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Photographer found ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in rural Vietnam

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Troy Shantz

Kieron Nelson has been swarmed by African tsetse flies, succumbing to altitude sickness in Tibet, and been threatened by arrow-wielding tribesmen of the Amazon.

Adventure just happens when you visit some of the world’s most unique and isolated cultures, the Sarnia photographer says.

“It makes for some good stories years later on, but at the time it’s not so pleasant,” he said with a laugh.

Nelson has travelled to about 50 countries including Mali, Niger and Pakistan to document their vanishing cultures — always opting to live among local residents.

Some maintain these giant jars in Laos were used to collect monsoon rainwater, but most archaeologists believe they were used as funerary urns.
Kieron Nelson

On Feb. 5, he will share a multi-media production from his latest adventure in Laos and North Vietnam at a Sarnia Photographic Club meeting.

Nelson, who has been published in National Geographic and won numerous international

Located primarily in the mountainous areas in northern Vietnam, these terraced rice fields are called by many the “Stairway to Heaven” and are the amazing culmination of more than 100 years of labour by local hill tribes.
Kieron Nelson

awards, said its French-colonial architecture and cascading rice paddies drew him to the region. But the primary goal was to experience the Red Dao tribe, known for its intricate wedding traditions.

“As village elders pass on, a lot of the languages and a lot of their culture ends up going with them. It’s not being picked up by the younger generation,” said Nelson, 70.

A highlight was photographing a Red Dao woman on her wedding day. As he shot in a drenching rain, villagers laughed at the sight of him balancing on a chair with an umbrella held over his head, he said.

The Red Dao wedding dress is regarded as the summit of success in a woman’s sewing accomplishments. Mother and daughter are known to spend up to a year making nothing else but a brand new ceremonial outfit in preparation for the big day.
Kieron Nelson

“There was a lot of laughter at my difficult and unpleasant situation. But it reinforced the idea to never put the camera away, no matter what the weather.”

The retired engineer said he strives to visit a new part of the planet each year, but economic and political uncertainty is making that increasingly difficult.

Sadly, he added, some of the cultural experiences he has documented have since disappeared and exist now only in his photos.


WHAT: The Sarnia Photographic Club presents: Stairway to Heaven – A Photographer’s Journey through Laos and northern Vietnam

WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m.

COST: Free

WHERE: Sarnia Library Theatre, 124 Christina St. S.



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