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.
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.
Here’s another example of how your photos can haunt you. I took these shots in Bangkok in 1987 when suddenly at the guest house where I was staying an elephant appeared.
I had some awareness of the suffering of animals. For instance, there was a very pregnant dog who hung around our guest house hoping for handouts and I took it upon myself to feed her until she disappeared to give birth. But it didn’t occur to me that an elephant in the crowded city had to be a most terrible cruelty and instead I was, like everyone, blown away by its size and proximity.
And I paid to have a ride on it and added the experience to my growing list of adventurous escapades. I used to describe to people how the elephant lifted me up with its foot, the feel of its ear that I gripped while being raised up, described how miraculous it felt to be sitting on this elephant’s back while it walked the Bangkok street.
I did not connect to its suffering until many years later.
Thai Spirit House. Delightful, ornate miniature temples which are found outside Thai homes. Ancestors are believed to reside here. Every day incense is lit and someone in the family puts fresh water in the Spirit House, maybe an orange or flowers or other gifts. The rituals are part of a rich spiritual tradition, and perhaps they’re partly superstitious–if the ancestors are kept happy in their little home, they won’t meddle or interfere in the family’s present day affairs.