Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hmong Images On Tile

This entry is a departure from my usual travel blog. Rather than a record of my own travels, it is a record a journey made by a segment of a hills people of Laos that ended up in the city where I live. They are people who I worked closely with as an English as a Second Language teacher and got to know well.

The tiles found in this post are representative of those that are part of a Vietnam War Memorial in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (USA). All of the tiles were created by local Hmong artists of varying ages. The tiles show traditional Hmong life in Southeast Asia and aspects of the war as well. It is an interesting representation for a couple of reasons. It is a departure from traditional Hmong art which consisted of geometric patterns rather than still life figures. Typical of the artistry was the fine needle point work called pan dau in Hmong. The other fact is that until the 1970’s (Present Era) the Hmong did not have a written language. Thus, artwork such as found in these tiles was a way of passing on cultural history to future generations of Hmong using an art form new to the refugee condition.

I became very interested in both the culture and the history of the Hmong. Much of the following background information was documented in the video “No More Mountains”, one that I showed to my classes while teaching the history of modern mainland Southeast Asia.

According to their oral tradition, the Hmong originated in a land where the sun never set for many months of the year. Over the centuries, the Hmong settled in China where most of them maintained their traditional culture rather than assimilate with the dominate culture of China. In the early 1800’s Present Era, China began a policy of forced cultural assimilation of the minority cultural groups living in China. In order to maintain their cultural identity, many of the Hmong migrated southward into the hills of Southeast Asia. Those who remained in China were referred to as “the Meo” (the barbarians) by the dominate Chinese because the Hmong had no written language.

The Hmong, for the most part, remained separate from other cultural groups in order to maintain their cultural identity. Lowland Southeast Asians were predominately Buddhist, while the Hmong were animist. Until the war in Southeast Asia that Americans refer to as the Vietnam War, the Hmong lived in the highlands and strongly resisted outside influence. This was changed during the Vietnam War.

The Hmong were recruited as part of a Secret Army by the American CIA. Their main task was to stop Vietnamese communist troops and supplies from traveling from North Vietnam to South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail that wound its way through Laos. When Americans were forced to withdraw, Laotian and Vietnamese communists targeted the Hmong who then fled across the Mekong River to Thailand where they lived in refugee camps such as the one in Ban Venai. Thousands of the former Hmong allies of the USA requested and were granted passage to the USA. The American government and many Americans felt that they owed this to the Hmong for the support that had been given during the Vietnam War. Today, there are more than 5,000 Hmong who call Sheboygan, Wisconsin their home.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

City Scenes of Sorts: France and Britain

As I mentioned in my last post, I find it difficult to find settings when I can unobtrusively photograph people in their natural settings. All of these photos were taken in urban areas.
The harpist is a busker (one who performs in public for donations) in Collioure, France. The falconer was part of the street scene in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The photo of the guardsman on horseback surrounded by students on a field trip was taken in London. The woman on her cell phone next to the advert is from Paris.

The first three were not difficult for me to take in that they focus on people who have chosen to "be public" through their own actions and dress. I was especially impressed by the presence of the French harpist for her musical skills, the atmosphere that she created, and the locale in which she chose to perform. The falconer was unusual, though the setting seemed a bit commercial to me. As for the mounted guardsman with his glittering uniform, school field trips never included sights like him in Augusta, Maine (USA) where I grew up. Lastly, I just couldn't resist the cell phone photo, it just caught the feeling of Paris (it was taken from the top deck of a tour bus).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spain/ the Ethics of a Photographer Who Travels

A couple of years ago, some friends of ours met up with us in Collioure, France (located in the Catalan region 50 k. from the Spanish border) and drove us through parts of northern Spain. We visited the Salvador Dali museum (closed on Mondays, unfortunately), drove through parts of the Pyrenees, visited small towns in the Val D’Aran and had an excellent time. I am very glad that I was able to do this leg of our trip, in spite of narrow winding roads with long drop offs and minimalist guard rails. The scenery was outstanding and the people hospitable. The photos in this post are from that side trip.

As you may have noticed as you view my blog entries, people are included in my urban photographs and are not as a rule included in my photographs of rural settings. I would like to explain the rationale for this; for it will help you better understand the type of amateur travel photographer that I am.

In part, it is simply my own comfort zone. While I may be a tourist, I go out of my way to not to appear to be one overtly. I would rather be unobtrusive, and experience an authentic setting with people going about with their daily lives than disrupt it by aggressively taking their photos. In an urban setting, such as Paris from a Batobus on the Seine or a street scene on the Champs-Elysees, you can include people in their natural settings while “focusing one landmark or another”. You can also do this at London’s Buckingham Palace with the changing of the guard or at a Celtic parade in Brittany. It is more difficult to do this casually in a rural setting without drawing attention to yourself and disrupting the natural flow of life. I, personally, would rather experience the setting and write about it later than take that photo.

The other reason for my photographic approach is one of personal ethics. When I visit another person’s country, I try to treat people with the same respect that I expect in my own home setting. It would be irritating to me to have a family event in a restaurant, park, or other public place and suddenly be accosted by someone from another country who felt the need to record the “quaint lives of Midwestern Americans”. The action would distract people from the event and perhaps disrupt it by making people feel either self conscious or uncomfortable.

My amateur travel photography comfort zone and my sense of ethics have had certain results. I have practically no spontaneous photographs of people for the three years that I lived and worked in East Africa and the one year that I lived in Morocco. In some ways I regret the fact, in other ways I write it off as karma. In recent years, I have gotten better in terms of unobtrusively including people in my urban photos. I still feel that in close rural settings the sudden appearance of a camera is an inhibitor to the kind of cross cultural experience that has brought me to that particular setting. In the end, at least to me, the actual experience has a higher priority to me than the visual record.

I would very much be interested in your reactions to my writings on photographic comfort zone and ethics either as one who has been photographed by an outsider or one who is a photographer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

La Rochelle in Gray

These gray images illustrate some of the reasons that I would really like to spend more time exploring La Rochelle. This port city on the Atlantic in western France was one of the last stops on a land trip that began in Lucca, Italy and would end in Paris. La Rochelle’s cooler gray Atlantic surroundings were in sharp contrast to the Mediterranean that had been experienced in southern France’s Catalan region. I was reminded of growing up in Maine, not a bad set of memories. Unlike my birthplace, I found centuries-old winding streets lined, with stone houses and gargoyle-studded battlements. (I have this obsession with gargoyles and myriads of photos of them from my various travels.) Along the harbor stands a metal sculpture of a globe that left a lasting impression in my mind. As I stood next to the globe looking out at the Atlantic, I was reminded of the continents that became once more connected during the historical period that those of European descent call the Age of Discovery. It was truly a powerful experience.

There is another reason for my attraction to La Rochelle, one that is a “happenstance” and perhaps more compelling to me. For years I have looked for a recording of a song by Peter, Paul, and Mary (American folk singers of the 1960’s) that meant a lot to me during my protest years of the Vietnam War. The song, sung in French by Peter Yarrow, was titled “Le Deserteur” (The Pacifist). As we were walking down the narrow street in La Rochelle seen in this set of photos, two construction workers were leaving a building and suddenly broke into “Messieurs qu’on nomme grand, Je vous fais une letter…”(Men whose names are great, I am writing you a letter…) which are the opening lyrics to “Le Deserteur”. I don’t know in what context they sang this song in our direction (were they making assumptions?), but the situation just blew me away. My only regret is that I was taken so off guard that I didn’t join them in the song. Perhaps it was just as well, I am shall we say, “less than a vocalist”. In any case, because of this association more than any others, some day I’ll return to La Rochelle.