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Ethnic life stories in pictures

In this photo by Tran Thi Huynh Mai of Soc Trang Province's Khmer ethnic group, Quang, 13, goes into the rice fields to look for rats which will be either sold or used for his family's meals. Whenever he catches a rat, he spins it by the tail to make it dizzy so it won't bite him.

Publication Date : 14-11-2012


Ho Thi Bui, a 24-year-old member of the Pa Ko ethnic group in the Vietnam's central province of Quang Tri, had never touched a camera before she joined a short training course as part of project to help ethnic people document their lives in photographs.

With the project's goal to capture the "best shots of her life", she headed through her days with camera and notebook in hand, even when she went to the fields. She shot any moments that she found interesting and then spoke with the people involved to write captions for the photographs.

Bui was among 64 people from nine ethnic groups around the country to participate in the Photovoice project, including the Mong Si and Dao of Yen Bai Province, the Black Mong and Red Dao in Lao Cai Province, Muong and Thai in Thanh Hoa, the Pa Ko and Van Kieu in Quang Tri, and the Khmer in Soc Trang. Participants were all equipped with cameras and the know-how to capture images of the lives and cultural features of their communities.

Bui herself eventually took around 100 photos reflecting the traditional culture and everyday customs of the Pa Ko.

Her deep love for her community and culture has enabled her to take beautiful and meaningful pictures, said Photovoice project manager Luong Minh Ngoc.

Bui's favourite image was of Ho Van Lo and his wife fetching rice from their family's rice shed in Dakrong District's Ta Rut Commune.

"In accordance with Pa Ko customs, the rice god prefers that only women enter the rice shed, or he will get angry and bring hunger to the offender's family," she said.

Yet Bui's image caught the husband inside the shed.

"The wife told me that she was having her period and so was not allowed to enter, and that she had asked the rice god for permission for her husband to go in," Bui recalled. "People from other cultures don't see anything unusual in this photo, but for the Pa Ko, it shows something unique, imprinted with our cultural identity."

The five-month Photovoice project, initiated last December by the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) under the auspices of CARE and Oxfarm Viet Nam, ends with an exhibition which opened in HCM City on Saturday.

The exhibits include the 143 most outstanding images chosen from over 70,000 photos taken between December and April of this year. Bui had 16 photos displayed and published in the project's album.
According to Mong tradition, this treatment is more effective than medicine. "The photos on display present a diversity of meanings," said iSEE director Le Quang Binh. "Viewers will understand that there's no such thing as high or low culture. Instead, cultures are beautiful exactly because of the diversity and differences they communicate."

Most of the participants had never used cameras before and were not only provided with the equipment but the knowledge to use it.

Photojournalist Hoai Linh taught photography classes, while anthropologists gave lectures on the value of ethnic culture and cultural diversity, helping increase the participants' sense of pride in their cultures and their awareness of cultural preservation.

The project also made it possible for young and old to engage in a dialogue to trace their communities' roots, Binh said.

The resulting photo exhibition not only showcases photos, but opens a cultural window through which viewers can experience real-life stories, he added.

"Viewers can also, at a certain point, realise that these cultures have produced real economic benefits for their communities. Above all, we hope that visitors to this exhibition will acknowledge that ethnic people are actively exploring their own cultures, working to express themselves, and taking responsibility for deciding how their traditions should be preserved and developed."

Sung A Cua, 27, of Yen Bai took photos reflecting the sad fact that the Mong people in Suoi Giang Commune are selling old tea trees as bonsai for buyers in the lowlands.

"Economic hardship has encouraged them to ply this trade," Cua said. "A centuries-old- tea tree can be sold for over VND10 million [US$500], much more than they can earn selling tea leaves in a year. If they were better off, they would keep these precious tea trees."

For most of the participants, a deeper appreciation of their cultural values emerged from the project.

Bui now sees her Pa Ko identity in a totally different light.

"Before taking part in Photovoice, I saw my culture as less beautiful and less unique," she said. "I saw grandmothers and mothers wearing heavy earrings and had no idea why they did it. When I saw other ethnic groups wearing silver or gold earrings, I thought my ethnic group was backward. Now I know more about my culture and feel proud because old women in the community still wear the traditional outfits."

The Photovoice exhibition will run until November 20 at Lam Son Park in HCM City's District 1. Early viewers will be presented with commemorative photo albums and calendars.   


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