Photography in Laos is not easy, I’ve been averaging about two photos a day which I can use, and for those of you that don’t know, that’s definitely not enough. But I think I’m figuring out how to work here… more on that towards the end of the post.
Yesterday I tried to rent a motorbike in Vang Vieng. I wanted a real Honda, not some Chinese piece of junk. I asked a guy if I could rent one for 10 days, and he got very suspicious. “Where are you going to go?” he asked. “Kasi”, I replied, which isn’t all true. Kasi is only 56 kilometers from Vang Vieng. Yeah, I was going to go through Kasi… but I was going to keep driving another 150 kilometers or so through the mountains to Luang Prabang. He said Kasi was too far, then became very aloof and stopped looking at me, which is the Lao way of saying no. Being the bastard that I am, I stood and stared at him and basically forced him to actually tell me no. Which he did. I asked another guy, went through the same questions, and was told a ridiculously high price for the bike. So, what should I do now?
Just rent a piece of junk and lie about what I’m going to do with it.
So, I did exactly that, got my clunky Chinese 110cc motorbike, and spent my first day with it scouting for spots between Vang Vieng and Kasi to shoot on my way out the next day.
So, having done that, I woke up this morning before sunrise, grabbed my stuff, hopped on the motorbike I’m currently abusing, and headed to my first spot. There’s a great big, open, beautiful view point right off the highway I had scoped out, with a little shop next to it that sells coffee, which I most certainly needed when I arrived. I got there, set up my tripod and… waited for the light. For almost 2 hours. I’m damn glad I waited, ‘cause it was the only moment in the whole day that the light and color were right for a good landscape shot. The shot that started this post is one of the black and white shots I snapped while I was there. The fantastic color one I got will eventually wind up on my Laos Photo Library site.
While standing there, the man that owns the little house/coffee shop by the side of the road came over and started talking to me. The conversation basically went like this:
“Hi! You’re taking some photos, huh?”
“Oh, yes, I am, thanks! The view from your home is very beautiful.”
“Oh, thank you. You drove here on this motorbike?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Do you have a driver’s license in Laos?”
“Oh… no, I don’t!”
“Hmmm… you rented this bike, huh? Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Luang Prabang.”
“That’s really far from here… you’re not supposed to take these rental bikes that far.”
“Yeah, I know, but the owner doesn’t know what I’m doing with it”
“What town did you rent it in?”
“I rented it in Vang Vieng.”
“Oh… I work in Vang Vieng.”
“Really? What do you do there?”
“I’m a police officer.”
Sooo… what could I say? I said “Oh! That’s great!” and stood there with a big shit-eating grin on my face until he just started laughing, then he clapped me on the back and walked away. That’s Lao people for you. I’m starting to love them.
So, I got my great morning landscape, and set off. The road was beautiful, but it was cloudy and raining on and off the whole way, and the 3 other spots I had picked out had to be shelved for another day.
Now, this is where I start to get frustrated. This has been a typical day for me. Wake up, get one, maybe two nice landscapes, then struggle the rest of the day to get another decent photo. Here are the problems in Laos:
- The light sucks. It’s way too harsh most of the day, and the times when it’s not, it’s likely to be cloudy or overcast.
- There’s very little color, especially in the landscapes. Everything is green, green, green, which looks beautiful to eye, but when photographed has no tonal range and shows no depth.
- There’s very, very little activity. There are less people in the entire country than in most major cities I know, and people spend most of the day sitting around in the shade doing nothing.
- When you pick up your camera to take a picture, people either run as fast as they can, turn their head so you can’t see their face, give you a stiff, unnatural smile (if they want to be nice), or just look scared or even upset. People here don’t appreciate photographers.
I’m used to working in Vietnam, where there are so many people that in markets, and even villages, you can do some work going unnoticed or being ignored. Plus, people in Vietnam like being photographed it seems. They are usually really great about it. I can be driving along the road, see a market, stop and pull out my camera, and people are welcoming, jovial even, and as you take their photos their friends tease them about it, and the result is lots of photos with laughing, happy, natural looking people.
Pull up next to a market on the roadside here and pull out a camera, and watch the people flee for their lives.
I stopped in a couple of villages today to photograph kids playing, and I got a couple okay shots, but really nothing great… mostly kids looking scared. However, I stopped in one village, sat down and bought a drink, and when the kids showed up I bought them all snacks, teased them for a while, pulled out my camera and showed them some other pictures, and then took some shots… that yielded some better results.
Then about 2pm, I was feeling quite tired after being out and about since 5:45am, and I came upon a mountain village called Kiewkacham. I saw that there was a guesthouse in town, and I decided to stop off and spend the night. After taking a short nap, I wandered around a bit, taking a few shots here and there, but mostly getting the same results. People just weren’t receptive. So I laid off shooting, and just started approaching people and talking. After a few minutes, I’d ask for a photo. That started to work. Eventually I wound up being invited to sit down and eat bananas and talk with a Hmong guy. His wife and kids came out. His father came over from another house. The woman next door and her granddaughter came over. A local school teacher stopped by. Soon there were more than 20 people hanging about, most of them just staring at me. But as I started trying to take photos… it started working. Then the schoolteacher’s son took me over to the local school to meet the English teacher during his class. I got a great shot of him, too. Things started to flow.
Now, being able to speak some Lao helps a lot. But I think I figured something out this afternoon about taking pictures of people in Laos:
You gotta’ hang out. Rolling in on a motorbike, walking through the villages and taking photos simply will not work like it does in Vietnam. You have to sit down with people and make friends, make them comfortable with you. People in Laos, especially the minority tribes people, are very shy, but very friendly. If you let them warm up, and do things on their terms, it can work.
Oh, and another thing I’ve figured out: Forget waiting for the perfect light. Use it when it’s there, but “perfect” lighting is hard to come by here. I have to use what I’ve got to use, and that’s it. If I hang out waiting for perfect light, I’m never going to have enough shots when I leave here.
So, after all this, as the sun was going down, I came back to my guesthouse, sat down with the Lao people sitting outside, and bought beer for everybody. We started chatting, joking around, and looking up stuff in my Lao/English dictionary together. Now they want to hang out with me. Now they want me to come back again, and stay longer next time.