This was my first really big assignment – three months for Time-Life shooting on the Thai-Burmese border, way before long-haul tourism made Thailand what Blackpool and Margate used to be.
Time-Life London were producing high-quality continuity books, and the previous series, just finished, was Great Cities, for which they principally assigned Magnum photographers. I got my chance on the Athens book, when the assigned photographer didn’t deliver quite up to spec, so we shared that. This, on a hill-tribe called the Akha, was my own book in a new series. It was the winter of 1979 and this area was remote. I spent two weeks negotiating with our two anthropologist consultants – the writer and I needed them completely for translation (the Akha spoke no Thai, and though I learned that language later, there were only four people, as I remember, in the north of Thailand that could translate between English and Akha). Truly a lost world from the perspective of 2006 – this has all gone now, no more innocence. Drugs, Aids, prostitution, the usual story.
I lived in the village off and on for three months – had my own small house of bamboo and thatch built for me. This was house-building day. For ritual reasons, any old dwelling had to be demolished and the new construction completed between sunrise and sunset in a single day. So it was done communally, like the barn-raising scene in Witness, though without the soaring music.
This is one of the images from my new show, 9-21 May at the Light Contemporary Gallery, 5a Porchester Place, London W2 2BS.
Michael Freeman began his career shooting for Time-Life, then the Smithsonian Magazine, in 1973. He travels for slightly more than half of each year, principally to Asia – though more recently to Sudan for three years (his latest book). Photographer since 1973, EPUK member since 2001.
See more work by Michael Freeman