the artist. 

How did this motorcycle gang project begin?

It started as a thesis project for my degree about motorcycle culture. I found the group through a friend of mine who is also in a motorcycle club, which is more of a vintage motorcycle collectors’ club. I asked if he knows any of the “Harley Davidson-type” gangs, and he knew a few and made contact with Madness MC for me. This club was formed in Chiang Mai, but many members are from the northern provinces of Thailand, such as Chiang Rai, Lampang, etc. It started with a few guys who love riding for fun; then they were grew in numbers and became quite well known in the biker community. The club’s insignia is a white/albino elephant, which is a sign of good omen in traditional Thai beliefs. I suppose they were happy that there was a guy who was interested in their lifestyle and would photograph it for them. I wanted to try to show some nice things about the group, while trying not to mess with them. 

You have taken a range of really impressive photos in very personal situations, such as a birthday party of a group member or an initiation ceremony. Could you describe your strategy?

At first I didn’t spend much time taking the photos; I talked to the gang members and went to bars with them. I got to know them first before I started taking more photos. In the case of the birthday party and the initiation ceremony, I was invited to both. At the birthday party I got to see and photograph an intimate bikers’ party for the first time. The initiation ceremony was supposed to be quite secret to outsiders, but they were kind enough to let me in. [For the photos taken on the road] I got on the back of a service truck [that they took] on one of their trips, and I stayed there and took photos until one of the motorcycles broke down, and I had to get in the passenger seat in the front [so that the bike could be carried on the truck].

What did you hope to achieve with this project? What were your goals?

I wanted to explore the motorcycle gang’s life. I wanted to know what they were like inside. People think they are violent, but they were nicer than I thought. I thought they would be a bit more rough, but they weren’t rough at all. They have an altruistic side. As well as having fun and getting drunk, the group donates money to a temple and a disabled school. They built a garage last year and have a cafe/bar where they normally hang out. The gang members love motorcycles so much that they save up money to buy them. But some don’t even have their own bikes yet. 

This insight into the motorcycle gang community gives the audience a special view of a secretive world. Can you discuss what you experienced or learned about the group and how it works?

There is not much of a hierarchy; there is a club president and a vice president. When a new person wants to become a member, this “prospect” has to ride with the group for two years, and then the existing members get to make the final decision. The members of Madness have meetings every once in a while. In the past, the group has expelled some members, such as people [who are just] looking for a fight or to do drugs. The gang claims to have been more violent when they were younger.

Why did you decide to photograph in black and white?

I’m not sure how to describe it in my own words, but a photographer who lectured me once said, when you take off distractions such as colors, your photographs become lines and emotions.  I guess stories and their emotions are what I am trying to capture in my photographs.

NATTAPON NUKULKAM, The President of the Club and Others, 2013, digital image print. Courtesy the artist.