Young Kayan girl with neck rings

Return of the Rings

Please read our previous blog post, Meeting Malu, before you read this one as it is the beginning of the story.

School holidays had already begun and we waited a few weeks before heading up to Baan Thong Luang village. We had a busy week ahead of us booked, including a Mae Sa workshop, so we decided to visit the village early one morning without customers. As we arrived we had the normal friendly string of conversations with people as we walked amongst the traditionally constructed homes, making our way up to Malu’s house.

She was there on the porch with her father, brother and little sister, having just arrived home the night before. Her mother was away visiting family in Myanmar. We chatted together a while and gave them photos we’d taken of their family and friends when we’d visited their ancestral village in February. Of course by now they had heard we’d been there and it was fun to share with them of the wonderful experience we’d had. Malu’s dad casually mentioned they would be putting her neck rings back on soon and we were welcome to photograph and video the procedure.

Our timing again was wonderful. The previous occasion we’d seen Malu was the day she left to go to school in Mae Hong Son. If we’d visited a day or two before or after, or even arrived half an hour later, we would have missed seeing her. Now, here we were again to see her have the rings put back on.

I had assumed Malu would spend her summer holidays at Baan Thon Luang without the rings. I figured it would be too much hassle to put them on for a short time and that Malu was probably enjoying some freedom from them. It can be difficult to understand or know the ways of another culture at times, especially since, being a New Zealander, we have no deep historic culture of our own to relate it to.

Observing Malu as the old grandma carefully wrapped the coil around this little girl’s neck was an amazing expedience. Not so much because of what they were doing, but because of Malu’s total acceptance of the process being as normal as getting a hair cut. She stood there unflinching, even as a few times the old lady slipped a little and the end of the coil pressed into her neck. It took about 25 minutes. The whole time Malu stood quietly without so much as a single grimace. Once the rings were on, she reached up and behind to feel them and then cheerfully skipped back to her house to put her traditional head scarf on.

7 year old Kayan girl with traditional neck rings

In the west our customs have included many body altering discomforts, usually associated with vanity. Piercings and corsets being some of the older ones and now days with breast implants and all manner of painful plastic surgery and gender reassignment which are becoming more widely practiced, not to forget the wearing of balance and gravity defying stiletto heels! I’ve read and heard too much criticism and judgment of the ‘barbaric’ practices of other cultures, usually by Westerners who have a shallow experience of culture and perceive customs such as the wearing of neck rings to be oppressively enforced. I was thinking about these things as we watched Malu stand so patiently stand as the grandma skillfully adorned her. I was impressed at the lack of wriggling, total absence of any complaint or attitude and her comfortable acceptance as if it were just part of getting dressed for the day. Come to think of it, having her hair cut very short at school was most likely more difficult for her – her mother has never had her hair cut, as per their tradition.

Kayan long neck woman with her hair down

Malu’s mother, Masu, with her hair down.

Kayan lady preparing to put neck rings on a Kayan girl

Using a small tool to shape the rings.

Kayan girl waits to have her neck rings put on

Malu waiting.

Kayan woman puts neck rings on a 7 year old girl

Careful work.

Kayan girl with a tooth missing

Meeting Malu – Learning to Relate to Your Subjects

Kayan hill tribe mother and daughterMalu was by her mother’s side the first time we met her. We often saw her there. Malu lives with her parents and her little sister in Baan Thong Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her older brother attends a school in Mae Hong Song, up in the north near the Myanmar border. During our first visit to this village Malu befriended us and quickly discovered that our cameras were fun.

Malu’s family are Kayan people, speaking their own language and with their own culture and tradition. They are also known as the ‘Long Neck Tribe’. Originally from Myanmar they make their home in Thailand to work and because they have access to better health care and education than they have in their ancestral village. We were recently in Myanmar and met Malu’s grandfather at their family home, but that’s a whole other story.

Malu is six years old, but she doesn’t like being six, so she tells people she’s seven. She’s a spirited, bright, intelligent little girl who loves life. Malu is everybody’s friend in the village and when she’s not close to her mum, she’s off visiting and playing with the other girls in the village. Kayan long neck girl taking a photo with a dslrShe’s learning to weave. When Malu is sitting with her loom she does not like to be interrupted, she is totally focused. I have not often met six year old children with the ability or desire to concentrate on learning, unless they had a smart phone in their hands or were sitting in front of a computer game.

