In November 2006 I shoot my third desert-inspired calendar for Valeo using a purpose-built Sahara in a huge Parisian studio. Each shoot in the multicoloured series represents a month of the year. December was by far the most spectacular. A haute couture princess straight out of Arabian Nights, wearing a Dupré Santabarbara gown, riding astride a famous Mario Lurachi stallion. The guest of honour is my friend Luc Alphand, winner of that year’s Paris-Dakar Rally. After an exquisite buffet prepared by top chefs –tempting us with exotic tastes and French flavours– the celebrations go on until well into the early hours.
At six the next morning –I still haven’t slept– I set off on an arduous trek to the remote Miao Mountains of Southern China, and then on to the Golden Triangle between Thailand, Burma and Laos.
I had decided to go in search of more colours for my project: indigo, white and black. To do this I have to, at the insistence of the Musée de l’homme in Paris, finance the entire operation myself — planning, publicity, editing. A twinge of sadness though; in my contract I have to sign over the rights to the photographs shown in the exhibition. But I don’t hesitate an instant to convince my banker to give me a substantial advance on the work I just finished.
I’m off with my wife and video director, Lia, accompanying me and I have no doubt that everything will go smoothly. I have an intense determination to accomplish my goal. I am, however, somewhat apprehensive of the idea of trying to carrying 150 kilos of photo and video equipment past grouchy Chinese customs officials. We play happy, smiling tourists at the border and are quickly waved through.
Once in Canton, we take a domestic flight to the city of Guilin where our guide and his typical Chinese “car” awaits us. We travel for eight hours through storybook landscapes: green forests, limpid rivers and soaring cliffs, climbing ever-higher into the mountains. Jetlag overtakes me and I drift off and all this beautiful scenery goes to waste. From time to time I’m jarred awake by the bone-crunching ride and my driver’s kamikaze approach to road safety. A small wooden house next to the Danian River becomes our base.
Then we set off on foot through the mountain clouds to the stilt houses of the Miao. Families live on the upper floor, while the lower floor is used to keep pigs. Our Miao hosts wisely believe in using every fraction of available energy, and the pigs act as a heat source during chilly winter months.
We are met by a young woman in traditional dress with long brown hair. I explain to her, with the help of ethnographer, Françoise Fang, the motivations of my project and that I would like to take a series of photographs. The woman and her family had been expecting the arrival of two crazy foreigners from Paris and prepared a breakfast out of the duck we’d walked past a just a few minutes before. Judging by all the squawking it was doing, it must have had a premonition that it was going to shortly find itself on our plates and cut into pieces (half-raw unfortunately).
Afterwards, the women quietly set themselves to sewing. They are making the monochrome background I’ll use for the photoshoot out of bolts of fabric they found to match the colour of their clothes. I cannot thank them enough for this kind act.
While I prepare the “studio” with the help of my porters, assistants and Chinese friends, the young woman crowns her beauty with her most prised possession: a headdress made of silver. With her floor-length hair tucked into the headdress, she is the image of a blushing bride on her wedding night.
Two questions float through my mind. The first; how planes manage to fly. The other; how could people who’ve never met a photographer pose so naturally?
I set up my lights and her face glows with ethereal beauty. Indigo –the most intense colour of the spectrum– creates unimaginable plays on light that only show up later in enlargements. I follow her through my viewfinder, like an old fox, waiting for the moment her face becomes soft. I click away.
Slowly, she gets used to me. I manage to get a picture with her mother who, despite coquettish protestations, steps in front of the camera. The father approaches as well, intrigued, and has his picture taken too. I ask the parents to stand together arm in arm and they laugh when they see themselves on the computer screen in this unfamiliar gesture. I feel a moment of quiet joy for these people to have put their trust in me. Images recorded forever so that my children and my children’s children might have a record of this time of sweeping change in the History of Man.
With the help of our porters, who become our assistants, cooks, mountain guides, and most importantly, our friends, we move between villages from day to day. To reach some, the trip lasts nearly two days in cars and boats, on donkeys, and finally on foot when paths become too narrow.
