Many Lao Americans love cameras, so more than a few perked up when they heard the news that Nikon Thailand is opening a factory in Savannakhet, Laos around October this year. The official PR says that the idea is to “reinforce [Nikon’s] digital SLR camera manufacturing organization and reduce costs.” Nikon Thailand makes entry-level and mid-class digital SLR cameras, and some of the interchangeable lenses for the different lines. Little Laos on the Prairie asked some of our favorite professional photographers and hobbyists across the country what they thought of the news.
Responding from Georgia, photographer Boon Vong captured many of the feelings of those we asked. “As an artist that also uses cameras and lenses, I like to keep up with the photographic industry in general. Nikon has been producing certain models of DSLR cameras and lenses in Thailand for a good many years now. While these cameras are targeted towards the entry and middle tier market, these are still expensive in a relative sense. While we in the Western world harp over minor features on cameras costing hundreds and thousands of dollars, I often wonder about the state of the workers, how long it would take for them to purchase one of the cameras they assemble, etc.”
Vong further remarked, “By virtue of being in Laos, I would hope that the Nikon brand can bring interest and awareness to the country itself, its many different lovely cultures, turbulent history, and social and education issues. I don’t think it will benefit certain Lao photographers that champion a certain brand, for at the end of the day they are just tools, but if it makes someone notice “made/assembled in Laos” well perhaps it will lead them to see the country with their own eyes, and make their own assessments through personal experience.”
In Minnesota, Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong, the CEO of Naiku, replied ” that’s good news, particularly for the Lao economy. I hope Nikon supports aspiring Lao photographers and artists through sponsorship and awards. It would be great if they gave a camera to some school-age children to document their daily lives in Laos. That would both raise Nikon charity and awareness of the lives and struggles of Lao children.”
The news was very interesting to those who saw modern photography as an art form. Emerging film-maker Mack Sphabmixay said “I’m hoping that the quality of work exceeds the worlds’ expectations, hence opening the door for other companies to see Laos as a country that produces great quality work.” Based in San Diego, Sphabmixay is currently working on wedding films and promos for small business owners.
Another San Diego-based artist, Bidone Salima, exclaimed “That’s fantastic news! It made me proud to be a Nikon user. I’m really glad that Laotians will have jobs in this field. I hope it will promote more Laotians to be photographers as well as appreciate photography as an art form.
photo courtesy of Bidone Salima
Alex Nok Phasy is a student at the University of Minnesota and an avid photographer, in addition to his volunteer involvement and leadership with the local and national community. He felt it would be great for the economy of Laos, noting “Overall, photographers drool over camera gear. Some literally are into the technical gear (lenses, lights, pixel pushing, sensor size, etc.) more than photography itself.”
Phasy added “In my opinion, Canon makes some of the more popular low-end and high-end lenses, whereas Nikon has always been known for their mid-range lenses and bodies. It would be nice to see cheaper mid-range lenses for Nikon users looking to upgrade their gear, but to not damage their wallets.”
A professional photographer for over a decade, Khampha Bouaphanh is an award-winning photojournalist who has worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Associated Press. Among his assignments, he’s covered the war in Iraq, the Asian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Twice named Photojournalist of the Year by the Houston Press Club, he responded, “Exciting things are happening in Laos. This is just a small symbol of the many changes/progress, both good and bad, that have already begun several years ago.”
Bouaphanh considered the implications it could have for Lao photographers. “From my understanding, Nikon Laos is only making entry level to mid-class DSLRs, with the final products being done in Thailand. If more quality cameras are made available in country, I can only assume that photography would gain legitimacy as a worthy profession in Laos. Having said this, there are already great Lao photographers doing great work in Laos regardless.”
Bouaphanh recently finished two big projects. The first was photographing wind turbines for FPL energy in west Texas and Oklahoma. The second was covering a MIA recovery team working in Laos. He’s currently working on getting back to mountain biking and rock climbing in the hope of getting work in these specialized field of photography. You can see more of his work at http://www.khamphaphoto.com
In Nashville, Tennessee, community organizer Gai Phanalasy is currently documenting the work of the Royal Lao Classical Dancers. His first thought was that the news of the plant was “Great for the people of Laos. This will bring more opportunities for the people of Laos to acquire global professional careers in management and work for laborers in a specialized technical field.” He additionally expressed concerns about modernization on more pristine regions and cultural attitudes in Laos but remained optimistic. “Maybe this is the beginning for Laos to grow out of it’s Third World Nation status. A lot of advancement all around if this project is successful.”
Dr. Steve Arounsack is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology & Digital Media at CSU Stanislaus. Among his many projects he’s working on is a documentary on Lao music, Getting Lao’d: the modern music revolution. He’s also establishing the new Keck Visual Anthropology Lab, where he is a founding director.
When asked about the Nikon plant in Laos, Dr. Arounsack replied “While I’m sure the plant will provide much needed jobs in the region, what remains to be seen is how ‘liveable” the wages will be. I’m not sure that having a manufacturing plant will raise the profile of Lao photographers – I am hopeful that Nikon will take this opportunity to take a serious look at ways to cultivate the talent in Laos.”
Hopefully we will see a long and healthy relationship between Nikon and Laos that allows everyone to grow. Will we see a new era in Lao photography around the world? What are some other benefits you’d like to see for the Lao community? What are some of your favorite memories as a photographer? In Minnesota, we’ve talked in the past of a Lao American photography festival to celebrate the work of our professional and emerging photographers. Perhaps the time is right to revisit that idea.