Akha hill tribe women in northern Laos dress in faded shades of black cloth. Color exists only in their decorative accouterments. Old coins add a bit of glinting highlight to their costumes.
While I shot these images in color, I elected to remove the vibrant hues during my Photoshop endeavors for this presentation. We photographers possess such power . . . but perhaps it pales in comparison to that of the Akha.
Who are they?
My pursuit led me toward controlled compositions for the sake of isolating some semblance of their unique heritage in the brief moment of time I was in their presence. Images devoid of color tend to eliminate distracting details and can add power through simplicity and tone.
The Akha are a proud people. It’s thought they may have originated in Mongolia about 1500 years ago. Today most Akha hill tribes live in southern China or in northern Thailand or in two provinces of nearby northern Laos. Today their culture is on decline. Many Akha women don’t wear their traditional dress everyday and virtually no Akha men don traditional attire. Influence from the West arrived and males were the first to acquiesce. Today many Akha men clutch mobile phones. Fake leather jackets imported from nearby China are now the rage for Akha men. Perhaps they want to look hip.
In recent years the socialist Lao government has virtually eliminated the production of opium, which in the past had become the staple method of sustenance for many in the Akha economic landscape. Today they plant corn and, of course, rice.
I didn’t see any drug addicts. These days lao-lao seems to keep the men happy enough I discovered while having a meal with the village leader. It was a feast of numerous Akha delicacies that spiced up generous helpings of sticky rice. One bowl was filled with a tasty red sauce that would tempt just about anyone’s taste buds. I learned after downing a big helping that I had swallowed fresh pig blood curry. The village leader kept graciously filling our cups with lao-lao. Getting a bit tipsy at least minimized the trauma of having indulged in their pig blood culinary delight.
Akha hill tribes have developed interesting cultural mores. At age sixteen Akha lads are encouraged by their elders to build bamboo “love shacks” at the village periphery where they can freely court young ladies of mutual interest. It’s a sign of great fortune if the young girl gets pregnant prior to marriage, which always ensues shortly thereafter.
Not surprisingly, there are virtually no sex crimes in Akha societies.
After marriage, however, men and women don’t sleep in the same room together. But they do make conjugal visits to the other side of the partition whenever either has the whim. After babies finish their suckling, the boys sleep with their father and the girls with their mother. Naturally, this could make for awkward conjugal rendezvous in the middle of the night. No problem. The parents meet somewhere in the middle in the dark. Note, however, that the house spirits become extremely disturbed when the proper conjugal locale has been altered so the next morning those spirits must be appeased with the sacrifice of a chicken, which is later served as a family meal.
The Akha eat lots of chicken.
These two attractive young ladies each already had two or three kids in tow.
Akha women possess a rather regal presence yet most of them can’t read or write.
Their sublime, innocent eyes captured every aspect of me.
Wikipedia describes their culture: “The Akha put a particularly heavy emphasis on genealogy–they are taught their family history at a very early age and their culture has a strong focus on honoring ancestors and their parents, though they dispute that this represents a form of ancestor worship. A better description of the Akha religion would be animism. They believe in a world filled with spirits (both good and bad) that have a definite physical impact on their everyday lives. They believe in a natural cycle of balance that, if disrupted, can result in illness and hardship or even death.”
Why is it that many of us in the West have yet to discover such things?
I celebrate the Akha.
But all has not been rosy in their past. They consider having twins or triplets as an extreme imbalance that will beget much ill fortune. Until recently the village shaman and participating elders would terminate those children’s lives within twenty-four hours of birth. Such practice is now illegal and can bring lengthy prison sentences. However, these offspring are not tolerated in the village even today and NGOs from foreign countries quickly help find them foster homes and the parents must leave the village for a few months until they have cleansed themselves of impurity.
There is no written Akha language. Only Lao is taught to young Akha kids in Laotian schools these days and one day soon the world will say goodbye to their culture. I try not to pass judgment and I’m so appreciative I experienced their world while it still exists.
Much of the tonal manipulation you see in the images above was accomplished by using my Photoshop 3-D Action, which might lend itself to a bit of creative exaggeration.
Nevertheless, this story is true.
See these books to learn about the people of Laos and their culture.