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Behind Communism’s Curtain talk at the Oslo Freedom Forum (video and transcript)

I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation about the subject of my book, “Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism” at the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum. The forum brings together an exceptional group of human rights icons, high-level dissidents, artists, journalists and activists (such as modern slavery abolitionists) for several days of talks and meetings. Below you’ll find the video of my 11-minute speech and the full transcript.

• • • • •


Two decades ago, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. Communism, was declared dead.

And many of you will remember that on November 9, 2009 Europe threw a huge party at the Brandenburg gate. World leaders were there, including Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hillary Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev. There were fireworks and one thousand giant dominoes were knocked down to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On that very same day, I was in a dusty Chinese mountain town known as Yan’an. I watched as dozens of young Chinese actors in historical uniforms reenacted a battle between Maoist revolutionaries and the Kuomintang. In this display, it was the communist forces who were victorious.

Here, a world apart from the events in Berlin, the birth of communism was being celebrated, not its death.

Over the past seven years, I’ve been exploring this world apart with my camera.

It turns out that the areas of our planet where the Communist Party has managed to survive and adapt to the 21st century are far more vast and varied than most of us imagine.

Let’s put it in numbers:

Since the end of the Cold War, the Communist Party has managed to hold power in seven countries across three continents.That’s a total population of 1.47 billion people, with a majority living in China. Or, to put it another way: 1 in 5 people on this planet currently live under Communist Party rule.

And when I sought to take photographs of Maoist revolutionaries during the 21st century, I didn’t need to settle for a historical reenactment.

In Nepal, communist guerrillas following Mao Zedong’s playbook lead a bloody revolution which toppled the country’s monarchy in 2008. 13,000 people were killed in the brutal civil war between the Maoists and the Royal Nepal Army. Thousands of others were disappeared in the middle of the night.

Much of the fighting was a cruel game of cat-and-mouse which played out in remote villages. And it was unsuspecting civilians who bore the brunt of the violence.

Consider the case of this man, Sundar Chaudary, who I photographed in the casualty ward of the Nepalgunj hospital in 2004.

Chaudary spent the first 30 years of his life as a slave. Like his father and grandfather, and one of the other speakers at this forum, Urmila Chaudary, he was born indentured to a high-caste landlord, and he was forced to work 18-hour days.

After years of pressure, Nepal’s government finally acted to ban bonded labor. Eventually Chaudary and thousands of other families were freed of their inherited debts.

He had the chance to start a normal life. He built a modest, thatched-roof home for his family and began to work his own land.

Then one night, a band of Maoist rebels planted a communist flag on Chaudary’s land.

Early in the morning, a patrol of Royal Army troops passed by.

They demanded that he remove the flag. The flag pole was rigged to a mine, and it exploded in his face.

The Maoists considered Nepal’s horribly unjust pecking order as their call to arms. Yet so often their tactics, like building roads with forced labor and conscripting child soldiers, were as harmful as the injustices that they were fighting against.

The communist regimes that I visited during this project revealed time and again how their original pursuit of equality could be abandoned—or maintained as a mere façade—leaving power as an end in itself.

And we should never forget the consequences of totalitarian power. Experts estimate that 20th century communist dictators—including Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot—killed over 85 million people with a legacy of famines, purges and gulags.

North Korea’s Kim dynasty has carried forward their ideology, and its devastating results into the 21st century.

Chillingly, North Korea has managed to do so behind a curtain of total secrecy. When famines struck the Horn of Africa, the international media was filled with images of hungry people and appeals from air organizations.

Yet when famine killed a million people in North Korea, no images made it to the outside world. And North Korean officials kept aid organizations at arm’s length.

North Korea has also managed to keep the world in the dark about its vast system of forced labor camps, which are estimated to hold up to 200,000 people.

In addition to hiding the truth about its human rights abuses, North Korea inundates its own population with hate-filled xenophobic propaganda and paints a god-like image of its leaders.

In North Korea, neighbors and family members are encouraged to spy and snitch on each other to prove their loyalty. The result is a paranoid, militarized society an astounding cult of personality, and the formal absence or any individualism.

By keeping people in the dark about the true nature of totalitarian communist rule the ideology has retained an uncanny popularity over the years.

And many compassionate intellectuals, artists and normal people have cheered on the Communist Party, from Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin to Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway.

For many people exploited by the injustices of capitalism, it has been hard to imagine or remember that another system could be worse.

In 2001, a majority of voters brought the Communist Party back in power through democratic elections in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

The small landlocked country, which borders the European Union, had struggled to find its footing in the volatile world of global capitalism. Nostalgia for the stability and super-power status of the Soviet Union ran high.

The spell lasted all the way until April 2009, when the Communist Party won another round of elections, although this time they were accused of electoral fraud. Students stormed the parliament in disgust, and they destroyed symbols of the Communist Party.

Fresh elections were organized, followed by period of political instability, until eventually a coalition of pro-European Union parties gained power.