The Yao have an unusual custom to welcome visitors; they have them soak naked in a huge pot filled with aromatic herbs, warmed by a wood fire. Mildly alarmed, I scan the pot for carrots or potatoes just to make sure I’m not the next item on the menu. As a misty pastel sunset spreads across the Miao Mountains, my fears are easily assuaged and I feel a warm happiness taking in the glorious view.
The people here have their picture taken with happy indifference. By letting us photograph them, they share a precious part of their culture with us.
I’m overwhelmed when we are greeted by the Liao/Dong people. Lined up in a row, the villager children sing a welcome song that touches me deeply. Even in such a remote place, some kinds of communication can pass very easily. The children escort us into the tiny village nestled in the mountain-top clouds. It’s clear that we are the talk of the town. In a small square, hundreds of children and teenagers begin to sing while the adults look down at the performance from the terraces above. There are so many people pressing in that I have to explain that they might damage my equipment.
I hear laughter, but also jeers. A young boy makes a bold move, ignoring his friends and posing proudly for me. It makes for a wonderful photo.
I feel like I’m living a unique moment. Knowing I won’t be able to hold onto this sensation in my mind forever, I decide to write everything down. I’d like never to forget this singular beauty. But how much time before this ink begins to fade? How long before the colour drains out of these photographs? I know no other way of halting the passage of time. Though we are always projecting ourselves into the hypotheses of the future, the secret of these ethnic minorities might be to live in the now.
Through my photographs I hope to convey love and pure happiness; to share these strong feelings with others. The Miao, Yao and Liao/Dong welcomed us with open hearts. I feel that they understood the importance of the project and wanted to be a part of it.
Full of colours, I leave China once again, my thoughts swirling Indigo and Black.
We arrive in Bangkok, Thailand’s steamy, sprawling capital. Thanks to this country’s more developed road network we are able to rent a car to get around. Our goal: the eastern border with Burma, home of the unbelievable Kayan and their famous long-necked women.
After a long and winding trip eastwards, I start to notice the “giraffe women,” the rather pejorative term by which they are sometimes known. The neck-stretching procedure obliges them to move with delicate grace. Countless aesthetic details work together to create a unique beauty. The whiteness of their clothing glows against the silver of their necklaces. From a very early age, young girls prepare themselves for their neck coils, wanting to be like their mothers. I see the girls studying in a tidy school, the picture of poise.
Conflict with the military regime in Burma resulted in brutal repression of the Kayan people. Fearing a government backed genocide, many Kayan chose exile across the border in Thailand, hoping to preserve their way of life. They live as refugees in crowded camps waiting for the day when they’ll be able to regain their homelands and their pride. On the other side of the border are a few surviving “long-eared women” and the last surviving “big-kneed woman”. I set off for a small village, far off the beaten track. I leave behind the Kayan camps where women smile boldly at tourists, in the hopes that the Kayan and their plight will be remembered once the traveller has returned home.
Under a burning sun, we set up our equipment and fashion a makeshift studio in a quiet spot. With a white sheet cancelling out harsh shadows, I set the lights on my subjects; magnificent, elegant women who could rouse jealousy from supermodels. One of them asks for my hand in marriage and promises to make me the happiest man in the village. Unfortunately, she’s the oldest woman there. I make the easy choice to stay with my beautiful wife.
I see a young girl with her mother and I ask them to pose for me. I learn that the grandmother is present too. I am honoured to be able to capture this image of three generations together who’ve resolutely decided to hold on to their traditions. It’s the most “editorial” picture of the project.
The dense green jungle of Thailand has protected many people who fled hostile regimes. In the mountains we find groups, from China and Burma, like the Black Lahu and some not-so-friendly Miao living in exile. Now they only wear the lower-half of their traditional dress, the upper-half give over, like so many other places in the world, to emblazoned American brand names. Wanting to press on in search of the last Pa Dongs/Padaungs, I cross over into Burma. I know it’s illegal, but I take the risk. On the other side of the river we come face to face with the Burmese army. They begin to threaten us and we very quickly realise the huge danger we’re in. We do and about-turn and acknowledge that sometimes you have to accept defeat.
I’ve collected the most brilliant palate of colours I’ve ever seen. I have proof there is a universal beauty existing in every individual face.