Staying Flexible

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A Buddhist monk watches a fire burn in the jungle near his temple. The fire started on a nearby farm when a farmer practicing "slash and burn" agriculture tried to burn out weeds in his fields.
A Buddhist monk watches a fire burn in the jungle near his temple in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai province. The fire started on a nearby farm when a farmer practicing “slash and burn” agriculture tried to burn out weeds in his fields.

This is not about yoga. It’s about photography, but flexibility in photography is almost as important as flexibility in yoga.

I went to Chiang Rai province to photograph a drought that the newspapers in Bangkok have been reporting on. The Bangkok media has been obsessed with the drought, reporting weekly about dropping water levels, the lack of rain and the potential for calamity.

I did my research and based on what I read in the Bangkok media, the situation up north was pretty bad. I felt comfortable pitching a drought story to editors. Except that sometimes a drought isn’t a drought. It’s just the dry season.

For reasons I don’t understand, whether it’s bad journalism in Bangkok or somebody hyping the situation in the north, I couldn’t find a drought. I did find a lot of dry fields but then we get back to the whole dry season thing.

None of the farmers I talked to, and I talked to a lot of farmers, said this year’s dry season is any worse than any other year’s dry season.

One of the challenges of photographing a drought in Thailand is that “drought” is a relative term. The dictionary definition, “A long period of abnormally low rainfall, especially one that adversely affects growing or living conditions” has a fair amount of wiggle room. If you’re in an arid place, like the American Great Plains or Australian Outback, a drought can mean cows dying in the pastures and the earth cracked and hardened like cement.

If you’re in a place like Thailand, which gets lots of rain, a drought doesn’t look that different from normal, there is just less water. That’s the situation I ran into in Chiang Rai. It’s dry, but it didn’t seem much drier than normal. The farmers I talked to told me over and over again that so far it’s been a normal dry season.

About midway through my time in Chiang Rai, I realized there wasn’t a drought story for me to work on. I looked at the pictures I had made, went through my notes and realized I had the basis for two other stories I could work on.

Crewmen on a Lao freighter hauling Chinese goods down the Mekong have lunch of green mangos and chili sauce on their boat.
Crewmen on a Lao freighter hauling Chinese goods down the Mekong have lunch of green mangos and chili sauce on their boat.

One a story about China’s influence in northern Thailand, which is a huge part of the economy of northern Thailand, and a second story about families that still make rattan mats the old way, by growing the reeds and then weaving the mats themselves.

It’s important when you’re working on a story, like I was on the drought story, to take time to review what you’re doing every day. If you’re working on a story, and it’s not coming together, you need to be flexible enough to recognize that and be willing to make a change.

A worker in spreads reeds to dry in a village that makes traditional Thai mats by hand.
A worker in spreads reeds to dry in a village that makes traditional Thai mats by hand.