In an age of unprecedented economic growth throughout Asia, the race for energy and materials has spread to some of the most remote regions of the continent. Laos, due to its lack of infrastructure and sparse rural population, has managed to preserve many of its natural resources. But energy is in high demand in neighboring countries like China and Thailand, incentivizing the government of Laos to allow foreign corporations to come in.
Hoping to document the collision between industrial modernity and traditional ways of life, Ethan Wely and his friend Robert Hahn set out to document the Nam Ou River in Northern Laos. The area was virtually roadless up until a few years ago and is the newest location for a series of seven dams to be constructed by China’s Sinhydro Corporation. The project promises to transform one of the country’s last undeveloped rivers into a giant road-accessible reservoir. However, the locals are a diverse mix of ethnic groups with limited access to the outside world who practice subsistence agriculture, relying heavily on the river for fish and transportation. Four villages will be relocated to the town of Muan Hat Hin nearly quadrupling its population overnight. Read more about the project in the Q&A with Ethan below.
How does this project fit into your photographic style? How did you get involved with this?
My friend Robert Hahn had been to the area years ago. The remote and beautiful Nam Ou river valley made an impression on him, and he vowed to return some day to float the river. Plans to develop the Nam Ou for hydropower precipitated those plans, and he recruited me as a photographer to document what would be the last descent of the free-flowing river. Along the way, we stayed with families, participated in ceremonies, and interviewed as many people as possible, choosing to focus our attention on the people whose lives would be most affected by the dams. When traveling and photographing cultures very different from my own, I believe proximity, intimacy, and awareness are crucial for the experience and the work to be meaningful. Our hosts on the river were also our characters and our collaborators.
Were there any challenges involved with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
Since several different languages are spoken on the river, we knew we would need an interpreter. We were also very concerned about the safety of anyone who agreed to work for us, as journalism in Laos is tightly controlled. Local fixers and foreign journalists have been imprisoned, or worse, in the past. So instead, we chose to arrange a guide through an adventure travel company and go as very curious boating tourists. Unfortunately, several days in to the trip our guide’s mother was hospitalized and we were without a translator for two weeks, conducting interviews (with written questions) in a language we did not understand. The interviews have since been transcribed with the help of a Lao man living in the U.S. that we knew we could trust. To protect our interviewees, we were advised not to have the interviews translated within Laos.
What was involved in planning/preproduction?
We sought logistical, legal and cultural advice from the few non-profits operating in the area. Very little information is publicly available for the upper Nam Ou and the dams being built there, so there was little we could do to prepare besides hiring an interpreter and traveling with them. We brought packrafts, extremely small and lightweight inflatable boats, in case the dams were already blocking the river and we had to hike our boats through the construction sites. Robert and I met before the trip and widdled down gear to the bare minimum, including a tarp shelter and foam pads (which doubled as our pack frames), two camera bodies and two lenses, small lavelier mic, shotgun mic, and audio recorder, minimal clothes. We packed a foldable and flexible solar panel to charge batteries, but soon discovered it was not necessary; all the villages had some electricity from small micro-hydropower installations they built themselves.
What has the reaction to the images been so far?
Although there have been nibbles from some large publications, the story has still not been published.
Any future plans for this project?
We continue to look for outlets for the story, as we feel we owe it to the river and to our hosts that their story be told. Many of the places we photographed are already underwater. We hope to return in five to ten years to interview the same people we spoke to in 2014. By then many will have been relocated to government-built resettlements. What will be the outcome of the dams for the people who stand to benefit the least and lose the most? Will their fears and hopes be confirmed? Will it work out the way those in power promised them?
Did you learn anything through the creation of this series?
We expected to find defiant locals expressing a deep attachment to the free-flowing river and their traditional ways of life. Instead, we found submissive locals deeply torn about the dams and the impacts they would have on their lives. Although we were originally inclined to interpret their anthropocentric, material concerns as anti-environmental, they form the basis of a grounded environmentalism in which human livelihoods are inseparable from the productivity of natural systems. Their intimate and concrete dependence on nature has required us to question our own cultural assumptions. We learned never to assume you know what others think and how they think. Despite our concerns about physical access (which turned out not to be an issue), we underestimated the barriers to people’s personal thoughts and opinions. While the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is gradually opening the country’s economy to private and international participation, it still favors absolutist political and social rule, tightly controlling dissent and imposing harsh sentences on those it perceives as a threat to itself and the social order.
To see more of Ethan’s work visit weltyphotography.com