Planet Hiker
2008-12-10 Village Photographer, Chaing Mai, Thailand


We arrived at the Karen hill tribe village by the late afternoon, having “trekked” for almost 2 hours. I did signed up for a 3 day trekking excursion, but by now it was clear that a leisurely walk in the forest is what they really meant at the tour agency. Thus, to make the best of the circumstances, I geared myself up for taking a few photographs of the locals. Not sure why it is that the city folk are typically numbly boring to look at, while nearly every villager’s face is a masterpiece of expression, just waiting to be exposed. The villagers here followed this rule to the tooth, especially since this was a proper mountain village, immersed in a life of raising chickens, pigs and water buffalos, along with cultivating rice on the hillside planes, and it seemed that the only thing that could dampen my high expectations were the intermittent clouds that blocked the direct sunlight needed for successful portraiture.

The village itself consisted of about 10 loosely put together shacks, which shared common design elements, such as being raised off of the ground sufficiently high enough for cattle to take shelter under, a usage of empty spaces instead of doors and windows, as well as a seamless integration with nature by having the sewage, generated by the “kitchen” section of the room, spill directly out on to the ground for the few lucky chickens to peak through.

We ourselves, 4 tourists, plus a guide, were just settling into one such a shack when I noticed a woman, wearing a bright colored dress and carrying a basket on her head, walking about 50 meters ahead, just by the river. Imagining a photograph of a woman crossing a river with a basket on her head, I hurriedly whipped out the camera, snapped on the 200 mm telephoto lens, and kneeled by a “window” in preparation for my shot. To my surprise, the woman stopped, put down her basket and apparently having noticed my camera, gave me a rather annoyed look. She hesitated for a minute while I fiddled with the camera, fired out another dirty look and then began taking off her clothes in preparation for bathing in the river. As it was, my presence was an intrusion in these people’s lives and taking pictures of them while bathing was likely to be “too much”. Naturally, there was not much else left for me to do but to put away the camera and hope for better luck next time.

With that, I went out and immediately ran into another colorfully dressed woman, with dark purple sorong, decorated with yellow and pink ornaments, smocking a huge hand made cigarette. In these areas the locals use palm tree leafs instead of paper for wrapping the tobacco. The cigarette in her mouth was actually shaped more like a pipe, with the tip of it being somewhat perpendicular to the main section and much larger in diameter. It also smelled quite pleasantly, but not at all like the tobacco that I am used to smelling at home when my dad smokes a pipe. The aroma was far more sweat and had a pleasantly soothing sensation.

Since the clouds were still going in and out unpredictably, I had to make sure to time this out right and not ask her too soon, while there is no direct sunlight. So I hang back, watching her out of the corner of my eye, pretending to be busy with something else, while the woman went about her household business of attending to the chickens and other curious animals.

I was getting a bit impatient by the time the clouds opened up. I hastily tried making eye contact with her in hopes of seeing her smile, then gently approaching and asking if it would be all right to take a picture. But she was not making any eye contact. As if knowing that the sun is out, she persisted in having her back towards me. After a few minutes of this stalemate, I made a move around the backyard, but just as I was approaching her, the clouds came on again, forcing me to swear off course and pretend like I was just investigating how the house was put together. By this time, of course, she was more that willing to face me and make the needed eye contact. “Not yet, not yet” I said to myself, picking a new position from which I could watch her.

