What a Difference a Camera Makes
My story named “Documentary Photography in Luang Namtha” has caused a number of people to ask me questions about my procedures to get the images I wanted. Here is my story, reprinted from my own web site, with a few pictures. I refer you for more images back to my own website.
The first time I visit a new village, I invariably go with someone else to introduce me. Initially, that was on trips organized by a tourist service, in LN that is either the Government Tourism Office, or the private sector ‘Green Discovery’. Both organize group tours (small groups, no more then 8 participants) who accompanied by two guides will visit villages using various ways of transport. Some go trekking in the hills, some go mountain biking, rafting, kayaking, or take a long tail boat down the NamTha (Tha river).
On my first few visits I went with groups, and operated as part of a group. That had the advantage of others often being able to act as distraction while I took photographs. But it also increased the crowd, and the frenzy of village children coming to gape at the falang. So eventually, I went back alone with one or two guides.
On my first visit to a new village, I wouldn’t take many significant photos. Some children, if they were brave enough to be the first. If no child would come forward, I’d focus on a pig, or a rooster (always plenty of these in Lao villages), take a close up, then turn my camera around and try and show it to the nearest child. They would laugh, and shout to his/her mates to come and look at that. Then, using initially sign language, later some Lao language, I would ask them “do you want me to take your picture?” . The bravest would agree, everyone would see his portrait on my camera, and then many would volunteer.
Often very stiff poses, or (the boys) bravado expression. Never mind, I had my first step. I would take a few pictures around the village, houses, things going on, people working (only if they agreed, I don’t take a photo of someone who doesn’t want this. Then I’d leave.
After a week or several weeks in LN, I’d leave the country, fly to Bangkok, and print a selection of the photographs, aimed at my perception of what the people wanted, even if that was stiff full length portraits. But also some close-ups.
Some weeks, sometimes months later, I’d return, go back to the same series of villages, and ask my guide to find the headman. Usually, they’d take me to the headman’s house, where I’d be invited in, offered some tea. Then I’d give the headman the whole stack of photos. I’d tell him that of course I don’t know who each child is, what family, so I’d appreciate it if he distributes the photographs to the families they belong to. This way I show him the appropriate respect, and also make him gain face in the eyes of the villages. If I’m lucky, one of the photos will in fact be one of his children or grandchildren. Usually they will be received with great enthusiasm, and the distribution process is a bit of a shambles. As soon as one child leaves the house on his way home waving a picture of him or his sister, the whole village descends upon the headman’s house, and it gets quite noisy and hilarious.
Then I ask my guide to explain to the headman (and if possible, some other elders) why I am here, and what I want. I explain that over the past few years, especially the older people would have experienced some changes, compared with their past lifestyle. I explain that it is likely more changes will happen in future. I suggest that already maybe sometimes, the elders find it hard to explain to their grandchildren how they lived in the past, and that, if things change much more in the future, their children may find it even harder to tell their grandchildren how things were ‘in the olden days’. Often, the headman or one of the elders will actually take that on board. I will promise them that every photo I take of a person will be given back to them, just like this time.
If the response is positive, I may look around the headman’s house and remark ‘what an interesting /nice/ impressive house this is’. Would he mind if I took some interior photos of his house ? (preferable empty!). usually that will make him look puzzled because he may not see his house as interesting, but seldom do I get refused. Afterwards, I wander around the village. I will usually be followed by a stream of children, and asked to take photos of them. Then a grandmother will come out carrying a toddler, and ask for a picture. I’ll suggest that maybe the two of them together, and later suggest grandmother alone.
If the village still has traditional tribal costume, I’ll often get somebody who goes home and dresses up for the occasion (even if it isn’t worn daily). For the women (and sometimes the men), that may include putting on make-up, and silver jewelry. Initially, I felt uncomfortable with all this dress up and very posed pictures, until I realized that is what THEY wanted.
I’d return weeks or months later with another stack of pictures, and go through the same process again, photographing more people, some houses, some people cooking, making things, feeding the animals, just daily life. I’d take details of building techniques, tools, anything that caught my eye. Most of these are photographically not very interesting, but intended as a record. It is up to future historians and anthropologists to work out their relevance and use. Since I am here anyway, and Gigabytes storage are getting cheap (unlike film in the past, I could never have afforded to do this on film), just as well do it, someone maybe happy in 50 years time.
One village, on my fourth visit, two month after my previous visit, we were on our way, about an hours walk from arriving, when we were overtaken by a bunch of teenage girls. They were carrying baskets of firewood, and wearing flipflop sandals rather then our trekking boots, but they were much faster. One girl recognized me, smiled and chattered to her companions. They all took of at higher speed then before. An hour later, when we arrived at the village, some of the girls had already dressed up and were in the process of putting rouge on, in anticipation of me taking a picture of them.
I worked in this manner for about 12 months, and then got approached by an NGO (Non Government development Organisation), if I could come with them for a few days and take some photos of a new tourism trekking project they were setting up about three hours away.
I gladly did, since it allowed me to go places where very few falang had been before, and the villagers still less untouched, and more relaxed about cameras. This led to other NGOs over the past years asking me similar things. I started to see the advantage of going somewhere for other then tourism purposes to start with, so even approached a few local organizations. I offered to do publicity photos for them in exchange for going with them to do their daily work in a village. That proved to be a useful cooperation.
As I spent more time in LN, I got to know more people. I was invited to photograph weddings (used to hate that in my own country), funerals and cremations, Baci ceremonies to celebrate the arrival of a new child, and local festivals. At one wedding a friend introduced me to Mr LaoLee, the elderly Dao priest of a Lantien village nearby. He mentioned a spirit ceremony taking place there a few days later, and I got an invitation to photograph that. He seemed to be so pleased with the results that I have ben invited many more times for similar events, once traveled up with his family to a village many hours away for the ordination of two young men into priesthood.
It is a slow process. You cannot rush it. In the eyes of the local people, you are a falang, a foreigner, there are language barriers, and it takes time to build trust and confidence.
I do my utmost best to avoid exploiting my subjects. In the occasional event I sell a print to someone (foreign, locals get free prints) I make sure part of the proceeds goes back to the viallge, to a school fund or so.
I hesitated long before putting any pictures on a website, although many people have asked me earlier. I was uncertain about the concept of informed consent, did the fact that someone lets me take their picture also mean they give me permission to publish it where the entire world can see it? Explaining the internet to a villager that hasn’t even got power in their village and maybe cannot write, is impossible. Model releases, forget it. That leaves only the onus on the photographer to treat his/her subjects and their photos with the highest respect.
Published on 3/9/07