Growing Up in the Mekong (2004) / Vannaphone Sitthirath

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With the Laotian government maintaining a tight control on the nascent art scene and the foreign NGOs continuing to farm out assignments to white photographers, it comes as no surprise that there are few local photographers working in Laos today. Some of the older photographers have actually documented the changes that have come to this landlocked country in the last few years but for fear of reprisal, they have declined to show their works.

As a young Laotian, Vannaphone Sitthirath seems more forthcoming in exposing her work. Sitthirath is a full-time TV producer who takes photos occasionally. In 2004, as part of a commission, she made the photo-essay “Growing Up in the Mekong” (2004), which follows the lives of Laotian and Cambodian children living in Vientiane, Phnom Penh and the towns bordering Thailand, which is often seen as the land of opportunities. Almost all of these children are victims of exploitation or drug abuse. Some sell their blood to stay alive; others end up in Bangkok as prostitutes or beggars. The simplicity in her photographic approach serves to highlight the broader issues of child trafficking and inequitable development across borders.

The work can also be seen as Sitthirath’s personal work. To depict the children’s lives, the photographer has drawn on the memories of her childhood in Vientiane. While life was also a struggle then, she had more space to play and there were fewer cars on the streets. More importantly, there were no child beggars or street kids.

“Today, our GDP is higher, and yet, we have more child beggars and children with no access to education,” says the young Laotian. “What has happened?”

[The smell of rubbish literally leads to the huge rubbish dump, Stung Meanchey in Phnom Penh. Many people, including children, eat, work and sleep amid the mud and flies. The boy in the picture looks for discarded cardboard, bottles and steel he can sell to buy some food. / From “Growing Up in the Mekong” / Courtesy of Vannaphone Sitthirath]

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