“Be careful, this is a touchy subject back here in the States,” photographer Peter Mclaren warned when I asked if he had political motivations for his slideshow titled “Faces in Time, North Vietnam,” a study of the Hmong ethnic tribes long ago displaced from China. “We used [these people] as machine gun fodder.”
Beyond directing me to research the “Secret War,” where we were “observers,” a term coined by the CIA during the Laotian Civil War (during the Vietnam War era) according to McLaren, he is careful not to inject his private thoughts into his work – thoughts of the war, or the current state of the region. Perhaps McLaren was reluctant to provide me with his political beliefs because he considers himself a journalistic photographer, an artist who attempts to remain neutral while providing just the facts, everything as it is. He would only offer that the region is “extremely beautiful, [with] rugged mountain valleys.” This much is plainly seen in his pictures, though there is more. McLaren’s photography is striking in its ability to capture depth of emotion from the most subtle cues.
In “Faces in Time,” we see the isolated people of a remote region and their simpler way of life. McLaren said he has never seen a Hmong who has had his teeth whitened, or owned a pair of $100 Nikes. They are a forgiving people who “will embrace you, and invite you into their homes.” Even members of a foreign culture can share a glimpse into their lives – their character and struggles – through McLaren’s trained eye. McLaren gives us not just understanding, but empathy. Though the Hmong people’s culture is vastly different from our own, in McLaren’s pictures we recognize humanity.
McLaren’s interest in the Hmong was sparked on a previous photo expedition to Northern Thailand, where they have also settled. He was attracted to “the lines on their faces, due, in part, to the long, hard struggle of daily life.” According to McLaren, the Hmong region of North Vietnam is quite remote, and just 20 or so miles from the Chinese border. Getting there required an overnight train from Hanoi, waterway and jeep travel to Sa Pa, and finally a “pleasant but tiring day’s hike to mingle with the villagers.” McLaren admits that he could not help thinking about the war while on location. “This is North Vietnam – tunnel rats – it’s all around you!” One can only imagine what the villagers’ take on the rare visitor is, though McLaren explains their understanding of the outside world: “Just like the rest of us. CNN World News via satellite TV.”
McLaren does not believe all cameras are created equal: “I use nothing but the best…Canon.” He uses full-frame digital camera bodies, and a range of lenses: 16mm wide angle for scenic work, 100mm for headshots, and his preferred lens, a long-range 400mm which allows him to capture subjects behaving naturally. Before making the leap to digital, he waited for Canon to develop their full-frame digital body, so he could mimic 35mm film as closely as possible. McLaren does use photo editing software, but sparingly. “I basically use it to accent a smile, or take out a bit of dirt that managed to get on my lens and into the frame.” He assured me he never uses it to “hide the truth.”
Though McLaren prefers to walk softly, carry a big lens, and shoot discreetly, his subjects are often aware of him. “If they are aware, I try to ask for permission. Most love to have their picture taken – except those for whom it is against their religious beliefs.” True to photojournalism ethics, McLaren does not compensate his subjects, unless he is on assignment shooting a model.
“As you are probably aware,” McLaren told me, “most things in life that we enjoy never quite manage to pay the bills.” But McLaren has found ways to do what he enjoys. He and his wife of 41 years have sailed the world on boats they built, “a fiberglass roller in one hand, and a bottle of Foster’s beer in the other,” upgrading to accommodate their family of four. Now they own and operate a bed and breakfast, complete with a restaurant and art gallery, on the Big Island of Hawaii. McLaren also takes guests along on his photo expeditions, including the one to the Hmong region of North Vietnam. When he can break away from business, McLaren enjoys being out in nature – sea kayaking and mountain climbing – and “taking long, deep breaths, every day.”
For the best viewing experience, press the click to play button (even if it says still loading), then wide screen and turn up the volume. The music is as beautiful as the faces.
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