When Takoma Park–based photographer Michael Lang is on photo safari in Thailand, many people look at his paralyzed legs and assume that he had a run-in with a landmine—a common occurrence in their part of the world.
“They are fascinated by the braces…the structure of them, how I get around….They are really objects out of their world, out of their grasp,” says Lang, who has worn the braces since he was struck with polio at age 7. Lang’s newest photo exhibition, “The Hill Tribe People of Northern Thailand,” is on view at the Touchstone Gallery through Dec. 5.
Lang, 62, became interested in street photography during his teenage years in Baltimore. He didn’t know much about other photographers’ work but started taking Robert Frank– esque pictures at the very pool hall that would become immortalized in Barry Levinson’s Diner.
But for 40 years, Lang left those prints undeveloped as he slogged away at biophysics research in Israel, Boston, and College Park. Then, 10 years ago, he gave up research and became an administrator at Bethesda’s National Institutes of Health so that he could again focus on photography.
In 2001, Lang decided to go abroad for an “intensive photo study.” He hired a translator and guide to escort him around northern Thailand for two weeks. Lang’s son had studied kickboxing there, but, at the time, Lang knew almost nothing about the country.
“I didn’t want to get involved in a tourist thing,” he says, explaining that he visited temples, slums (including one located in a garbage dump), and villages in order to find out firsthand how people lived.
Last year, he went back for another two-week stint, moving in with hill people from the Aka and Lahu tribes; he lived with an Aka family for three days and a Lahu family for four. Lang began studying hill-tribe history after his return. “I really went into these villages pretty cold and said, ‘This is what I see,’” he says.
What Lang wanted to capture was how the people of the hill tribes live their daily lives. His black-and-white photos show tribe members cooking over open fires, bathing their children by the riverside, and worshipping the new moon. “The pictures are sort of a way of talking with them and letting people know what I’ve been seeing,” says Lang, who includes printed commentary alongside his photos: “The minority hill tribes are the smallest non-Thai group, comprised of about nine distinct tribes of Sino-Tibetan origins….Only about 30 percent of the hill-tribe people hold Thai citizenship….They have no furniture….There is no indoor plumbing.”
Lang is already planning another trip to Thailand; this time, he intends to spend more time with the hill tribes and search out polio survivors. Though many organizations have been working with the hill tribes to gain civil and land rights and to combat landmines, Lang hasn’t plunged into the larger political and economic issues that affect the country. He’s just glad that “the government helps them maintain a decent level of cleanliness”—he isn’t interested in altering the hill-tribe way of life.
“I think they were very happy with the way they were living,” Lang says.—Bidisha Banerjee