Victoria Vorreiter with Tribeswomen
Photo supplied by author
in the Mountains, an exhibition of photographs, films, and
artifacts, offers an intimate look at the lives and ancestral practices
of the traditional peoples that inhabit the mountains running through
Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and China.
Gathered over many
years by Chiang Mai-based photographer, filmmaker, and researcher Victoria
Vorreiter, it is hoped that these collections demonstrate the timeless
beauty, integrity, and wisdom embodied by these age-old cultures.
What is your background such as education and travel?
am actually a musician. I was trained as a classical violinist and have
performed professionally in orchestras in Chicago, London, and Ohio.
I was also formerly a music instructor, with a specialty in the Suzuki
Method. Music has taken me around the world, giving presentations and
workshops. Now I document world music—it is all of a piece.
you get into the work you are doing now?
The fundamental premise of the Suzuki Method is that just as children
learn to speak their native tongue fluently from birth, so too can they
learn to play music by ear, if it is a natural part of their daily environment.
The idea that music can be absorbed by example and imitation, and then
passed on to others, of course, is the same principle as oral tradition,
as practiced by all pre-literate groups around the world. This realization
shifted my understanding of education in many ways. It also occurred
to me that when I played my violin or went to a concert to hear the
music of Bach, Mozart, or Brahms, these works, as celebrated and moving
as they are, have little resonance for me personally regarding my life
source or the beliefs of my “clan.” These reflections inspired
me to travel to remote corners of the world to witness and document
the ways in which everything that a people holds true—faith, identity,
life lessons, customs, history—are being passed down orally in
a living link from mother to daughter, father to son, and shaman to
a mentor or event that pulled you toward this cultural photography work
My journey in world music began while I was studying in Marrakesh
and traveling around Morocco in the late 1990’s. I became aware
of the extraordinary variety of musical sounds and styles that still
exist in such a small expanse, due to the fusion of so many distinct
ethnic groups. During this time I had the good fortune to visit several
times with Paul Bowles, the American composer and author, in his home
in Tangiers. Paul was a huge inspiration to me, as he was the first
person to travel throughout the country to record Moroccan music, in
this case for the Smithsonian Institution. This was enough to compel
me to return again, with cameras in hand, to make my first documentary
film, “The Music of Morocco and the Cycles of Life.” This
experience prompted me to give up the life I had been leading and start
a new one on the road.
work started in earnest during my stint in Southeast Asia. This region
is one of most culturally rich places on the planet, boasting over 130
different groups and subgroups. Imagine the variety of sights and sounds.
So, for the past nine years, I have been documenting the traditions
of the mountain peoples in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and China through
various media: films, photos, recordings, journals, and collections
of textiles. This has resulted in a large, integrative body of archival
work, the Songs of Memory project, which is just now coming out in a
book, CD, documentaries, and museum and photo exhibits.
Without a doubt,
my role model in this endeavor has been Edward Curtis, who gloriously
photographed the Native American peoples at the turn of the 20th century,
before their ancestral traditions completely vanished. I have tried
to follow in the footsteps of both of these great ethnographers.
Why is it
important for people to learn about the Northern Hill Tribes you document?
Honestly, I think it is important for the international community
to learn about indigenous cultures everywhere. As these people still
live close to the earth and continue to carry out practices that are
“tried and true,” as established by generations of ancestors,
there is much to learn about living harmoniously with community, with
nature, and with the spirit world. As our modern lifestyle now prompts
families to separate, countries to engage in war, and companies to abuse
our natural resources, I believe traditional peoples can offer their
wisdom in the resilient ways they have sustained themselves throughout
common misconceptions that people have about the Northern Hill Tribes?
Thailand includes an amalgamation of distinct peoples who have migrated,
traded, and traversed the land throughout the centuries. Those who eventually
settled in the mountains of the north often live in villages that may
be difficult to reach, especially during the rainy season, and that
are far from urban centers. That many of these communities do not have
a literary heritage adds to the misconception that they are uneducated
or simple. This could not be further from the truth. The knowledge and
skills that they display simply take other forms, which in many ways
surpass our own.
When I launched
my Songs of Memory multi-media museum exhibition, highlighting the region’s
six major ethnic groups (Hmong, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lisu, and Karen),
at the Jim Thompson Museum in Bangkok in 2009, I thought perhaps visitors
would shun the event. In fact, visitors came in droves, as if they were
thirsting for this kind of experience. They seemed amazed at the sophistication,
artistry, and integrity that the traditional peoples display.
an uplifting story you can share about the people you document?
It is my style of fieldwork to visit and stay in the same mountain
villages many times, year after year. I travel alone with my guide,
doing my own filming and photography. Each time I return, I come bearing
offerings for their rituals and the photographs and films I have made.
These practices, along with the fact that I am a woman, I believe, have
allowed me to know the men, women, and children in the village more
intimately and to witness and document numerous ceremonies that are
Yet while I
ask many questions and learn many things about the people I visit, never
do they reciprocate and inquire about my life. So, during my third year
filming the annual Fertility Festival in an Eng village in Keng Tung,
Myanmar, when an Eng woman, with hand over heart, told me that she misses
me when I am not there, I was moved beyond words. Truly, I just melted.
some major challenges these tribes face and is the traditional way of
life for these people being threatened and how?
There are looming human rights issues for many people, who have fled
from a repressive regime into another country and who are stuck in limbo
in refugee camps, without national identity papers, homes, work opportunities,
education, or adequate health care. For those who are settled, some
governments are taking land away from certain indigenous groups, who
have lived and worked the terrain for centuries.
Other examples of change and challenge occur now that even the most
remote places are connecting with the world at large. Many villages
have electricity and with that come the benefits and ills that technology
offers. With it, too, comes an awareness of disparity between those
who have and those who have not. Consequently, there is a rapid shift
from tribal values to monetary ones.
On a cultural
note, young people in many areas are required to attend national schools
or are flocking to urban centers for work. No longer are they learning
the traditional ways of their forebears. Thus, the ancestral knowledge
that has supported their very identity is quickly, quietly disappearing.
It is said that if one generation fails to transmit its knowledge to
the next, millennia of accumulated wisdom can be lost in a few decades.
These losses diminish the diversity and distinctive beauty of our human
people learn more about your work and upcoming shows in Asia or North
Enormous thanks for giving me this opportunity to share the Songs of
Memory project and the Majesty in the Mountains photo collections with
your readers. To learn more about this archival work, please see the
various media (slide shows, sound clips, films, and photos) at www.TribalMusicAsia.com.
R. Micheal Pink