A happy snap from the land of smiles

March 9, 2011

This picture will be printed big on glossy paper, framed and hung.

Sarina and Kunisem, the Thai Muslim bride and groom, sit in golden sofa after the chief of the village of Nisha in southern Yala province was shot dead during their wedding party March 29, 2010.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

It’s the wedding of Sarina and Kurisem: the moment they’ve been waiting for. Excitement and pride radiates from their families as Sarina’s parents send their daughter to a good family and for Kurisem’s parents, their son becomes a man.

The photo shows happiness, joy and a hope for a better future. Two beautiful young people smile in front of a golden background, plastic flowers and gifts. A synthetic carpet covers the mud and a silent fan prevents the scene from melting in the heat of southern Thailand. Two hearts, their names and the date are written in a strange combination of languages to remind us of a happy day.

Or, maybe, the day was not that happy?

The official wedding photographer, over whose shoulder I shot this very frame, was not really interested in what was happening outside of the golden moment. However, it was what made me rush to the wedding after hearing the news of violence on the police radio. I was driving when I heard about the shooting so I rushed to the scene. The wedding photographer is accustomed to the violence; he focuses on what photos sell instead. The age-old journalism expression “No bleed, no lead” doesn’t work here in southern Thailand. In the photo album, that filtered reminder of our past, this smiling wedding portrait will be the only picture.

Shortly before this image was taken, masked gunmen riding their mopeds out of the forest raided the wedding party, shooting bullets into the skull of a chief of the village. The man, a local and well respected Muslim, was seated at the head of the table, witnessing the happy moment in the life of Sarina and Kurisem.

Thai policemen and forensic experts stand around the body of a man killed during a wedding party in the small village of Nisha in southern Yala province March 29, 2010. The Muslim chief of the village was shot dead as gunmen stormed a wedding party in Thailand's troubled southern province. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The last picture of the village chief, before the body was wrapped in white cloths and taken for burial, was among party tables and pots in which the special wedding meal was cooking. A police photographer at the site of the bloody attack calmly recorded evidence, focusing on the wounds and bullet holes. From time to time, he looked over his shoulder at the tables covered with food – lunch time was approaching.

The party must go on, no question about it. We are in the land of smiles after all. Apart from forensic photo evidence; will the only visual document that remains from the wedding be the photo showing two young and happy people in front of a golden background?

Will the real truth remain buried between colorful images of happiness? Will that picture in their history books lie? Does it speak a thousand words or lie with silence? As usual, I have many good answers but I’m not sure which the right question is.

A Thai boy stands behind a police line with soldiers and other villagers as forensic experts investigate the scene of a shooting in the small village of Nisha in southern Yala province March 29, 2010. The Muslim chief of the village was shot dead as gunmen stormed a wedding party in Thailand's troubled southern province. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

But, don’t only blame the photographer. Our sin is minor if compared to the power of selective memory and the need to escape the brutal reality. The guardians of history and the editors of our photo albums wait for the right frame to fit in to the bigger picture of what they want to be the only truth.

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