Cuba’s leaders seem equally nostalgic for the past era of Soviet power, and they remain doggedly attached to its model for a centrally planned economy. Despite the poor performance record of this economic model everywhere else in the world, Cuba’s leadership skillfully relies on the stubborn, long-running U.S. embargo as the ideal pretext for deflecting any and all scrutiny and criticism away from the Communist Party’s policies.

But the model that is far more common today is the new breed of state-sponsored capitalism which was perfected by China and adopted by Vietnam and Laos. These countries have embraced the free market, but not in a way that was predicted. High-level Communist Party officials and powerful businesses work together hand-in-glove. The CEO’s of all of China’s big companies in strategic sectors are members of the Communist Party, hand-picked by top officials for their loyalty.

And those capitalist businesses which are boosted with authoritarian steroids perform very well on the global stage, often with the willing participation of foreign investors.

At home, the destructive excesses and inequalities of capitalism now flourish, and without the counterbalances of a free press and independent labor unions. Vocal critics of industrial pollution, mining projects and unfair working conditions are often treated in the same harsh manner as political dissidents by authorities.

When these countries started down the path of economic openness, most commentators predicted that political reforms and progress on human rights would follow.

Those predictions haven’t come true.

Nowhere is that as evident as it is in Laos.

The country’s first stock exchange, which you see here, opened up in the capital last year. A string of glitzy casinos can now be seen near the banks of the Mekong river. But deep in the jungles of Laos, it is as if the Cold War never ended.

There, ethnic Hmong people are living in hiding, constantly in fear of attacks by the Lao People’s Army. Why? Because the Hmong collaborated with French and then American forces during the Vietnam War. After the U.S. was defeated and communist forces took over Laos in 1975, they continued to hunt down the Hmong, a practice which endures to this day.

The Hmong eek out their existence by scavenging for roots in the jungle. They move their makeshift camps every few weeks to avoid detection. When army patrols discover them and open fire, it is often the slowest and the weakest who are gunned down before they can flee into the brush.

For these ethnic Hmong, who still live in the cross hairs of a Communist regime, it would never cross their minds to tell you that communism is dead.

© Tomas van Houtryve 2012. All rights reserved. Do not copy, publish, re-post or archive without the author’s permission.

Laos | Open Secret multimedia in VII The Magazine

Laos Open Secret multimedia for VII The Magazine

The latest incarnation of my Laos | Open Secret photo project is featured with sound and video in VII The Magazine. The multimedia was edited by Scott Thode.

If you’ve been following this project, you’ll know that it would not have been possible without the support of 140 individuals through the crowd-funding platform. The International Rescue Committee is also supporting this work and helping to get the word out about the situation in Laos by distributing Open Secret mini-books.

If you would like to help raise awareness about the treatment of the Hmong in Laos, please actively share the multimedia link or contact me to order bulk copies of the mini-books for distribution.



“Laos | Open Secret” goes public with books, Paris screening and VII feature

Thanks to the support of 140+ project backers on, my story about Laos is going public.

• You can now find it featured on the VII Photo website:

VII feature: Laos | Open Secret

• • •

• A softcover mini-book is now available for purchase directly from Blurb:

• • •

• There is also a hardcover collector’s version of the book, which is limited to 100 signed and numbered copies. Please contact me directly for price and availability.

Laos | Open Secret

• • •

• If you are in the Paris area on Monday, June 20, the new photos from Laos will be included in a screening of “Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism” as part of the Slideluck Potshow Paris II. The event includes projections of more than 30 other photographers and takes place from 7:00 PM to 11:45 PM at Le BAL, 6 impasse de la défense, 75018 Paris.

The Laos mini-books are ready to print

Laos | Open Secret mini-book

Laos | Open Secret

Today, the test proofs of the Laos mini-book returned from the printer. I’m really pleased with how well they turned out. They look fantastic, and the hardcover version is an especially nice object to hold in the hands. The front cover is bright red with black titles, and the back cover features a collage of the online comments left by project backers, along with other clippings from the project.

back cover

Back cover detail.

To arrived at this stage, I brought in my project backers to engage in the editorial process at various steps along the way. First, I sent them a Photoshelter lightbox with a large selection of 100 images from Laos.

Lightbox edit

Lightbox sent to backers. comments

Comments and ratings left by project backers.

Over the following days people rated the photos from 1 to 5 stars and added questions and comments to the individual images.

Taking into account this feedback and the average ratings of the photos, I then put together a tight edit of 24 photos. Then I started trying out various page layouts for the mini-book.

Next, I put up a slideshow of the page layouts in the ‘Making of Zone’ and asked for more feedback. The response was very helpful. Overall, people liked the rhythm and message of the book, but two particular pages brought up a debate. For those two pages I made some alternative layouts and put them up for a vote by the backers.

While people had the chance to take part in the edit, I started writing the essay that would go in the book. I spent a few days in isolation and wrote a six-page essay about conditions on the ground in Laos, trying to answer the question of how Communism had managed to adapt and survive in the country.

