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Photographer Oi Veerasarn was one of D.C.’s countless secret expatriate celebrities. He would probably never tell you, unless you knew to ask him, that when he was working at the 7-Eleven on River Road shortly after moving here in 1979, he had already accrued huge fame in his native Thailand. First he worked as a stage actor, then as a soap-opera hunk, and, finally, as a hard, one-armed pimp in the movie Love and Jealousy, which earned him a nomination for a Thai Oscar the same year he came to D.C. He directed that project, too, but his favorite story about it concerned the time he destroyed the producer’s BMW while shooting a chase scene.
Most people here would not have heard of him outside the art world. But he caused a stir whenever he walked into Bangkok Garden in Bethesda. My friends who went to dinner with him there recall every head in the place turning and people pining for his autograph. He had come to the U.S. to get away from all of that. He was, as one of his friends puts it, “the Robert De Niro of Thailand.” Oi—his parents named him Jakrarat, but everybody called him simply Oi—could not walk down the street in Bangkok without being mobbed by women. To his friends in D.C., he was like a big, jolly Buddha covered in cologne.
Oi came here to live with a friend from his days on the Bangkok stage and wound up taking theater classes at American University. But, presumably because he had gotten a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Chulalongkorn University, AU turned him down for admission to its master’s program in theater. So he moved to New York in 1980. Oi studied design at Pratt Institute, married, moved back to D.C., divorced, and became a freelance photographer full time. While doing bread-and-butter commercial work, he was also working up an oeuvre of gorgeous black-and-white nudes in the studio where he lived on I Street NW, near Chinatown.
He didn’t fuss with a lot of equipment—though I remember his telling me once, with a naughty laugh, about the time the cops chased him off the Capitol grounds because they didn’t allow tripods. He returned with a unipod to finish his work. No problem there. For his nudes, he relied on a 50 mm lens and one light mounted on the ceiling. In recent years, he went low-tech and took up pinhole photography. He would assemble five bucks’ worth of cardboard, plastic, tape, and film to capture luminous exposures of landscapes, interiors, and portraits. On a trip back to Thailand, he studied the country’s temples with his crude lens. Back in D.C., he spent much of his time at the Wat Yarnna Rangsee Buddhist temple near Dulles, where he joined his creative impulses with the religious faith he renewed in the last two years of his life.
Oi Veerasarn died June 23 of a heart attack while playing badminton at a church in Silver Spring. He was 45 years old. His father reminded his girlfriend, Lisa McQuail, of the Buddhist belief that sudden death is a sign of an exceptional being, to be spared a long demise. The outpouring from D.C.’s art and photography community has been prodigious; the Washington Center for Photography devoted the September/ October issue of its newsletter, Loupe, to tributes from the many colleagues who admired Oi.
The homage goes on for the next year, culminating in the release of the “cremation volume” of Jakrarat “Oi” Veerasarn: Verses, the book of his work that he and McQuail had begun assembling before his death. This week, the Black & White Custom Lab in Arlington opens its exhibit, “Oi Veerasarn, Vignettes of a Journey: Pinhole Photographs 1996-1999,” which runs to Nov. 15. And on Oct. 15, the Washington Center for Photography opens “Oi Veerasarn: Boundaries/ Nudes,” running to Nov. 13. The stateside exhibits—including a Chicago show in December honoring the birthday of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej—travel to Bangkok in 2000 for mounting in the Siam Society’s galleries. Oi’s work will return to Thailand in full national glory, which is just how he left it.—Bradford McKee