Lifestyle & Belief

Full Frame: traveling down the Mekong


Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with the photographers in the field.

It was a pipedream of mine: travel down the Mekong River from the source to the sea.

Last year, I finally had the chance. I work with a team whose repertoire is making films and documentaries on tight budgets on the road.

When we started on the Mekong, we didn't understand what it had in store for us: the landscapes and the diversity of people’s faces, their different religions and ways of relating to the river were astounding.

In Tibet, there are no boats and the river is pristine and deadly, a torrent of frozen water. Tibetans bury their children in the river believing that because their souls are pure that they can be carried to heaven by the waters. They therefore don't eat fish.

The Mekong is being used more and more as a resource. About 70 million people rely on the river. The immense changes that take place due to development, such as dams, rapid blasting, overfishing and pollution, have a devastating impact.

I was capturing the moment in time, and in this case it was a moment in history before changes erased the life of the river and its people. Looking through the lens, I used the Mekong as a single line through all these countries, viewing changing faces and lifestyles. It was an amazing and heart-breaking experience. 

A lot of the indigenous cultures along the river may not even exist within the next few decades. So the impulse to push the button was both a connection with people experiencing tragic development, and also a desire to tell the world about them, so isolated and powerless to control the fate of what is really their birthright.

About the photographer: 

Ali Sanderson is a contemporary artist and photographer from Australia who has been based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the past four years.

Sanderson has been a practicing artist for 10 years and has shown in many art institutions both in Australia and internationally. Since relocating to Phnom Penh, she, along with three other Australian filmmakers, formed a film production company that focuses on documentary films dealing with environmental and human rights issues.

In the past two years this work has led to work on such projects as "Traveling Down the Mekong" commissioned by Radio Free Asia.