While walking around the streets of Vientiane on our arrival in Laos one image was going to be framed as the ideal synthesis of our 4 week trip around the country: The Vientiane Sleeper: under an idillic Disney-like backdrop of the Mekong river with colourful flowers, fertile plants and a prominent caricature of the native Giant Catfish, there lied a man, barefoot, asleep.
What we were to discover while crossing over 2,000 Km of mountains and valleys was that that surreal and pleasant image was only the façade of one of the most complex problems affecting the country today: the exploitation of the Mekong river hydroelectric resources by neighbouring countries and its severe environmental consequences: like the endangerment of species including the Giant Catfish, as well as the displacement of entire communities into newly built resettlement areas.
We decided to approach the subject objectively, and to engage with the communities around the basin in order to document a glimpse of their lives before and after the displacement.
Photographically, the aim was to portray the relation between people and their environment, hoping to achieve some revelation of the juxtapositions produced by the new resettlement program. Everything was shot on a 35mm lens. This was in some ways an ethical statement we imposed on ourselves for two reasons: to allow the viewer to define the aspects represented in each photograph in his/her own terms – avoiding to forcefully direct the attention to individual details; secondly and most importantly to make sure that each and every photo was the result of an exchange with our subjects: to be close enough to communicate with them.
Rice harvesting, fishing, farming and basic manufactures are a trademark of the Mekong basin where over 60 million people today live and rely on the river system for their food and livelihoods.
Some reports have determined that “Laos currently has the most planned dams along the lower Mekong and the Lao government regularly promotes its vision of becoming the ‘battery of Southeast Asia’” (Sarinda Singh, The University of Queensland)
Dams are currently the major source of impact on food availability and livelihoods.
One of the most dramatic consequences of Hydroelectric development is the displacement of large numbers of people in newly built resettlement areas where communities are left without being provided with the basic means for continuing to support their lives, such as access to fertile land and rivers.
In an interview published on the article ‘Hydropower induced displacement and resettlement in Lao PDR’ by Claudio Delang we read: ‘Yes. Living here [in the resettlement site] is comfortable in terms of having roads, a clinic, a school, access to the market, but we don’t have the most important thing: land. So we now have access to the market, but we can’t sell anything. Because we can’t grow our own food like we used to, we have to buy food. But because we can’t grow enough coffee to sell [profitably], we can’t buy food either.’ [SOUTH EAST ASIA RESEARCH · 08.2011]
Giovanni is an Italian cinematographer and artist based in Melbourne, Australia. He has been working in the past years on several experimental, commercial, long and short form drama projects around Europe, Australia, Africa, New Zealand, Asia.
In collaboration with his partner and producer Elisa Pascarel they have started a series of photographic researches to portray and define the concept of ‘human condition’.
Elisa and Giovanni are currently developing new photographic essays to be developed in Africa.