1987. Akha village in the Golden Triangle region of Northern Thailand. These two serious-looking villagers wanted to be compensated for having their picture taken. After I had paid the woman and taken her photo her seriousness disappeared and she became very animated. She lit her large cigarette, smacked my arm jovially and we shared a good laugh. No superstition about cameras stealing one’s soul here, she clearly enjoyed fleecing me.
After we got back to Chiang Mai, I recorded in my travel journal that there was a rumour circulating that an American and a Frenchman had helped the Thai police locate opium fields in the Cave Lodge area by posing as tourists. With this in mind, as I reflected on the tension I felt among some of the Lisu villagers, I wasn’t sure if this formidable fellow was posted outside Alipa’s home to protect us, watch us, or await further orders. Alipa had taken us to see the village’s poppy fields.
In any case, I made sure to ask for his permission to take his photograph.
This fellow scared me. He wasn’t friendly or particularly welcoming. But after a few days I assume he warmed to our presence in the village because he sent a dish of pork tartar to our table. The raw pork was heavily spiced with garlic and chilies but I wasn’t brave enough to try it. Who needs an intestinal problem in the middle of the jungle?
But still I felt his power and the respect accorded to him by the village. I’m currently reading Rumours of Glory, an autobiography written by Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn, and his wise words seem apropos:
“My travels have immeasurably informed my understanding of world events, of peoples, of the ways that rivers move through landscapes. The songs are made of these things. Without travel I could only marginally understand geopolitics, reflect on deforestation only as a concept rather than as a mountainside bleeding soil, see only in photographs the eyes of an old woman who has lived her entire life at thirteen thousand feet of elevation, who has seen ten of her thirteen children die before reaching adulthood.”
It’s a long story, but myself and then-boyfriend wound up as guests in a Lisu Village in the most northern part of Thailand close to the border with then-Burma, now Myanmar. It was early February, 1987, and the village was celebrating their new year. At that point I’d been traveling for about 6 months and had started to realize that people generally trusted me and they let me take their photograph and I felt a responsibility to document the human condition, not simply take pictures for the photo albums or the slide shows I would present to friends and family when I got home. Though I had no overtly political or journalistic intentions, I began to feel it was important to document what I was seeing.