I’ve visited Southeast Asia twice over the past few years, and among my favorite places are the mountainous regions of the north that are inhabited by various different ethnic minority groups. These people live in the northern parts of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam as well as southwestern China and are normally referred to as ‘hill tribes’ (or ‘Montagnards,’ as the French called them).
These hill tribes have their own cultures, customs and unique manner of dress. In a world where global culture is causing everybody to dress and look the same, it really is a marvel to see people who try to hold on to something that is unique to themselves. (Well, the women do, anyway, as the men generally dress like the rest of us.)
The photos I’m posting here are of people in two different ethnic groups known as the Hmong. I photographed them last year in Vietnam. (The Hmong, as some people may know, actually sided with the CIA during the Vietnam War and were persecuted by the communist government afterwards.) The women in the dark blue clothing (top) are known as the Black Hmong, while those in the more elaborate and colorful outfits (bottom) are the Flower Hmong.
As you can also see, I’m posting photos in both black & white (from my medium format film camera) and color (from my pocket digital camera). I’ve had a discussion several times over the past few years concerning which is a better mode for photographing people – in B&W or in color. Obviously, as seen here (especially with the Flower Hmong), the color images capture something about these people that monochromatic images simply cannot do.
Yet, as I look at these photos, it’s the B&W images that have a greater impact and stay with me longer. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent more time working on the B&W photos than the color ones. Perhaps it’s because the B&W were made with my big camera and were more carefully composed, as opposed the color digital photos, which are essentially snapshots.
Still, I think there is something beyond that. I once read that someone said, “When you photograph people in color, you’re photographing their clothes, but when you photograph them in black & white, you’re photographing their souls.” Whoever it was who said that, I think he/she had a point. While I’m glad I made these color photos, they seem better at conveying fashion rather than feeling. The monochrome image, without the color to grab at our attention, seems better suited at getting to someone on a deeper, more personal level.