The Monks venture out of the temple to collect the offerings of the Alms.
The Monks venture out of the temple to collect the offerings of the Alms.

More than the eyes can see

AS I was flying over the world heritage listed town of Luang Prabang in Laos and looking at the amazing green forest on both sides of the Mekong River, my first thought was "one week is not going to be enough here. I will have to come back".

But thoughts of the sights from the air subsided as I knew the week ahead was going to be busy.

I was participating in The Jack Picone and Stephen Dupont Documentary Photography Workshop at the beautiful Hotel De La Paix in Luang Prabang.

Both Jack and Stephen are world-renowned and award winning Australian photojournalists and documentary photographers.

On the first day of the workshop Jack and Stephen informed our group of eight that the theme for the workshop assignment was "Fortune".

It was a theme which we could interpret it in any way we wanted.

So I spent the first few days riding my bicycle around town, exploring the city, getting to know the locals.

One morning I stopped by one of the Buddhist temples, known in Laos as a wat.

As I was exploring inside the wat, a novice monk came to talk to me. He told me his name was Serth and he became my link to the temple.

The monks are a very real part of daily life in the town.

They walk everywhere, and their presence is striking and noticeable in their bright orange flowing robes, holding umbrellas to protect them from the hot sun.

Their nature, their presence and their lifestyle really struck a chord with me and I wanted to discover more about their lives and to record it.

So I decided to spend the rest of the week photographing the young novices and monks who live, learn and pray at the wat.

That meant very early starts: I was up at 3.45am to ride my bike alongside the Mekong to the temple for daily chanting and meditation.

The first day I really felt like I was intruding as I took my place sitting down behind the monks at the back of the temple.

At 5.30am, the monks finished their chanting and prayers and spread around the temple, readying for the daily ritual of the alms.

The Temple at dawn, just before the end of morning meditation.
The Temple at dawn, just before the end of morning meditation.

The alms is a Buddhist ritual, a walking meditation for the monks and one of the ways for locals to "make merit" and show their respect.

While it does involve giving materially to the monks (in this case, sticky rice), it's not charity as we would define it, it is something more; a religious ritual.

In a mass of saffron, the monks would suddenly gather at the front gate, venturing out of the temple to collect the offerings of the Locals who line up along the narrow streets.

As quickly as they appeared they would disappear behind the temple walls carrying their alms bowls full of offerings.

After the monks returned from the alms, I would sit and talk with them.

After our chats, while they ate their breakfast, I would go to a local cafe to have mine (a pain au chocolat, which I found was as delicious as those in my home country of France).

I'd sit and reflect on our discussion and plan what I could photograph over the course of the day.

About an hour later I would wander back to the wat and walk to school with the younger monks and novices.

At school they behaved like the teenagers we all know, chatting, texting and checking their Facebook pages, learning everything from maths to history, and, importantly, the dharma - the truth taught by the Buddha.

Come lunchtime the monks headed back to the wat for their last meal of the day until the next morning.

At the end of each day I would meet up with Jack and Stephen and Ed Giles, a young Australian Walkley Award-winning photojournalist based in Cairo, Egypt, who was assisting workshop participants.

One at a time, Stephen, Jack and Ed would go through my images and critique them. It's a gruelling process for a photographer, but I accept it as a necessary one.

The process taught me, as photographer and documenter, to view my images in a different way, to consider more about the way I shoot an image to help me to improve my work.

It inspires me to go back and shoot better photographs the next day. It's a valuable learning process for any photographer.

"Get closer" was one comment that came up on my critique.

Get closer. Believe me, I was trying, but I was with monks and novices, and there were rules I had to follow within their space.

And two of the most important one were 'do not get too close' and 'do not touch the monks'.

I wanted to do well in the workshop but I did not want to be disrespectful of the monks.

Eventually I found a way to get closer with my camera without breaking their rules or offending their way of life.

The resulting photos are powerful and compelling, and ones of which I am extremely proud.

The trip to Laos was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in my career as a photographer.

While Stephen, Jack and Ed are incredible to work with, the most wonderful thing about the workshop is that I met other photographers.

The friendships I made were a highlight of the trip.

Not just those with the other photographers, but those I made with the monks.

For me, it was as much a spiritual experience as a photographic experience.


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