Olli Thomson

Category: Review

Songs of Lao

Since visiting Laos a couple of years ago I’ve been on the lookout for a good photobook of the country but the few that I had discovered were mostly aimed at tourists looking for pictures of the country’s best known sites. It was only a couple of months ago that I came across Songs of Lao from Nazraeli Press. The book was published in 2016 but for some reason I had never seen it until recently.

Songs of Lao was published in association with Friends Without a Border, a children’s medical charity founded by Japanese photographer Kenro Izu. Izu set up the charity after witnessing the suffering of children during photographic trips to Angkor in Cambodia in the mid 1990’s. Working with the wider photographic community and beyond Izu’s organisation was able to open the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap in 1999. As well as providing an extensive range of medical services the hospital also worked with local health care providers to improve the overall standard of both administration and care in the region.

More recently, in 2015, the Laos Friends Hospital for Children opened in Luang Prabang with the same ambition to provide treatment for children, education and support for local healthcare workers and prevention through outreach programmes into the wider community. This book was published to mark that new phase in the work and to raise awareness and support for Friends Without a Border. The book itself is beautifully produced as you would expect from Nazraeli Press and is made up of pictures from six different photographers, including Izu, who have worked in Laos. Each contributor also has a short biographical piece explaining his or her connection with the country. While the different photographers bring different styles to the project all the contributions are consistently excellent. In addition to the photographs the book also provides a lot of information on Izu’s charity and its work in Laos and Cambodia.

The book is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK and all profits go to support the Lao Friends Hospital. Here are some sample images: the first two from Izu himself and the second pair from Michael Kenna.

Losing an Enemy

At a time when one of President Obama’s genuine achievements is under threat from the current occupant of the White House, Trita Parsi’s book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy tells the story of the long and complex process that led to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

There’s a lot in here I didn’t previously know, like the role of the Omanis in facilitating direct negotiations between the US and Iran where the real progress was made. While I knew that one of the greatest obstacles to the deal was Netanyahu (and his Congressional cheerleaders, both Democrat and Republican) I did not know that Netanyahu’s rhetoric of Iran as an existential threat to Israel has its origins not on the Israeli right but on the left, with Rabin and Peres. The role of John Kerry, while a more sceptical Clinton was Secretary of State, in getting the process established before becoming Secretary of State himself was also new to me.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas…

My true love, and various other people, gave to me…

A TWELVE year old malt whisky. That’s a lie. It’s actually a 14 year old malt whisky but I didn’t have a fourteenth day available. To be specific, The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14. I’ve never been a great fan of these experimental whiskies finished in all manner of casks but I once tried a 21 year old Glenfiddich finished in Cuban rum casks and it was excellent. Since then other whisky makers have joined the rum parade.

According to the Balvenie website they use traditional American oak casks and fill them with rum. This is different from the Glenfiddich approach where they bring in the casks directly from Caribbean rum producers. These days the Glenfiddich no longer identifies the specific origin of the casks. I wondered if the switch from the specifically Cuban provenance had anything to do with the American trade boycott, but one of the regional representatives for William Grant I met while in the Philippines told me the reason was that they were not able to guarantee supplies of a sufficient quality from Cuba alone so they had to look more widely. I haven’t opened this bottle yet but on the next cold wintry night I might have a taste.


Part travel book, part ancient history, part early Christian history, part biblical criticism, part historical theology – there’s a lot to this book by Tom Bissell, one time Peace Corps volunteer, now a journalist and travel writer. Bissell sets out to visit the alleged tombs of the twelve apostles, which leads him into his discussions of early Christianity.

His reading of the Bible reflects a fairly mainstream historical-critical approach with a tendency towards the slightly more sceptical Bart Ehrman line, and a fondness for Raymond Brown’s Johannine community. But he has read, and grasped, an impressive amount of material, not only on the New Testament, but also the early church. He’s also at pains to avoid the wilder shores of speculative reconstructions of early Christianity.

Bissell speaks favourably of his youthful Christianity as an altar boy in the Roman Catholic church, a faith that he later lost. Yet he retains an interest in Christianity, hence this book. Well worth reading.

Fixed It

My Konica Auto S3 had a little problem. The frame counter which should reset to ‘S’ when the back is opened would instead reset to ’18’. I say a little problem because the frame counter worked normally apart from this one issue. When it reached frame ’36’ I was still able to wind on and shoot to the end of the film even though the counter no longer counted. The one problem was that when I got into the second half of a loaded film I had no idea how many frames were left.

