Flying over northern Laos in a small plane you look down on miles and miles of lush mountainous terrain peppered with small villages accessed only by foot. Very few surfaced roads cover this remote area so many of the communities have remained relatively cut off and isolated.
There’s a tremendously rich ethnic diversity in the northernmost tip of Laos due to its proximity to the Chinese, Vietnamese and Myanmar borders with more than 40 different ethnic groups in the Phongsali area, about 14 of which are Akha, who settled in this area within the last 200 years. Akha women wear some of the most interesting costumes, each subgroup having their own variation which denotes their cultural identity.
Travelling in the area with an interest in people photography, it therefore gets very exciting when you ‘spot’ someone in unusual dress that you haven’t seen before as I did in Boun Neua market town, just as I’d packed away my camera ready to leave.
The family were also about to leave, and I went over to try and catch them. I was so keen to meet them and see if I could have a photograph, but equally didn’t want to just point my camera and grab a snap as if I was a twitcher collecting a ‘tick’ for a rare species of bird.
Whilst you can’t freeze the march of time and change, as early tourists in remote areas I think we have a responsibility to be aware of our impact on the ethnic minority people we encounter, and in our excitement not to objectify the colourful subjects we meet. As the words of the singer India Arie remind us “I am not hair. I am not skin. I am the soul that lives within.”
They were very shy and the language barrier as ever was a problem, but with the help of my driver we managed a brief exchange and found out that they had walked three hours by foot from their village way up in the mountains S.E of Phongsali, then one hour by boat on the Nam Ou river, then one hour by jeep to reach the town of Bon Neua, all in their full traditional dress.
Their clothes are all handmade, the women wear elaborate headdresses decorated with silver and beading and coloured threads, and their dresses are made of a heavy hemp material naturally dyed dark in blue/black indigo, similarly decorated with silver and coloured detail. In this region, traditional dress is still generally worn by the women all the time, although Akha men now tend to wear more modern clothes.
Quite incredible to imagine walking the three hours up the mountain to go home after a day in town and a long trip by jeep and boat. All the more generous of her therefore to stop for me and spare me some of her time. I didn’t manage to establish which subgroup of Akha she came from, although she did mention the name of the village. Maybe somebody will be able to tell me.
Despite the language barrier I tried to show my interest in her and her dress, and the Akha way, and she willingly allowed me to take some photographs. In return, I did some polaroid instant photos both of her in her amazing clothing and also of her family and young son which they loved. Although in the brief and unprepared time I’d had, the photos of her that I came away with were a bit ‘passport photo’- ish and wooden, I was happy that I’d been able to come away with some memorable images, and had also been able to make the exchange a two way one, and hopefully not an experience that she would dread repeating the next time she made the arduous trip to town and came across the next fascinated tourist.
As she turned to go, the back of her headdress came into view and I could make out the silver coins with ‘indo-chine française’ stamped on them dating back to the 1900’s-1920’s. So much walking history just there in front of me, of which I’d only just had a glimpse. I came away full of enthusiasm to find out more about the Akha people and their lives. If only I could have followed them back to their village and spent a few days with them!
We bid them a safe and rain-free journey home and they turned to go home, enjoying their new photos.
It’s a funny interaction between a travel photographer and great subjects that we come across, and the lazy way is to grab a snap in passing or to steal a shot as if we are invisible and the subject has no feelings, but it doesn’t feel like an honest encounter, and done in reverse I’d hate it.
We have to stay sensitive to our impact both on our subject and the ground we lay for future passing tourists/photographers, and try to keep the interaction a positive one for both. Ultimately I think it will make for a better travel experience and better photos too, and done unthoughtfully we risk ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg.’