A Photography Legend?

When the rice turns yellow, the paddies are drained and workers cut the stalks.












Sapa, Vietnam

I think I am becoming something of a legend in Vietnam photographic circles.

Unfortunately, it is not for my images.

It is because I keep falling off rice paddies.

The first fall came in 2008. I was climbing up a wet and slippery mountain rice terrace. It was well beyond my ability to maintain balance but I kept pressing ahead because there were some costumed minority women at the top planting rice seedlings.

I desperately wanted that shot and kept trying to climb to the top. Instead of listening to my inner voice that warned me to give up the pursuit I pressed ahead. I slipped and fell into the rice paddy below, coming down with all my considerable weight on my left knee. I blew out the knee, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament.

Two local farm boys volunteered to be human crutches and helped get me down off the mountain. And then my fellow photographer and travel companion, Long Ly, got me back to Hanoi and on a flight home to get medical care.

Now, when I meet Long’s other photographer friends they often say, “I know your story.”

Today, I again found myself slipping and slidding in the muddy rice paddies near Sapa – and this time determined not to add to my story.

The rice fields here are turning from rich green to golden yellow, a sign that the rice is maturing and ready for harvest. On the north side of Sapa, we are treated to an especially beautiful valley populated by minority villages that are set between rolling hills and mountainsides of terraced rice paddies. The sun cuts through the mist left by overnight rain clouds and illuminates the fields of green and yellow rice stalks.

We find a small road that takes us down into the valley to a village where minority women are cutting rice. They then beat the rice stalks against the inside of a wooden container to knock the kernels off the stalks. They are about 100 yards away and we need to get closer, which means trekking across the paddies again.

The innner voice says no. The inner photographer says yes.

These rice paddies are mostly flat and a fall is unlikely to produce an injury, instead just a dunking in the water and mud. The edges of the paddies are narrow and slippery and so I take each step with some precision and concentration. Much to my surprise it is Khoa Tran, my assistant and traveling companion on this trip, who takes a plunge into the mud, dipping his camera into the muck.

He’s okay and the camera did not take on any water.

We finally reach the mom and two daughters who are harvesting the rice. They’re friendly and allow us as much time as we want to take photos. When it is time to go, they suggest an alternate route back to the village that is easier and a bit shorter.

As we are within about 20 yards of the village I get a bit over confident. Stepping across a few rocks, I slip and fall. Into the mud I go. Aside from a strawberry cut on my shin, only my dignity is injured. We return to a restaurant where we earlier got tea and the family there takes some pity on us. They allow Khoa and I to take showers and change clothes. Their oldest daughter helps me clean my wound.

Sam Abell, the storied National Geographic photographer, says that we photographers sometimes need to suffer for our work. I paid my dues in 2008, and today, I reaped the rewards by escaping serious injury, coming home with some great images and adding a happier chapter to my story.

Rice stalks are beaten against a wooden tub to knock off the kernels.









These minority women work in their traditional costumes. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam.










Beating the rice stalks sends a thump, thump, thump noise through the nearby village.










Mom pulled rank and took a break while her daughters continued to work.









Khoa Tran's camera took a dunking in the mud. And so did Khoa.










With a thorough cleaning, Khoa's camera is like new. His friend from Hanoi, Thach Hoang, offers some encouragement.










Khoa and I head to the car to find some clean clothes after our dip in the rice paddy mud.




























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