Agonizingly, the time was passing by, with the sunset nearing, but the clouds were spoiling everything… I waited, periodically glancing at the watch and wandering how much more time tobacco there is left to burn. By rough estimates, it could not have been that much more when the sun came out again. Without further a due, I marched up to her and with a hungry look in my eyes asked “May I take a picture of you smocking?”, while gesturing at her cigarette. “It’s tobacco!” she said rather disturbed and with a defensive posture stepped away from me. It was clear that permission was not granted, through I had no idea what exactly went wrong… The woman fiddled around with the cigarette for a bit longer, glancing at me angrily, then walked off into the bathroom, which was situated across the yard. It was then that Paul, an Englishman in our group with manners and civility polished to such a degree that it made me look like a vulgar and beastly barbarian, approached and asked if I had signed the paper stating that I will not ask the locals about what they smoke. I did not remember signing anything of that sort, so he proceeded to explain that growing opium poppies was a major business for the locals in this area a few years back. Now, however, the authorities have forbade cultivation of the plant, which is why the villagers host tours through these places as a supplemental source of income. It became clear why the “tobacco” smelled so sweet and that pointing out her smocking had doomed my prospects of taking her photograph. Sure enough, when the woman came out of the bathroom, the cigarette was no longer in site. I had an urge to come up to her and explain that I am sorry for mentioning about her smocking; that I have no connection with the authorities; that I am sorry for the intrusion that she and her village people have to coupe with; that I just wanted to photograph her because she has a very interesting face and that the city people have boring faces, and also because her colorful dress stood out wonderfully, contrasting against the green background of the trees; that she is very beautiful, in her own way and many other reasons why I wanted to take her picture, hoping dearly that she does not mind. Fortunately, Paul sensed the catastrophic chain reaction that I was about to launch myself into and shut me up by telling me about his travel experiences in Portugal. So I just stood there breathing slowly until he found an excuse to leave and dragged me along with him.

The next day, after a bit more “trekking”, we reached another village, full of villagers. Their interesting faces had to be photographed and I was determined not to ask any question about their smocking habits. With that, I fully extended the legs of the tripod, mounted the camera on top, hoisted the whole contraption on my shoulder and went off wandering around the village. After half an hour of not having encounted a single welcoming face, I made my way to the outskirts, hoping that people there would not be as jaded by the never ending stream of tourists who want to photograph their interesting faces. Soon, when the path took me around the corner and up the hill, I was presented with an audience of 10 or 12 men and women, just sitting in a deep squatting position on the side of the path, gazing down the hill. There was no apparent reason why they were there, but that did not stop me from letting out a few giggles, walking up and squatting on the front row, and gazing down the hill with them. It was quite obvious that I was there to take their photos. I knew it, they knew it, we all knew it. But for now I had to point the camera away from them, with my hand nowhere near the shutter trigger.

So we just sat there, gazing down the hill, but on the occasion, when I would turn around, there were held smiles on some of the faces. Most people, however, pretended not to see me. After all, it was nice outside, they were just hanging out and why should they pay attention to yet another tourist?

With very little warning, a motorcyclist came from the back side. The folks closer to the path shuffled about to let him though, while I changed my position such that I can face the people more directly. Still pointing the lens down and away, I was now casually observing one person at a time, and also letting them observe me if they pleased. Pretty soon it became established that the atmosphere is not threatening. I could see that one of the women was combing another woman’s hair, there was an older man with deep wrinkles, smocking a handmade cigarette. Some of the other men seemed to hold a slow, unhurried conversation about something I could only guess about, and all in all, it was warm, the sun was making its leisurely walk towards the horizon and there was nothing to be alarmed about.

Maintaining the same mood, I slowly got up, stretched my back a little, made a few steps up the hill and paused, since there was nothing at all to hurry about. But finally, having met another tranquil face, I pointed at the camera and asked “Photo?” The person nodded in agreement. Upholding complete professionalism, I carefully and deliberately set up the tripod, picked a good stable spot, checked that all of the settings are correct and began photographing.

I first took a portrait of that one man with the tranquil face, then of other individuals who were now willing to face the camera. I then followed with group shots, directed people to stand closer or further away as I say fit, made adjustments to the camera position and experimented with different compositions, as now I was the village photographer. Soon more people came out of the houses and walked up for a photo. After all, its not often that a photographer stops at their village. There was even a grandmother, wearing a whole assortment of jewelry, who came out and strolled dignified to where the action was taking place. Of course, I immediately invited her to stand at a specific spot, but I only had a few seconds to make an individual portrait before a whole swarm of kids ran up and surrounded her for a group photo.

Many of the people after having poised would come around, probably expecting to see their photo displayed on a screen, as with digital cameras. Since mine is an old school SLR, I could only offer a mildly entertaining look though the view finder, while I rotated the zoom ring. That probably was not as satisfactory to the elders, but the kids loved it and had to make a line to get their turn.

This is just about the end of the story and I wish I could satisfy your curiosity by posting the actual photos taken. That, however, will not happen for another couple of months, as it takes a while to process slide film. But do follow up then, if you still remember.

PS. I made arrangements with the guide to expect a packet of photos in a few months, coming from United States. He promised to deliver it to the villagers.