While many people I know have been to South East Asia at some point in their life, their primary focus is often to chow down on street food, drink cheap beer, rent scooters, lay on the beach and make it to a “full moon party” or coast down the river. At least that’s what I did.
Local photographer Christopher Edmonstone may have experienced the aforementioned activities, though it seems that his intentions were to soak in the culture through the lens of his camera.
I sat down with Christopher over a beer (or two) and skimmed through photos from his trip, listening intently to his travel stories, while in the back of my mind comparing them to my own. I wish I brought a camera with me, alas, I didn’t have the gear that I do now and even if I did I would be paranoid that I would have it stolen. By taking that risk, Christopher was able to capture some incredible moments while gallivanting across Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the UAE. For four months he woke up early and stayed up late, exploring places that the average tourist doesn’t explore.
He is now showcasing (and selling) those photos at the PHOTOHAUS Gallery in Mount Pleasant.
Q: So tell me about GRIT, what does it mean?
I had never been to South East Asia before and I was keen to observe traditional ways of life, particularly activities that have been performed largely as they have for many years. Capturing the local peoples engagement with the land became a running theme in my work, but it wasn’t until I returned and started assembling potential photos for the exhibit that I was confronted with what became the definition of GRIT.
I was helped by my friend and art consultant Pennylane Shen who specializes in helping artists see things in their work that might not be readily evident because they can be too close to them. ‘GRIT’ was born out of this collaborative observation that not only do the people depicted embody ‘grit’ through enduring the demands of their environment, occupation or faith, but the cultural landscape including the inanimate objects are also subjected to the same harshness of climate and human use. From the salt workers toiling in the flooded ponds of Southern Cambodia, to the terraced rice fields of Sapa, Vietnam, the “labour” or its fruits are shown in a timeless way.
Q: I notice a number of the images involve water and boats. Why is that?
I have always lived near large bodies of water and rivers so I feel that I have a natural attraction to them.
Furthermore, my Grandfather was a commercial fisherman on the Great Lakes; it was tough and dangerous job so I have an appreciation for the occupation. Aesthetically the fishing boats are extremely weathered and worn, but the vibrant colours of the vessels give them amazing character. I loved being down on the shore at dawn watching the boats come in with fishermen sorting the catch on the deck to be sold to the gathering vendors; it was a truly timeless scene. Being a fly fisherman myself, I can relate to the feeling of a successful catch and love seeing the fish, prawns and crabs.
I was fortunate to come across a gentleman using a large hand thrown net, fishing in a small creek running through the rice fields. I stayed with him and his son watching for half an hour and in that time he had only a few small fish to show for his efforts. One of the photos taken during that time later became used by the Capture Photography Festival – Lamar Transit ads. It was quite an honour to be included with the small group of photographers whose work was also used in the campaign. Along with three other photos included in GRIT they were collectively awarded ‘The People’s Choice’ of the Capture Photography Festival by the Georgia Straight; I am thrilled they were so well-received.
Q: Tell me more about the monks.
I learned a lot about the different cultures on my travels and I was amazed by the ‘Morning Alms’ ritual by buddhist monks. Every morning, just after sunrise, they would walk in a procession through the streets of Luang Prabang in Laos, which are lined by local people who place a spoonful of sticky rice in the monks’ bowls. The monks are completely reliant on this food collected in the morning to sustain themselves; it is a beautiful thing to watch. While I yearned to capture images, I took great care to respect the ceremony by staying out of the way. This was something that I noticed that didn’t always happen with some of the other observers.
Many of the temples are hundreds of years old, and in some cases over a thousand years old, yet they endure and reflect the ravages of time, ultimately showing GRIT.
Q: What was the worst thing that happened to you on your journey?
Before I left, I was naturally a little worried carrying so much expensive camera gear, but I was really security-conscious with my belongings. Unfortunately, two small mistakes cost me a brand new MacBook Pro. I had just gotten off a bus ride from Can Tho, Vietnam in the Mekong Delta to what was supposed to be downtown Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) but the drop off point was about 20 k out of town. I shared a cab with an American woman I met on the bus and despite reading in the Lonely Planet explicitly to only use one of the two reputable taxi companies, we negotiated a price with a driver in an unmarked cab. Mistake number one. Mistake number two was not having the address of the hotel written down on paper or on my phone so I had to show the driver the address on my laptop. Mistake number three was not fully locking my bag after putting in the trunk of the taxi, assuming it was safe once it was in the car. The driver then changed the route so that the woman would get out first giving him access to my bag while getting her backpack out. It took less than ten seconds for him to open my bag, stash the computer and close the trunk before taking me to my destination. Upon arriving at my hotel the driver hurriedly dumped my bag on the ground and demanded money. As I handed it to him I turned my backpack around and noticed the lock hanging down. I yelled for him to stop but he jumped back in the car and started to take off. I couldn’t pursue him until I threw my bags twenty feet into the lobby of the hotel yelling that the taxi driver just robbed me. Despite my best efforts, a foot chase against a car wasn’t winnable. I was in shock and I was livid, particularly knowing that such a momentary lapse of security would end this way. Ironically it was two doors down from the police station, but I wasn’t surprised that they were of no help….
Thankfully, I had redundant, ruggedized backup hard drives in separate bags, otherwise the loss would have been devastating, given that a good number of the photos in show where captured prior to the incident.
Q: What where you travel to next?
There is so much to see in the world! Our dollar tends to go further in Asia which certainly helps. I would definitely like to go back to Myanmar, which is changing rapidly, but still has a “time capsule” quality to it. The government oppression of the people is relaxing but by no means are things great for the people there. In fact, there are large portions of the country where you aren’t allowed to travel to. Nepal and India would be fantastic as well. When it comes down to it though, I look forward to whatever new adventure develops.
Christopher Edmonstone will be attending the final evening viewing of ‘GRIT Scenes of South East Asia’ at PHOTOHAUS Gallery (14 West 7th Ave, Vancouver) this Thursday, Feb 6th from 7 -10pm. Go say “hello”, and hear the stories behind all of the photos. For up to date information and more amazing photos, follow Christopher on Twitter at @EdmonstonePhoto.