Gray Areas — A Black and White Perspective on Laos

The little landlocked nation of Laos in Southeast Asia ambles along while the rest of the world whizzes past. Quiet but ever so compelling, it imposes a realignment of priorities, drawing one into thoughtful introspection and a careful consideration of beauty, peace, and contentment.

In marked consonance to this is the black and white image — it stands out in subtle yet defiant contrast to our stimulus-oversaturated world and has the impetus to plunge one into a world of mysterious gray, firing up the imagination and evoking emotion in a manner that nothing else can.

A recent foray into photographs taken in various parts of Laos over several years has given me a retrospective recognition of themes consistent in my portraits: youth and the inevitability of aging, sober beauty in the face of difficult reality, and my personal hydra — the elusive balance between contentment with one’s station in life and the pursuit of gratification.

I present here a self-curated gallery of black and white images accompanied by brief descriptions and thoughts.

A old man stands outside a hut — the only one on a winding stretch of mountain road in Northern Laos — watching his daughter lay their chilli harvest out to dry in the October sun. His grandchildren look on, too, from the doorway. Most rural Lao families rely on subsistence farming: they plant just enough to meet their needs, supplementing it with what they are able to find from the forests around them. The young and able work the fields or go out to forage and hunt, while the children are left home with the elderly. Their stoic appearance in the face of the camera masks a cheerfulness at which I marvel.
An infant naps in his grandmother’s arms in a village in Savannakhet Province. In less than a year, he would enjoy a lot more freedom, toddling around half naked with several others. Children are rarely scolded or shouted at, and are generally treated with gentleness.
A young girl and her grandmother peer through a window of their stilt hut in the province of Savannakhet. What thoughts and attitudes must they share, despite the difference of generations?
A lady gazes, pensive, at her vegetable patch. Hers is no ordinary village: all the subsistence crops grown in her village are planted in craters formed by bombs, a microscopic fraction of over two million tonnes of explosives the United States dropped on the Laos in a terrible, senseless attempt to fight the perceived communist threat posed by the presence of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam and their Lao sympathisers, a political group known as the Pathet Lao. Knowing the extent of the cruel horrors imposed on this tiny, unassuming nation and the killing and maiming of tens of thousands of innocent victims, it is hard to warrant the US with the littlest of sympathies. As individuals, I know many Americans whom I admire, love, and respect. As a government-led nation, however, I see it as a morally bankrupt, murderous entity that has committed gruesome crimes across the globe and remains largely unrepentant to this day.
The centrally located province of Savannakhet had the highest incidence of UXO, or unexploded ordnance, from the war. Here is a boat fashioned out of the fuselage of a downed American warplane, a reminder of the horror brought upon a nation by a much larger and in many ways, a far more ignorant aggressor. Other common sights include bombshells used as cattle troughs and stilts for huts, and hanging plants growing out of emptied-out cluster bombs. These might seem deceptively harmless, were it not for the presence of people — young and old alike — maimed and disfigured by the thousands of unexploded bombs scattered across the landscape. But the people of Laos pick up the pieces, literally, and carry on. While the adults work on their farms or go into the forest to hunt and forage, the children collect scrap metal to sell to the travelling junk collectors who visit periodically. Much of this scrap metal is from unexploded ordnance. While many parts of the country have been cleared of these with help from nations around the world, much remains to be done.
A Vietnamese scrap metal collector heads towards a village on his rusty old motorcycle. Scrap metal trade is a significant part of the economy in many rural villages, especially in the regions along the Ho Chi Minh trail that were heavily bombed. For families that rely on little other than subsistence farming and make less than $10 a week, any additional income is welcome, especially as a kilogram of scrap metal could fetch up to $0.35. It is risky business, however, as most scrap metal comes in the form of unexploded ordnance from the war. Many of these bombs were designed to maim and inflict painful injury rather than kill, and mishandling could and does lead to seriously disabling bodily harm.
Interestingly enough, almost every stilt house the villages we visited in the early 2000s had a satellite antenna like this one beside it, with a cable leading to a little television inside the home. Thai television is hugely more popular than national Lao TV, and most Lao are able to at least understand Thai. 

A young teacher writes on a pockmarked chalkboard as her pupils look on with smiles for the camera’s benefit. The school is a skeletal structure, with less resources than any teacher or student from a modern first-world nation could possibly imagine. The school serves a loose cluster or villages, and many children walk several kilometres every school day, while a privileged few cover the distance by bicycle. It is impossible to not marvel at the cheerful simplicity I see. I cannot help but wonder at how much of what we consider to be necessities are, in fact, not. While my family and I seem to live rather simple lives, this is only relative to the urban middle class. 
A village elder poses for a portrait, showing off the bamboo pipe he uses to smoke home-cured tobacco. Lao village governance is handled by the Naiban, the village chief, and a group of elders. In most rural areas, most of the external influence seems to come from the military rather than the district and provincial government bodies, although this has been changing with the recent boom in development and the effects of globalisation.
This lady was too shy to come down from her hut, choosing instead to watch from up there as relief workers distributed rice to the households in her village in the aftermath of hurricane Ketsana. I often wish there was a way to truly know and feel somebody else’s experience of life; perhaps that way, we would be more sympathetic, more understanding, and less cynical. If I am unable to achieve this even with my wife, with whom I am most intimate, how much harder would it be to do so with a stranger whom I know next to nothing about, and who only remains in my significant thoughts due to a photograph taken from a distance?


2 thoughts on “Gray Areas — A Black and White Perspective on Laos

  1. Superb, sensitive portrayal of your observations during your brief intermittent trips to Laos during the eleven years we were working there. The beautiful pictures are very striking reminders of my own travels in rural Laos

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fabulous collection of work Aloke.
    Makes me miss being there even more.
    Can’t look at Savannakhet without thinking of you wonderful dad.


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