“That’s Her!” Stan said. But for a minute I wasn’t so sure. We were standing at the edge of Bac Ha Markets and I was suffering from sensory overload. The humidity, the noise and the riotous colour of the Flower Hmong’s traditional dress was swimming in front of me like the opening sequence of a Baz Luhrmann extravaganza. The unfamiliar smells emanating from the open-air kitchens was assaulting my nostrils, as was the more familiar odour of animal dung wafting through from the buffalo market, on what would otherwise have been a welcome cool breeze.
I flipped through the little book of photos I had brought with me. It was her, she was even wearing the same coloured hat and scarf.
We handed her the photo and she stared at it for a long time. I wondered about the quality of her eyesight. Finally she looked up and pointed a bony finger at me and her face collapsed into the sweetest of smiles. We smiled, we nodded, I babbled on in English, and ripple of activity radiated from where we were standing as a crowd of noisy, nosy women closed in around us, grabbing at the photos and chattering excitedly to each other. Pointing and laughing at the photos in turn as they recognised the images of their friends.
A woman standing behind me indicated that she wanted to see the photos too. I reached across to retrieve the photo from “my” lady, but she gripped it tightly and would not let it go. I had given it to her, and there was no way she was giving it back. She held it up for the others to see and her eyes crinkled so much I wondered that she could see out of them.
I asked if I could photograph her again, and she composed herself, stared directly down the lens at me and honoured me again with her portrait.
Meanwhile the activity around us had shifted slightly as another women recognised herself in one of the photos. A shy woman, five years ago she had tipped her hat at me as I photographed her. She had aged, as had all the women. But then, I guess, so have I.
I don't know anything about International Women's Day except that it is today. I only found out last night. I should rush off and google it. I’m not a feminist, but I believe in women’s rights and equal opportunity. And I ache for the women around the world who are unempowered, supressed and subjugated.
So today I am thinking about all the women I've seen in my travels. Especially the ones in developing nations who work hard to help support their families, who work tirelessly, and sacrifice so much, to provide their children with opportunities they, themselves have been denied.
I love this photo of this Vietnamese woman. I photographed her 5 years ago, and sadly did not find her when I returned to the region this time. I left my photo album of photos with a lady in Bac Ha Markets, I hope the photo I took of her found its way into her hands. And if so, it gave her the smallest of pleasures.
What I like about this photo, is that I connected with this woman. For the briefest moment, there was the briefest eye contact. But it was like the history of all womanhood was passed on, or rather acknowledged in that look. Woman to woman.
I know nothing of her life and she could not concieve of mine. But the communication through her eyes found common ground on a fundamental level. A brief encounter, long since gone, but preserved here this photo and in my memory. There is a knowledge, a secret code, that trandscends cultural and racial barriers. Not even the faintest of smiles, or the slightest nod of the head, but this woman and I read each other, accepted and acknowledged.
I wonder where she is today and how International Woman’s Day is treating her.
I am blessed that I was born into a society that allows me as a woman to have choice.
Don't forget to visit my exhibition!!!!
Le Pain Quotidien in Surry Hills. Opening Night Tuesday 8th March 6-8pm. If you are in the neighbourhood, please drop by.
The exhibition will be on show from the 8th March to the 27th March and will feature new images from Vietnam and some from my previous exhibition [ my ] 'stralia.
Le Pain Quotidien has great coffee and fabulous food, so if you can't make opening night, pop in any day between 8am - 5pm and treat yourself.