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Nate Clark

Nate Clark

My first experience at Koh Phangan’s Full-Moon Party was in 2005, long before I studied photography. Back then I wasn’t interested in culture or global politics. I had two goals in life: get shit-faced and sleep with as many people as possible.

The Full-Moon party was wild. I remember all of it. I drank the famous buckets of Thai rum with Red Bull and Coca-Cola. I shotgunned beers and sucked tequila out of 20-year-old Swedish belly buttons. I rolled around in the sand with Johanna, a Finnish girl who didn’t speak English. I threw up in the sea and ordered another beer and never felt remorse. In fact, I felt the weight of the entire Kingdom on top of me, demanding I get as drunk and laid as possible. Early that morning I was smashed and stumbling around the beach trying to find Johanna. I’d lost her after a long trip to the toilet. I sat on a rock and waited, hoping to spot her in the passing crowds. As the sun rose and illuminated the beach, I noticed the thousands of bottles, the plastic buckets and the abandoned flip-flops going out with the rising tide. I was hypnotized. I hadn’t seen India or Cambodia yet and I didn’t know how fucked up the world was.

Sitting on that rock, I saw something else that I’ll never forget. I saw two beautiful, blond-haired foreigners having sex in the water in front of a group of Thai children. Trash-laden waves washed over them as they fucked, like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity” but with full penetration, garbage and wide-eyed children. The couple took no notice of the kids, or me. They were caught up in the pleasure of the moment. I was filled with a sense of dread. This emotion, this dread, burned itself into my brain and scarred me. The sheer hedonism of it. The sheer, goddamned, unapologetic hedonism. And I was part of it. I never turned away from the fact that I was part of it.

Ten years later and I’m a freelance photojournalist. After two harrowing months shooting the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, I flew to Bangkok and took a bus to Koh Phangan – my old stomping grounds. This time I wasn’t there to party. I planned to stay in a quiet corner of the island and hide. I wanted to spend a few weeks alone and drink beers in the sea and watch TV on my computer. I also knew I had to shoot the Full-Moon Party on Christmas Day. Never any question about that.

At 5 a.m., I rode to the beach on my rented Honda scooter. It was all still there. Unconscious, body-painted ravers. Lads pissing in the sea. Men swinging their cocks around. People making out in the sand, lost in the trance. Many young girls asked me to photograph them. They had fun flashing model poses while I faked pressing the shutter button. Trash was thick underfoot, washing into the sea. Little kids collected plastic bottles and put them in big black bags. At around 9 a.m. uniformed clean-up crews arrived and started combing the sand for debris. I shot and shot.

When I saw the photos I wasn’t shocked or appalled. If anything I was jealous. I wanted to be like them again. I wanted my ignorance back. It had been a long time since I’d felt that carefree. I posted a few images on my Facebook and I fell asleep for 14 hours. During the night, an environmental non-profit called “Ocean Defender – Hawaii” appropriated one of the photos and had received 60,000 shares and the same number of comments. Thousands voiced their outrage at the backpackers’ sordid behavior and the Thai government’s failure to protect their own pristine ecosystems.

Sometimes, the photographer doesn’t always get the final say in what his photos are about. Thousands of people used my images as an opportunity to cast judgement on others. My first reaction was to defend the partygoers because once, I had been exactly like them. I’ve been thinking about the photos for a week and I guess I’m ready to admit that they are, in fact, environmental images. They are photographs of a thousand small decisions. Decisions we all make. The decisions that accumulate into that island of plastic everyone talks about. For me though, in my mind, and whenever I get to have my say, I will always file these images under “selfies”.

— Nate Clark is a free-lance photojournalist. He lives in Thailand.

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