To reach this Akha hill tribe village from my base in the small Laotian town of Luang Nam Tha, I first had to take a 2-hour local minibus equipped with four rows of twelve seats into which were crammed twenty-one people. Luckily there were no chickens or pigs or fresh fish aromas on this trip. Much of the fun during my trekking expeditions has been getting to the location.
I might add that the return trip a couple of days later was on a slightly bigger bus equipped with 18 somewhat minuscule seats and 32 vacuum-packed people plus five 50-kilo sacks of rice, four plastic chairs and three gigantic tourist backpacks—all shrink-wrapped into a nice tidy bundle inside the bus. My own camera and lighting backpacks were squished between me and the next seat. There was no space to rotate my ankles.
The roof rack on top of the bus had already been over-crammed with an unbalanced, top-heavy load, which left the vehicle leaning precariously to the left. But, now that we were all snuggly sandwiched together, the bus wouldn’t start. Lao bus drivers are ingenious. Ours promptly ripped some of the dangling wire from the makeshift overhead boom box blasters, then he stripped the ends bare with his teeth and began rewiring the starter—but to no avail. Two hours later he commandeered another bus-like contraption. We passengers proceeded to reprocess ourselves into yet another episode of claustrophobia.
I had timed my visit to this Akha village to coincide with their New Year’s celebration. My late arrival, however, meant I’d missed the ritual slaughtering of about fifty pigs. All I saw were a few village men sauntering back to their huts with pig bits in one hand and a clear plastic bag bulging with fresh pig blood in the other. I steered clear of the red-colored curry being served at lunch that day. But when the village chief reaches over to personally hand you a skewer of succulent meat, it would be of the highest insult to decline. This delicacy curiously resembled what appeared to be a very fat barbecued rodent on a stick.
I accepted the chief’s offering graciously but deep inside I clinched my gut, shut down my taste buds and challenged the cognizant aspects of my brain to go dormat. Later I mysteriously buried that tasty-looking morsel of rat muscle under a big helping of sticky rice and hoped no one would notice. Satay rat isn’t high on my list of culinary delights even though the village elders seemed to indicate with their upwardly lifted arm gestures that it would make me extremely virile. No thank you. I’d rather lean toward Viagral enhancement in old age.
The women in each Akha hill tribe wear different headdresses but they all like to use old coins and shiny metallic decorations. After another generation these images most likely won’t be possible. Today all the kids in this village wear Western-made clothes and the teenagers seem to scoff at traditional values.
In the lighting setup photo below my trekking guide held a Canon 580EX II plus a 430EX II that were shooting through a Westcott 43″ collapsible umbrella. I used two flash units for faster recycling time. Each was triggered using Pocket Wizard TT5 radios. Positioning the unbrella slightly forward from the subject created dramatic but soft shadowing that didn’t need fill lighting other than the ambient available light, which I set down two f/stops. My makeshift, handheld “boom arm” is in reality a Manfrotto 680B monopod that measures 19 inches long when collapsed and five feet long when extended. Each segment has a flip locking grip for quick extension. Its triangular cross section keeps the elbow connector, flash head and the chosen light modifier from rotating when the set screw is twisted tight. I simply removed the rubber foot at the tip of the monopod so that the shaft would fit into the stud opening of the mounting elbow. A TT5 radio transmitter nested with an AC3 zone controller was inserted into the camera’s hot shoe to trigger the two flash units. Underexposing the available light and “overpowering” it with external flash enabled me to add a bit of drama to what would have been a rather flat-lit scene.
In the final images at the top I used the strategies in my Photoshop 3-D Workflow Action to add more three-dimensional lighting enhancement by sculpting the shadows and highlights separately. I also used one of the layers in the action to quickly leach out some of the color for a slightly more desaturated look. Another generated layer added extra punch using High Pass filtration with a Soft Light blend mode, which added a subtle sheen to the facial highlights.
I might add that when I finally returned to my base in Luang Nam Tha, I discovered I’d left my laptop charging adapter two hours back down the road at my previous night’s guest house, which necessitated a return roundtrip bus ride fiasco the next morning. It was the same squished together scenario but this time the driver spent a half hour crisscrossing strips of cellophane tape on the rear bus window, which had overnight shattered into a million bits of broken glass that were somehow still clinging together but would—as soon as we hit the first bump in the road—threaten to shower any passengers who were sardine-packed at the back of the bus. Just in case, I managed to wedge myself sideways at the front of the bus between two Akha ladies and their children.
Akha kids are so cute.
(Shot on the fly using a LumiQuest LTp softbox with ambient exposure set at minus 2 stops.)
Click the photos below for info about some of the gear I used for images in this blog post.