Having survived one of the numerous terrorist attacks that continue to plague Iraq, photographer Lam Duc Hien decided around 2004 that he needed to get out of conflict zones.
“I was so tired, demoralized. When the Americans came in [to invade Iraq in 2003], I left. I came back six months later to view the situation, and it had deteriorated because now, there were terrorist attempts,” the French-Laotian photographer said.
“It was the first time in 13 years of [rescue and photo work]…that I said, ‘I must stop. I don’t want to see war anymore.’”
This is when Lam decided to travel up the Mekong River. The project would become a three-month trip from the Vietnam delta to the frozen plateaus of Tibet.
Along the way, he met and photographed people, recalling his life before moving to France. A 14-year-old Cambodian rubber plantation worker named Ponh reminded him that he too had worked since the age of 10; his grandmother in Laos became a reminder of the many who died during the communist takeover in 1975; and Hanh, a Khmer woman in the delta, sparked memories of the near starvation endured in the Thai refugee camp his family fled to in 1977.
His journey became a documentary film entitled “Le Mekong et le photographe” that was shown on the opening night of the French Cultural Center’s Cinemekong film festival Saturday. It also became a book, “Le Mekong,” released in French by Le Chene publishing last October.
As he traveled its course, Lam realized that the river held different meanings for people.
In Tibet, he said, “People were telling me of the Mekong as a sacred river—for me, it was a nourishing river…. In Laos, we call it the mother of rivers…like the mother who feeds.”
But in Tibet, where the Mekong may be nothing but ice, it no longer plays this role and, instead, takes on a spiritual connotation, Lam said.
Having climbed to altitudes of more than 5,000 meters in Tibet, Lam could not reach the river’s source due to early snows. However, he said, the frozen landscape “was total whiteness: It was beautiful.”
Lam believes he was born in Laos in January 1964—although his French papers list his date of birth as 20 June 1966—from a Vietnamese father and a Laotian mother.
During his fine arts university studies and afterward, he worked for the French NGO Equilibre, which provided emergency assistance to people in conflict areas.
He was sent to the Turkish border when Iraqi Kurds fled Iraq in 1991, to Bosnia around 1992, and to Chechnya in the early 1990s, taking photos in the process.
He has photographed and published books on the suffering of children in conflict zones, and he now photographs violence done to women for the NGO Medecins du Monde.
Cinemekong continues through Friday with daily events at the French Cultural Center, Wat Botum, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center and Meta House. Admission to all events is free.