I enjoy making photos of women working in the rice fields of Thailand. That is obvious when one looks at the thousands of images I have made in the last 10 years. The story I tell is easy for me to document with a camera, and difficult at the same time. The easy parts are telling the stories of hard working older women rice farmers in a larger overview. The fact that they are hard working is obvious in my photos. I have a good relationship with the women I photograph, and can get close and personal. This relationship took a couple of years to fully develop. At first the women needed to know I was not going to show them in a negative light. After I showed some prints to the women, they became comfortable, and let their hair down, so to speak. Like most of us, the women are proud of what they do, and it was ok for me to show the world just how hard they work. There were times at the beginning that some of the women were uncomfortable with me and my camera being so close in the fields, but some of the women quickly told the others that it was ok, I would make them look “Swai” – beautiful, so I was accepted.
The difficult part in this documentary work for me is showing the finer details with imagery. One such detail is the heat. Thailand is hot. The cool times in Thailand are hotter than the summer months where I grew up in Colorado, U.S.A.. Typically to photograph people in the hot sun to show how hot it is, a photographer can use details like sweat and clothing worn to give the viewer a sense of the heat. Not so easy in the rice fields, it takes time and patience. The workers wear protective clothing. It is typical for a woman working in the fields to wear rubber boots, long skirts or pants, a long sleeve shirt and / or coat, gloves, face protection, and a large hat. It is difficult to get an angle to photograph faces, let alone show sweat. During my first few years photographing in the fields, I thought the clothing was just a cultural thing, which in part, it is, but is is also just plain practical, although very hot to wear. The cultural aspect of covering every inch of flesh is to help keep the skin light. Light skin is considered beautiful in Thailand, and Thais naturally tan very dark when exposed to the sun. This is one reason why you see so many sun umbrellas used in Thailand. The second part of wearing protective clothing is for protection. The intense sun is a killer. I have learned to never leave the house without a hat. Working or photographing without protection is exhausting, the sun takes its toll rapidly. Next, working in vegetation can be nasty. I have come home from the fields with countless rashes and itchy skin from brushing up against a not so friendly plant. The fields are usually muddy by design, so boots, especially rubber boots are a standard, for comfort and health. Also, ants are very prevalent in Thailand, and fire ants “Mot Dang”, will eat you alive if your not protected. Work gloves are used for all the obvious reasons.
So now imagine being all geared up from head to toe, and working 8 to 10 hours in 90° heat. If you can work like that, congratulations, I can’t. It’s easy to assume that Thais are used to the heat and it doesn’t bother them. Wrong. The word for hot is “Lon” and Thais typically don’t complain, so when the women say to me “Lon, Lon” in the fields, you can bet your sweet bippy it’s damn hot and uncomfortable out there.
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