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The Missing Monarch

Magnum photographer Rose Marie Cromwell went looking for King Bhumibol, Thailand's ill and missing monarch, and found him everywhere in the Thai consciousness.

This article appears in The Photo Issue 2015

I went looking for King Bhumibol, Thailand's ill and missing monarch, and found him everywhere in the Thai consciousness. The disappearance of a leader, very often without warning or explanation, is a common occurrence in monarchies and dictatorships, but Bhumibol has maintained his presence through commercialization. Large, gaudy gold frames hold his mural-size images on every street corner. Expressionless, he is sometimes depicted beside his equally blank-faced wife. At other times, he holds his manual 35mm camera, ready to meditate on the beauty of his country. Though he is rarely a topic of conversation, his image is ubiquitous.

Bhumibol has survived ten government overthrows, distancing himself from the mundane concerns of democracy and claiming to be apolitical. He is one of the richest people in the world, and his subjects believe he is also the most enlightened, second only to Buddha. Bhumibol has managed to stay relevant in a globalized Thailand by becoming a product. His face is packaged and sold like any other brand. From refreshing Coke bottles to shiny gold religious icons to glimmering framed portraits of the king, I found them all equally radiating and alluring. Everyone can be a good consumer in Thailand, everyone can be a good Buddhist, and everyone can be a good subject.