I couldn’t justify sending the camera away for such a minor problem since repairs on these old (around 1973) rangefinders are expensive. So I decided to try to do it myself. With some advice and guidance from a couple of classic camera repair groups and a few other sources I found online I took the top off the camera, worked out what the problem was and managed to fix it.

America in Laos

When I was in Laos in 2016 I visited the UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang. There are only two rooms but, despite the small size, it’s a sobering place to visit. During the bombing campaign in Laos the US dropped an estimated 2.5 million tons of explosives – more than the US dropped on Japan and Germany combined during WW2. Among the weapons used were cluster munitions which dispersed 260 million bomblets across the country. An estimated 30% of these failed to explode – that’s 75 million of them. Today, more than forty years after the bombing ceased, people, including many who weren’t even born at the time, continue to suffer as a consequence. Despite the best efforts of de-mining groups large areas of the country are still contaminated with unexploded ordnance.

Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military C.I.A., tells the story of how the CIA launched and ran ‘Operation Momentum’, the anti-communist war in Laos of which the bombing was part. It’s a fascinating book, not least because a number of the key people in the conflict who were interviewed by Kurlantzick had died by the time the book was published earlier this year, so the book is in a sense their final word. While Kurlantzick occasionally relates the history of this conflict to other more contemporary events he doesn’t over stress this. Not that he needs to; any thoughtful person can make the connections.

Testing Testing

I’m generally not inclined to test my cameras since I’m happy to go on the word of those who do this kind of thing for a living. A couple of days ago, though, taking a late night walk to get a little air I brought my X-T2 with me and took a few shots at various ISO settings to see how things looked. Generally speaking things looked very well. I didn’t go beyond ISO 6400 but the shots I took at that setting looked good to me and I would have no qualms about shooting at this sensitivity. Both of the images below were shot at ISO 6400 and are jpegs from lightly edited RAW files but no noise reduction has been applied. Click on the images for a larger version.

Buda’s Wagon

Growing up in Belfast in the 1970’s car bombs were an integral part of the soundtrack of my youth, so Mike Davis’ book, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb was, as they say, a must read. The Buda in question was Mario Buda, an Italian-American, and his wagon was a horse drawn carriage packed with explosives and shrapnel which he left at the corner of Wall Street in New York on 18 September 1920. Thirty eight people died and hundreds more were injured in the cause of anarchism.

Davis defines car bombs as ‘delivery systems to create deadly explosions in public spaces’, excluding the use of booby traps on vehicles designed to kill the occupant, and traces their development and spread in the years since Buda’s wagon. It’s a fascinating read. Davis covers a lot of ground without getting bogged down in too much detail and brings to light the use of these devices in a host of conflicts across the world and down through the decades. As well as tracing their use by non-state actors Davis also looks at the way in which agents of the state – usually intelligence agencies with the US, Pakistan and Russia to the fore – have become adept at making use of car bombs to further their own goals.

New Camera

I hadn’t planned to buy a new camera. Doesn’t stop me looking, obviously. Particularly around this time of year when Photokina, the world’s largest photography trade fair, takes place in Cologne. This is the time when the camera makers display their latest and greatest offerings.

I keep a particular eye on what Fujifilm is up to since I happen to have a Fujifilm camera, the X-E2, which has served me well for the last four years. (And will they ever change the brand name? The company is routinely referred to as just plain Fuji, and there’s every indication that Fuji’s commitment to film is less than wholehearted. So maybe it’s time to drop the ‘film’ bit. Perhaps they could go back to the old Fujica name.)

Ragnar Axelsson – Fjallaland

Visiting photography galleries is always high on the list of must do activities for every trip. In Reykjavik I spent a morning at the Museum of Photography, which is one of the five sites making up the Reykjavik City Museum. The Museum houses a collection of over 6 million images dating back to 1860 and is continually expanding its holdings. The collection includes both amateur and professional work and, commercial and personal photographs.

The exhibition spaces are relatively small but the works on display when I was there were excellent – definitely a case of quality over quantity. There are also a number of monitors giving access to the museum’s digitised photo collection of 35,000 images. These can also be accessed directly online.

The museum also has a publicly accessible library of photography books and photographic records and I took the opportunity to browse through some of the works after viewing the exhibitions. It was while browsing that I came across a number of books by Ragnar Axelsson. I was vaguely aware of Axelsson, but not sufficiently aware to make the connection when I decided to visit Iceland, so he was still something of a new discovery.


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