All photos Tyler Roney
To wind down from the tear gas and COVID plague in Bangkok, I retire to my balcony with a large camera and neat whisky to stare at plants just in case a 6-millimeter spider comes back. Despite how that sounds, this is a perfectly sane thing to do.
The mega-metropolis Bangkok doomscape, it turns out, has a bunch of little freaks just crawling helter skelter across it, like they own the place. And someone needs to document that in case it gets out of hand. This is called macro photography.
Sure, the planet is choking, and China has lost its mind, and Myanmar is burning, and there’s the Taliban again and a Bangkok stormtrooper might truncheon you in the face. But you have this grasshopper. And that’s pretty neat.
I took up wildlife photography on safari in Nepal and then in East Africa for the Great Migration. A safari, in technical terms, is a process by which large, wild animals are shown vans full of shrieking American and Chinese travelers taking selfies.
COVID-19, however, put something of a damper on safari travel. There are near-Bangkok options: herping in the Green Lung, lizards in Lumpini, and of course all the wet animals clinging to plastic in the salty trash factory. But compared at least to the Masai Mara and Terai, the entire Greater Mekong Subregion is eaten, paved, and logged to buggery.
As the pandemic drew on, I found myself cruising Lazada for expensive telephoto lenses to perv on birds when I turned my eye to macro. Anyone with a DSLR or mirrorless camera can pick up a good macro lens for less than $100 – or even a clip-on phone attachment. I did the professional thing and bought the cheapest one I could find: 7artisans 60mm.
Attaching the macro lens for the first time, I walked out on the balcony to find a fly, a flesh fly, Sarcophaginae. It was a friendly first subject: the ideal size for 1:1 magnification and very still because it was waiting for me to die, so it could lay eggs in me.
It’s quite a common insect, but close up you can admire the small, mechanical and aesthetic differences from the common house fly: the iridescent silver, the three thoracic stripes, dark red eyes. This subject was visiting my balcony to sample the bird poo, and who can blame it, with all the restaurants being closed? In fact, Sarcophaginae doesn’t like human food like hamburgers; it likes human food. Like human corpses. Dead and decaying things. The rotting and the foul. Piers Morgan.
Soon, I began making trips around the apartment complex just to look at the bugs, none of which I understood. In my ignorance I turned to the helpful nerds of Thai Biodiversity Survey & Species ID. You think to yourself, “I just found a cool bug and no one will care.” These nerds care. These nerds care hard.
They are ready and more than happy to give you the binomial nomenclature of your find. That’s the name for species in Latin via a system created by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century when Italy was still remembered for the Roman empire and fancy broom helmets.
In my short stint, I have learned a few important things. First, you need at least 1:1 magnification. If you don’t, other macro photographers will think you are lame and bully you and call you mean names.
The second thing is pretty obvious: Be patient. To them you are a Godzilla-style kaiju holding a giant factory above them as they cling to a leaf in the overgrown shrubbery of a dilapidated hotel. They’ve got their own problems.
Third, edit your photo. You can’t just take a picture of a moth and show everyone that moth and how it looked. People can’t handle that. You have to tart it up like some sort of moth at a quinceanera. That’s just where we are as a society.
Lastly, learn some bug facts. You’re a bug guy or gal, now. People think you want to talk about bugs. You don’t. You’re just desperate for something real and sane. So they’ll forward you bug articles and tell you facts they know about bugs. I don’t know why they do this, but it’s better than talking about the vaccine. Anyway, did you know that grasshoppers hear through their legs? Pretty cool, eh?
Despite starting macro photography in Bangkok only a few months ago, I have already developed the annoying habit of pointing out every milkweed bug and jumping spider. But macro photography isn’t just bugs, and you can find interest in all the small things in this world: flowers, plants, seeds, Piers Morgan.
Myself, I am content to find a place outside the office to sit in the weeds like a weirdo and wonder at the complexity of life that can exist in a world gone completely mad. I’m happy to keep an eye on them for a while to make sure they stay in line.
Tyler Roney is Southeast Asia regional editor of China Dialogue and an amateur photographer. Find more of his bug pics on Instagram.
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