Michal Thoma – Traveller, photographer, writer – Part 1

Manang, photo: Michal Thoma

Michal Thoma – like his father Zdeněk – is a well-known Czech photographer, traveller, and author focussing on countries in Asia, including India and Nepal. Publishing in Czech alternatives to National Geographic like Lidé a Země and Koktejl, Michal and his father and mum, have made travel writing and photography in exotic countries pretty much a family business and the Thoma name something of a ‘trademark’. In Part I, of this special Panorama Michal talks about how he got into photography and travel, beginning with his father’s career.

Photo: Zdeněk Thoma
“My father first travelled to Asia in 1969 when he organised an expedition to Japan. It was ahead of the 1970 Expo in Kyoto, Japan and he organised the official Czech expedition. At the time, there were people coming in different and original ways: some travelled, for example, on bicycle. He planned for the Czech expedition to travel by hitchhiking – from Prague to Kyoto. It took half a year to reach Japan and they travelled through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India... and in Bangladesh they took a ship to Japan. Along the way he took a lot of photographs and after coming back to Czechoslovakia he decided to make use of them and basically began his professional photographic career.”

Many people who have “really” travelled often say that hitchhiking is the way to go because you don’t experience the same ‘shock’ as when you get off of a plane and suddenly find yourself in a completely different place. Would you agree?

“I don’t think it’s about shock but is about whether you want to get closer to locals: hitchhiking can be a god way because a driver can stop you and realise that you are lost and perhaps invite you to their home, especially if you are in a very foreign or exotic country – the people tend to be very helpful. What would otherwise take weeks – to get to know local people – happens immediately.”

You were born in 1979: as a boy what were your early impressions of people and places that your father photographed?

Michal Thoma
“My impressions... well this is also tied closely to the story of Manang, where my father travelled to six months after I was born. In 1980, when I was small, he prepared the exhibition called The Village Beneath Annapurna. I feel like I grew up with these images: on the one hand they were so familiar; on the other it was very distant. The first time I travelled with my father was much later, when I was 16 and he took me to Thailand where I learned how things ‘really were’.”

Is it fair to say that growing up with these images and your father’s stories ignited your imagination?

“I think so. I really wanted to visit these places to see what it was really like. Also, from the beginning when my father took care of me and took me on trips around Czechoslovakia he gave me a camera and I began learning the art of photography...”

He taught you? What did you learn from him?

“Well, you know, I learned that when photographing people you shouldn’t be intrusive, should be respectful and that patience is very important. Just coming somewhere and snapping a shot is not the way: sometimes you have to wait quite a while. I also learned about the importance of luck and also that in foreign countries in difficult situations that a photographer can face, a smile is often the solution.”

Manang,  photo: Michal Thoma
I’ve heard that the camera your father gave you was a Pentax LX: if I recall correctly, this is a camera what many photographers swore by in the past and maybe even swear by today?

“It’s a very sturdy camera and that was one of the reasons for its popularity: I still use mine on some occasions today. It’s a very fine camera which is practically indestructible and it feels really good in the hand, confident and reliable and a joy to use. I’m sure that this camera will last longer than most digital cameras being made today.”

Since you mention digital, do you still photograph mostly on film or is it a mix?

“It’s a mix. But you also have to take into regard the economy of photographing: speed, which is now very important. How fast you are able to process, select and deliver and so most of the work I do now is in digital. If it’s a project I’m doing for myself or something where time is not a factor, I still work in film.”

You mentioned that you went on that first trip to Thailand at 16: was it not possible for your father to take you sooner or did he not want to because he needed to focus on his work?

“I think he needed a serious partner who would help: of course he, my mum and I travelled around Europe on holidays and so on but when he went to Asia he needed someone who would help and not slow him down as he had a job to do.”

Manang,  photo: Zdeněk Thoma
You studied Culturology at Charles University in Prague: did studying cultural anthropology change your view of some of the places you visited or deepen your appreciation for those people and countries?

“Definitely. Cultural anthropology is the way... you know some people may just get this naturally, but education in this field teaches you to avoid ethnocentric views, to understand their culture based on their values and not those you bring from home. You have to ‘forget’ your own values and try to understand their value system and cultural anthropology provides a refined and proven methodology to be able to do that.”

Your father’s work has focussed on places like Japan, China, Nepal: where have your paths crossed the most? What are the countries where you have travelled that you both share a love for?

“I think it has to be Nepal, which I still feel I come there again and again. Now I think I have been there more times than my father and there are still so many places I can travel. Maybe it’ll be 10 years before I can say that I ‘know’ Nepal’. For me this is very important. Other important countries for us include Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India.”

What are some of the first things you are struck by when you arrive? Is it the geography, the scents, the air, or a mix of different things?

Manang,  photo: Michal Thoma
“When you arrive for the first time you are struck by the differences but this is not the real thing. First impressions are not the best ones but impressions that you develop about a country when you come again and again are what it’s about. What I can say about Nepal is that I am struck by the incredible diversity. You won’t find the same people in a single place but a different mix of cultures and people and lifestyles as well as landscapes. So it’s a joy of exploration, small differences, and getting to understand how a country of such diversity can exist as one unified nation.”

Part II (to air on September 16, 2011) will look at the village of Manang in Nepal, shot by Michal Thoma 30 years after his father first visited.