Playing With Water

People become strangely uninhibited when they play with water in the street. I think it must be owing to one of our atavistic instincts, a distant memory of the amphibian origin of mammals. More likely, it’s because it’s a bit naughty and certainly very wet.

April is the month for the Thai festival of Songkran, the “water-throwing festival” when everyone goes on the street to spray each other using water guns, buckets, and even elephants. (The elephants are rather good at it).

Last year (I wasn’t there) was said to be a muted affair, owning to the death of King Bhumibol a few months previously, but you’d never guess it from the pictures online. There are good shots among them, but, on the whole, chaos usually triumphs over order. It’s not an easy subject for the serious street photographer.

The main problem of taking pictures in a water fight is pretty obvious: your camera gets soaking wet. Having a splash-proof camera isn’t quite good enough for Songkran — it needs to be totally water-proof. Every April, lots of camera equipment get ruined in Thailand, especially in Bangkok.

However, it’s all good for business. The Thais manufactured the Sony A7Rii, among other street-worthy cameras. (Note: the A7Riii is made in China). An article on Imagining Resource shows how they did it.

The English Version
We don’t have anything approaching the delightful madness of Songkran here in England, but people do still play with water in the street, as my featured photo (above) demonstrates.

Yes, I took this shot right here in Colchester, not in Bangkok. What’s more, the location was in one of the town’s main streets: North Hill, which forms part of an ancient T-junction where it joins the High Street. The Romans walked up and down it — and famously brought their own elephants, although I don’t think they ever used them for squirting water at each other.

The occasion was an experiment with a gigantic water slide (below) which ran all the way down the hill. It was the first time it had been used in Colchester and I hope it won’t the last. All the participants had a great time, paying a small fee to use it, with some of the money going to charity.

Water slide

I don’t offer this distant view as a street photo, as such, but it shows you what it looked like from a distance. I took it with my 85mm lens, leaning against a lamp-post to eliminate any camera movement.

Surfing, But Not As You Know It
Back in Thailand you can actually surf in the street — or just off it. Even though there’s no surf to speak of in the Andaman Sea (except when there’s a tsunami) the Thais create their own surfing environment by machine. I’ve included photos of it in another blog post, but here it is again — and it’s even more fun than our water slide on North Hill.

surfing machine

Fun With Fountains
If you don’t come across a surf machine or a large water slide, you can always fall back on fountains, especially those that spurt up from the paving stones when people least expect it.

Boy playing with fountain

Apart from anything else, the damp pavement acts as a useful reflector of light, illuminating people’s faces from below. Add to this the usual uninhibited behaviour — such as boys blocking the water with their feet — and you’ll find incidents and jollity (below) for as long as people continue to walk past.

For young children, it’s a fairytale world in which water no longer drops downwards, as it does in the shower or outside in the rain, but goes in the reverse direction, defying gravity.

small girl playing in fountain

And what’s the opposite of gravity? It’s levity! Fountains are a source of endless enjoyment. My favourite place in Italy is the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, not for its magnificent architecture and frescoes but for its extraordinary garden of fountains, pools, channels, water jets and cascades.

I doubt if any architect today would dare emulate the fountains of the Villa d’Este. The running cost is a strong deterrent. Water erodes carved stone basins, clogs up pipes and fixtures with limescale, and evaporates quickly in the hot sun.

You can’t blame them for faking it. Eventually, the entire system needs an overhaul. Even in our city centres where the water features tend to be somewhat less ambitious than those of the Villa d’Este, regular maintenance brings the fun to a standstill. Without the movement of water the fountain — even a fake fountain — becomes a forlorn and pointlessly static piece of sculpture.

Water is movement; movement is life. Please turn the water back on again, soon!

Dolphin fountain, sans water

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