Photographic Documentary Project in Luang Namtha - Laos
I have a background of working for 13 years in a museum in New Zealand as a photographer, way back in the seventies. I dropped out of photography in '87, and did other things since.
Five years ago, having gone digital, I came back to photography, and came to SE Asia to look for subject matter. I wanted to do documentary photography in this part of the world, preferably in Laos, but wasn't sure where.
Via a websearch I landed in Luang Namtha, North West Laos, not far from the Chinese border.
On my first visit I took a few trips organised by the new eco-tourism venture set up as a pilot by Unesco. I visited a variety of ethnic minority villages in the province, and photographed especially lots of children. Such was the enthusiasm they showed when I gave back a few prints (I was then traveling with a small portable digital printer), that i decided to hop across the border after a few weeks, print a whole lot of my exposures in Thailand (LN at that time had no electricity, and no digital printing facility), then re-entered a couple of weeks later and went back to LN.
There I revisited the same villages, and brought back the many prints I'd produced. I found the experience very rewarding. Many people there had never had a photo of them self, or only very poor ones. It was then, December 2002 that I decided this was going to be my focus for a few years.
At the time LN province had no electricity (apart from a few hours generator at night), very poor road connections with the outside world, and only three flights a week coming in using a tiny old Chinese built 15 seater plane.
No electricity meant no fridges, and virtually no television.
This was all going to change rapidly, in 2003, electricity was brought in from China, which resulted in many people buying a TV and satellite dish. Suddenly, people that had virtually been isolated from the outside world before could receive Lao, Thai, Chinese TV, BBC and CNN, Thai soap operas, and American ones (don't know which are worse).
In 2005, work started on a new road to be built, connecting China with Thailand, via Laos. The road runs past Luang Namtha, when it is finished it will take only three hours to do the trip to the Thai border, which previously took anywhere between 8 and 10 hours, or more. This road will increase truck traffic passing LN between China and Thailand tenfold and more, and also will bring many more travelers to the province.
In 2006 the local LN airport was closed temporarily, and a new larger airport is being constructed now, which will take much bigger planes.
I realised that these three major infrastructure projects would bring enormous social changes to the province. I decided that the focus of my project would be documenting the traditional lifestyle in the small ethnic villages, as well as the changes that were bound to start showing.
I have been doing this now for over four years. In 2003 and 2004, I spent about 4-5 months per year, in bouts of 3-4 weeks at the time, in LN.
By 2004, my wife Dorothy had decided I spent too much time away from home (we lived in New Zealand) and she found a job in Vientiane, where we have now been living since Oct '04. I commute each month for a week to LN, take hundreds of photos, and then come back home to process.
The actual process I follow is beyond the scope of this article. Also, I hope that the ThingsAsian will forgive me if I don't try and repost most of my 100,000 photos onto their excellent site. A good selection of them have recently been uploaded on my own site:
together with a commentary about the photos, the tribe, and my own experiences visiting them.
I will try and add a few more to this site over the next few weeks.
Why do I do this project?
I found in my earlier museum work in NZ, that later on historians are always looking for images and descriptions of things in the past. I knew LN province had not been extensively photographed yet, and hope that my photos will go in an archive that will preserve them for posterity, and also make them available for the most important people, the people of LN province themselves.
Everyone photographed receives back at least one (or more) photos of themselves, usually 6x8 inch, laminated. This is much appreciated by the people.
I have made available images to a variety of organisations for use, such as the Lao National Tourism Authority, and a wide range of NGO's who use them for publicity purposes.
Last of all reasons, or maybe first, I really enjoy what I am doing.
I'd like to encourage readers to also visit my website, and give me feedback on what they see. The site to date has only about 200 pix, but more will be uploaded in the next few months, so bookmark me and come back again.
Any travellers wanting more info about this province, google "Luang Namtha" and "ecotourism", and you will find some very interesting material.
Published on 3/6/07