“Songs of Lao”: The Photos of Kenro Izu and the Spirits of the Lao People

Buddha Hand Up by Kenro IzuEXPAND
Buddha Hand Up by Kenro Izu
Courtesy of Kenro Izu

The small child in Hmong Girl is wearing her nicest clothes for the camera, though she seems uncomfortable with her disheveled collar and nervous hands as she sits on the dirty steps. She appears again in Hmong Girl with her Grandma; this time the nervousness is gone, as she poses with the weary older woman.

These images by Kenro Izu, part of the “Songs of Lao” exhibit at Booker • Lowe Gallery, are more than beautiful photographs from a distant land. They tell the story of a man who, mid-career, witnessed something that changed his life forever.

Izu was born in Osaka, Japan, and moved to New York City in 1970. Soon the advertising world took notice, as his photographer’s eye elevated jewelry and watches into sparkling objects of desire.

Traveling to Egypt in 1979, he wondered at the massive stonework found in the pyramids there, but also was touched by their fleeting impermanence. A few years later, having witnessed the “intense rendering of atmosphere” of a platinum-palladium print by modernist Paul Strand, Izu obtained his own Deardorff camera.

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Now able to capture a greater tonal range, Izu set out to pursue the sacred places of the world: He returned to Egypt and, over the years, traveled to Scotland, Mexico, Chile, France, England, the southwest United States, Cambodia and Burma. Somewhere along the way, he began incorporating people into some of his images.

“Sacred places, after 30 years of traveling, [you realize] it’s just a shell. Who makes the sacred places? People decided that mountain was sacred, so we’ll pray. People decided that it had a supernatural power there, or they just feel that it is symbolically sacred,” said Izu. “I realized that, without taking the picture of the people, the sacred country was just a shell.”

Everything changed, however, the year he went to Cambodia to photograph the Temple of Angkor Wat, and visited a local hospital.

“A little girl died in front of my eyes. I just can’t walk away,” said Izu. “I had an interest in medical, because I wanted to be a doctor when I was younger.

“The girl was lying on the bed without anything. She was in a coma. There was a father in next to bed, so I asked interpreter question, what was wrong, how was treatment in hospital. He came from north village, and he had a few dollars of money, but he spent it all to give to truck driver or taxi driver to transport daughter to hospital. By the time he arrived, he didn’t have any money for doctor or nurse; they provided a bed but no medicines, because he didn’t have any money.

“And then she was unconscious. I was ready to help, and then she died. That was a moment, this can’t happen, a few dollars of money. But because of no money, don’t save a life, this is wrong.”

When recalling that time in 1994, Izu admits that he was a bit naive. He wanted to do something — anything — so he started talking to friends back home about his idea for building a hospital in Cambodia.

His wife, Yumiko, had until then maintained a separate and successful career as a photographer. Kenro decided to produce prints to help raise money for this hospital, and Yumiko vowed to do the same, joining in on these travels. Her photography style had always been monochromatic, but she switched to color to add contrast to their collaboration.

Through sheer force of will, and with help from investors and stakeholders, they were able to raise the needed funds within a couple of years and, after two years of construction, the Angkor Hospital for Children opened in 1999 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Since that time, more than 1.4 million children have been treated at the hospital, which sees as many as 800 patients a day. In 2013 it became self-sustaining, and is now managed by 550 Cambodian doctors and staff members.

Kenro’s pursuit of sacred spaces continued while the hospital was under construction, taking him to Jordan, Syria, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Tibet and Laos.

“Even though we started building the hospital, it didn’t stop me from researching sacred places. I was amazed at how beautiful the country [Laos] is; very nice people, very gentle people,” said Kenro.

“In the city, those people can run the business, speak English, handle computer. But once you step out into the rural areas, just a few miles, then you see many farmhouses, no electricity, candlelight, lamp, very poor infrastructure.”

Kenro had by then established a foundation, Friends Without A Border, and the stakeholders met to decide their next step. Was their work complete, or should they attempt to build another hospital? They looked at Myanmar but soon realized that government interference would make their goal of establishing a self-sustaining hospital almost impossible. So they settled on Laos.

“Level of poverty was worse than Cambodia 20 years ago. When you visit the city, you see the people are nice; you can buy lots of things in the market. So I thought, this country is well off, but when it comes to education or health care for children, it’s too basic, very basic,” said Kenro. “We included several survey trips to district area, driving 30 minutes to three hours driving over mountain road to district hospital. But when you go into district [hospital], it was a shock, and when you go inside the surgical room, I thought I wouldn’t want to take my appendix out. A few people are just laying in bed, and I realize there’s no doctor in hospital, only medical assistants and nurse, on and off, not even full time, because they have to do side business to sustain their family.”

Dr. Tim Weiner, a pediatric surgeon from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who has volunteered his surgical expertise at the Angkor Hospital for Children, noted that, while Kenro may seem quiet and understated, he was actually “relentless.” Through investor donations and sales of photographs, the Lao Friends Hospital for Children opened its doors in February of this year in Luang Prabang, though it is not yet self-sustaining. Dr. Weiner plans to travel to the Laos hospital this coming November.

“We both, Yumiko and I both, believe that art can make a difference to society,” said Kenro. “We are on a small scale; our budget is $1.5 million, but we are artists, not rich, not powerful, not famous. We believe that artists are strong. That is our belief, that art can make a difference. We are privileged that we have a talent that can express our feelings.”

Sales of photographs from the “Songs of Lao” exhibit at Booker • Lowe benefit Friends Without A Border and the Lao Friends Hospital for Children.

Kenro’s images have a way of transporting the viewer to these distant lands, in a kind of fine-art-meets-travelogue sort of way. The magnitude of the landscape is apparent in Vang Vieng Village, with towering mountains and cloud cover; and the viewer can almost hear the deafening roar of the water in the magnificent Waterfall LPB 119, with its grand scale and height.

“Twenty years ago I visited a cave, called Pak Ou Cave; it’s a very natural cave, has been there for 2,000 years,” said Kenro. “[There are] about 6,000 statues in the cave: from the size of a palm, the size of a hand, to seven- to eight-feet-tall Buddha, bigger than actual size have been pressed in the cave.”

He captures these scenes reverentially in Pak Ou Cave LPB 97#3, with the statuette silhouetted against the cave’s opening, and shot from behind in Wat Sisaketh One Thousand Buddha.

Yumiko’s colorful images feature the strong faith of the people of Laos, though it wasn’t always easy. In one area where there was no gas, electricity or water, she hiked for three hours to reach the remote village, carrying her own water on her back.

“In the Hmong tribe, there was an ordinary girl. I see the beauty in her,” said Yumiko. There was only one costume, to be shared by the 30 or 40 girls in the village, and the girl put it on for the photograph. “In Hmong house, one door is for humans, one door is for spirit. I asked them to leave spirit door open.”

In Lao 37, the light from the spirit door bathes the young girl with such radiance as — for that one day wearing the village’s only ceremonial robe — this ordinary girl is made special.

The frangipani and palm arrangement is complex and intricate in the hands of the young novice monk in Lao 21 Offering, while a young boy exudes obedience and service in ˆ.

“I met so many wonderful people. Many have not visited Southeast Asia and Laos, and I would like to share a small part of the Lao people,” said Yumiko. “The crisp air of the mountain, the beautiful spirits of the Lao people.”

“Songs of Lao”
Through October 24. Booker • Lowe Gallery, 4623 Feagan, 713-880-1541, bookerlowegallery.com.


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