We’ve enjoyed teaching Malu a little photography. Our cameras are rather too large and cumbersome for her small hands, so we started taking along a smaller camera for her to use, which she was delighted with. The first place she chose to go to photograph with this camera was to the church. Her family are Christian as are a number of other families in the village and there’s a small church at the top of the hill. We gave her instruction on how to use the camera and how to compose her pictures. It’s a wonderful experience to teach a child who loves to learn.

For a number of months we’d not been up to the village and, as we arrived one day with customers on a photo workshop, Malu’s mother greeted us with the news that Malu had been asking after us and wondering why she had not seen us for so long. We’d bought with us some snacks, readers, pens and pencils and some make-up for the kids. The girls love to do their make up, a mix of traditional and western styles.

Kayan long neck girl has her makeup applied by her mother's hand.During the next few months we had quite a number of workshops that took us to the village, so we enjoyed time teaching photography there and building our relationships with the villagers. One day as I walked up the hill towards Malu’s home, I noticed something different. Pansa was already sitting there chatting with Malu’s mother and as I go closer I saw Malu from behind. She was wearing jeans and a tee shirt and her hair was down. I’d never seen her like this before as she is always wearing her traditional Kayan clothing and has her hair up in a scarf.

As she turned around to greet me I saw that she no longer had the rings around her neck. Her smile was somewhat subdued, so I joked with her a little, pretending for a second or two that I did not recognise her. We chatted a little and as I squatted down next to her I asked if I could take her photo today. Normally I wouldn’t ask. She has become so accustomed to being photographed and really enjoys it, but the feeling outside their home on this morning was not normal. She nodded a yes and I shot a few frames. I was using my Nikon D800 with my 35mm f1.4 lens, so to make her portrait I was fairly close to her.

I know this girl loves to see her picture, so I flipped the camera around to show her the images on the monitor. As she looked at them I realised she had not seen herself without the neck rings on. The story was unfolding. Her father had only just taken them off half an hour earlier. A couple of weeks later our customer posted the photo she had shot at this moment on Facebook, I had not known she’d captured the moment, so it was special to see it.

As Malu viewed the photos, she reached behind her head with one hand to pull back her hair. She was showing me her neck. This was my photo.

Portrait of a Kayan young girl wthout neck rings

Having some relationship with your subject affords opportunity at times that is just not possible otherwise. Malu trusts us, she likes the photos we make of her and her family. To teach how to achieve this kind of intimate photo is one of the most challenging aspects we face as we run our workshops. I find teaching composition similarly difficult as both these aspects of our craft are best expressed through your own intuition.

Sure, you can study the rules of composition and work hard to relate to your subjects as best you can, but at the right moment, when your connection with your subject has vitality and meaning, you must have an intuitive sense of how to compose the image and the decisive moment to make it. If you can connect strongly with your subjects and illustrate this in your photos, others will see that connection when they view your images and be drawn to what you have created. Connecting strongly with your subjects does not necessarily take a long time, occasionally it can happen in an instant, but I am cherishing building relationships and photographing many of the same people during our photo workshops here in Chiang Mai.

Malu’s neck rings were removed because she was going to join her brother in school … in Mae Hong Song. This is around six hours drive from her mum and dad and sister. The lack of normal, cheerful feeling that surrounds this family was becoming more evident the more the story unfolded. All the while dad is cuddling the younger daughter in the hammock and trying to comfort her has she screamed and cried. She had just fallen over and bumped her head. Malu’s mother was barely holding it together, as were Pansa and I! So we didn’t linger too long, gave them a small donation towards Malu’s education and continued on with our customer.

I’d often wondered what opportunities Malu would find in her life. There didn’t seem to be too much this little girl had before her, other than staying in the village and living a simple life. She is always hungry to learn. She is quick, witty and intelligent and I am sure she is making the most of her time in school. We are hoping to see her again when she returns to the village during school holidays and looking forward to the stories we are sure she will have to share with us.

Kevin + Pansa Landwer-Johan

Malu’s portrait of Pansa and I