2nd Luang Prabang International Image Biennial (8 – 28 Feb 2010)

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Credit to Olivier Planchon, deputy director of the French Language Center of Vientiane, for putting together the second edition of Luang Prabang International Image Biennial (8 to 28 Feb 2010) in a city where the infrastructure for doing such an extensive photographic event is not yet ready.

Amongst the highlights of my trip, it is good to finally meet Wu Qi (吴旗), invited guest of the festival and photographer of the mysterious cityscapes of China in the shelter of darkness. Despite her gruelling schedule, artistic director Francoise Huguier remains as attuned as before, even at the end of the opening week, to hear what I have to say about the development of photography in Southeast Asia since the 1990s. Part of that research has been presented to the students of the Souphannouvong University in conjunction with the photo festival.

Away from photography, it is difficult not to notice the changes to Luang Prabang on my third trip to the royal capital. And the impression one gets is that the preservation of this ancient city by UNESCO for the tourists is almost complete. In general, I’m not against development. However, when an older way-of-life is threatened in the name of heritage preservation, the irony is hard to ignore.

Sichuan-born Tang Mi (唐蜜) has been based in Vientiane as a language teacher for several years. Her husband Philippe Coste, a serious photographer himself, has also been working as a nurse in the Lao capital for a decade now and remains well connected to the local intellectuals and the expat community.

According to Tang, the rise of land prices in Luang Prabang has forced many of its residents to move out of the historical quarter, which has been turned into a cluster of posh guesthouses and Internet cafes. With the decline in residents, monks and novices from the monasteries have found it increasingly difficult to collect alms. In the teachings of Buddha, when there is no more rice to be collected from the community, it is permissible for the monks to move elsewhere. In fact, this has already happened, with several of the senior monks choosing to move away from this Mekong town, which was once known as the religious capital of Laos.

Wu Qi begs to differ, arguing that many of the residents are more than happy to move out of their old, shabby houses into new apartments. However, he fails to see that the situation in Laos is entirely different from that of Beijing. There are no shiny, high-rise apartments waiting for these residents from Luang Prabang.

[2006.6.1 22:10 Zhengzhou / From “The Day does not Know the Dark of the Night” / Courtesy of Wu Qi]

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