Tessa Bunney spent years living in Laos in order to understand, capture and document this fascinating country. We spoke to her about her immersive project, it’s effect on her practice and living in the North East of England.
Tell us about your project.
The Corridor of Opportunity is a series of inter-connected landscape stories documenting the changing environment of Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It is located in several Northern Provinces, along the borders with China and Vietnam. Ranging from women-only UXO clearance teams to opium growing villages in the highlands and from the Chinese influence on agriculture in the border areas to villages along the Nam Ou river affected by a major hydropower project which is currently under construction, the project aims to unravel the complexities of the contemporary landscape in Lao PDR, a country dominated by its larger neighbours and the creeping in of Western influences.
Lao PDR is home to just over six million people and is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South East Asia with 49 officially recognised ethnic groups. For generations, the people of Lao PDR have practiced locally developed diverse forms of agriculture and fisheries. More than four out of every five people still live in rural areas and depend directly on the land for their livelihoods. For the most part, they have been sustained by the natural environment and have in turn largely sought to preserve it. But this is changing fast
Rural communities are being impelled to move from swidden to sedentary cultivation and farmers are being exhorted to produce for markets rather than for family consumption. Forests are being logged, rivers are being dammed, large tracts of land are being given over to largely foreign investors, and mining is on the rise. Many villages have been forcibly displaced or moved or have voluntarily relocated in search of better conditions. Proponents argue these movements and consolidations increase the access of rural populations to roads, health and education services. Others might argue that it is to keep an eye on their activities and to foster or impel their incorporation into the emerging market economy.
Whilst ethnic communities in developing countries have never been frozen in time as historical or ‘traditional’ icons, the cultural practices and traditions of these communities are currently undergoing massive changes.
I employ a long term art based practice to address some of the wider issues of landscape and the aftermath of war. This offers an alternative approach to conventional news journalism with its tendency to ‘parachute in’ on issues for a fast story. Instead, I adopt the growing practice of slow journalism, which advocates sustained relationships between photographer and subject, working closely with local people to enable more meaningful and complex stories about landscape and development to emerge. I have been based in Lao PDR since July 2012 and this has enabled me to discover and extensively explore the remote landscapes in the north of the country and to photograph a wide range of seasonal activities within the villages and landscape.
The landscape and ethnic cultures of Lao PDR, like those of many other small nations, are changing rapidly with influences from China and the West. This project serves as an exploration of a microcosm of the effects of globalisation in 21st century Asia. By exploring these issues through individuals stories, I hope that they will illuminate part of the wider picture.
What first attracted you to this specific project and how is it different from your other work?
In 2009, whilst working in south west China I met three Akha minority women who had walked several kilometres over the border from Laos to sell produce they had collected from the forest or grown at home. Beautiful and strange fruit and vegetables; dried bamboo shoots all laid out on banana leaves sold directly from the pavement of Mengban for the eager Chinese customers to buy. Dressed in their traditional costume, these women stayed in my mind and in February 2011 I decided to visit Laos for a short research visit and the situation I discovered was very different. I learned that Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world and my first story explored the landscape and in particular the ongoing effects of the Vietnam War on the people and environment of Laos through the lives of a women only UXO clearance team.
I moved to Laos in 2012 and spent a couple of years travelling by road and on foot around the mountains of Northern Laos documenting the lives of the ethnic minority women and set up a portable studio in the villages to photograph items collected from the forest and grown in their gardens and other household items. Eventually needing to cross the Nam Ou river I saw the beginning of the construction of a major hydropower dam. This was one of what I refer to as one of many ‘stand and stare’ moments in Laos when I realised that life along the river was about to change for ever. This chance sighting changed the trajectory of the whole project working along the river documenting daily life in the villages before, during and after relocation due to the dam project.
It was the first time have been able to live in the country I was working in, the main impact of this being I was able to dig more deeply and throw off the ‘rose-tinted spectacles’.
What is your favourite and least favourite aspect of this project?
Having the opportunity to live in Laos for 4 years was a great privilege and gave the opportunity to return to villages at different times of year and to follow seasonal processes like slash and burn agriculture and the various parts hemp production. Travelling was tough and living conditions rough, pushing a mini van through the mud, hiking uphill for hours carrying camera gear was hard work but kind of enjoyable at the same time, nothing worth doing is easy! There were days when the light was wrong and nothing inspired me and yet there were incredible strokes of luck and good timing, of coming across things I could never have predicted or hoped for. For me, time is the most important thing you can give a documentary project.
Whilst being able to follow the construction of a major hydropower dam from start to finish was an incredible experience but seeing the negative affects on the communities living along the river as they underwent the relocation process knowing that any amount of photographing and documenting would make no difference to the eventual outcome was not easy.
Are you planning any more immersive projects like ‘The Corridor of Opportunity’? Do you feel the experience of this project changed your approach to photography and art? If so how and why?
I would like to work on immersive projects overseas like this again in the future and always have a number of ideas but it is currently not possible as my son has just started secondary school in the UK. The experience has made me believe even more in that approach – at one point I thought that I would not undertake an overseas project just flying in and out again but having said that, I will aim to continue to work in Myanmar and visit other places for short trips because that is the only option open to me at the moment! The immersive approach takes you much more out of your comfort zone and means difficult or controversial issues cannot be ignored or glossed over so my work has become more overtly political in content even if the overall style has remained similar.
Any advice for other artists considering an immersive project like this?
I suppose the only advice I would give is the same for any personal project is that to do it if you believe it is important and you are obsessed by it because there will likely be no financial gain and you will be working alone for much of the time.
What is your connection to the North East of England?
I have been living in North Yorkshire since 1991.
What is it about the North East that attracts you?
I originally relocated to the North East for a job as staff photographer at the York Archaelogical Trust but only worked there for a short time and stayed here because I am inspired by the landscape and the people that work it. I love exploring the moors and dales especially on foot.
Have you studied photography or art? If so where and when?
I studied photography at West Surrey College of Art and Design, Farnham graduating in 1988 and then received an MA in Photography with distinction from De Montfort University, Leicester in 2004.
Where can people find you online?
Website : tessabunney.co.uk
Instagram : @tessabunney