The resulting mini-book is a lot more condensed and personalized than you would find in an average large print-run photo book, yet much longer and more in-depth than the average magazine feature. More importantly, I feel I have managed to maintain a more pure level of authorship than most magazines generally allow to photojournalists. At the same time, I got crucial feedback from backers which helped to refine, polish and validate the final product. There was never a risk that my photos would be used out of context or as simple illustrations as can unfortunately happen in the press. I was able to express my vision and rely on the tight group of engaged backers to toss out any editorial errors. Harnessing the platform has also allowed me to gather significant resources for a subject that is generally overlooked and forgotten by the media. So far, this way of operating has required more work  on my part than usual, but it has also been much more rewarding.

For people interested in getting involved in this project during this last stage, it is still possible to order a softcover mini-book for $75 or buy access to the ‘Making of Zone’ on for $10 (if you want to look over the behind the scenes process in detail).

The hardcover mini-books are limited to 100 signed and numbered copies, so please contact me directly to request one. The initial price is $125 per copy, but it increases as we get closer to the series limit.

Laos | Open Secret

Laos | Open Secret. First print proofs.

It is also possible to order bulk copies of the book to distribute for advocacy purposes. The International Rescue Committee has already stepped up and ordered 30 copies to distribute to policy makers. If you need bulk copies, contact me directly and I will calculate the bulk discount.

Acknowledgements page detail

Acknowledgements page detail.

Who supports crowdfunded projects? And why? (via the blog)

The following post by Miki Johnson was copied with permission from the blog.

• • •

One of the most important, but possibly least understood, aspects of crowdfunding is what makes a person decide to support a specific project? Understanding this will help more projects reach their goals, help organizations like focus their energies, and possibly give us a glimpse into the kind of journalism that audiences will be willing to pay for in the future.

To help answer this, several backers of Tomas van Houtryve’s project graciously agreed to answer a few questions. We asked them:

  • How they found out about the project
  • Why they decided to support it
  • What the experience of being a backer has been like
  • If they would recommend to friends or suggest any improvements

We were happy to hear that everyone would (and did) recommend to friends, and that their suggestions were mostly for technical improvements to the site (which we’re working on). Their input gives us an important glimpse into the mind of a backer, but this is obviously a small sample, so we will continue to do more interviews. If you have any input, whether you’re a backer or not, please share it in the comments!

Ethnic Hmong relatives of CIA Secret War veterans walk through the jungle in the Vientiane province of Laos. Photo by Tomas van Houtryve.

Kimo Quaintance, 36, is an American living in Munich, Germany, and a lecturer in International Relations at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces. He’s been involved in photography for nearly 20 years, mostly as an amateur.

Last summer he and a social anthropologist colleague organized a photo elicitation/photo repatriation project reuniting archival photographs with their source communities in the Marsabit area of northern Kenya. This summer they’ll be using photography as part of their research exploring Somali diaspora trade and trust networks throughout Kenya.

“This was the first project of its kind I’ve funded. I heard about it through Tomas’ Facebook page and I encouraged my friends to support it through my Facebook page, which I know a few people responded to.

Last summer I had an exchange with Tomas over the idea of crowdfunding. At the time he was experimenting with the micropayment service Flattr, which I was skeptical about for numerous reasons.

I kept an eye on his work, however, and felt like he’d hit upon a good approach with He’d obviously thought a lot about the relationship of the photographer to their audience/supporters, and was smart with the way he was adding value for his supporters. With the larger concept of crowdfunding, these questions of engagement and added value are essential.

“For a number of reasons, I don’t think we have much of an audience for simply consuming photojournalism anymore.”

It’s not that people don’t care about quality photojournalism, it’s just that our media environment is both saturated and fragmented, so both the emotional impact and market for quality photojournalism have been greatly diluted on the societal level.

That said, some of the same forces that have been diluting the impact of photojournalism also open up new opportunities for photojournalists to build personal connections with their audience. This requires a willingness to open up the process of photojournalism and empower an audience through direct engagement. Fortunately, I think Tomas has figured that out, and is using this opportunity to share his skill and experience in a more direct way. That approach represents a type of humility and willingness to nurture an audience that resonates very deeply with me as a teacher.

Tomas did a nice job of trying to serve a number of different audiences with his behind-the-scenes updates. Personally, I was most interested in the vignettes that wouldn’t have made it into a final presentation, and especially in the exploration of his tools and techniques for actually doing this kind of work.

“I supported this project partly in the hopes that I could learn things that would help me in my own photographic work, and on that level of teaching, he certainly succeeded.”

Tomas appreciated that this kind of engagement is only meaningful when there is a dialogue rather than a broadcast. His responsiveness to questions and audience contributions was a model that others who want to use the same approach should take very seriously.

Relatives of veterans of the CIA Secret War break down in tears at their hidden village in the Vientiane province of Laos. Photo by Tomas van Houtryve.

At the moment, I’m not following the project so closely. I’m trying to learn what the “market” wants by following my natural feelings, rather than any idea of what I “should” do. Interestingly, I stopped following it after he reached his funding goal, which makes me think that much like storytelling itself, the most successful projects will be ones that find a way to maintain suspense and surprise throughout the process. In that way, I think it was quite lucky that he started the project before the funding target was reached, as it created a real sense of urgency and suspense to the whole process, that when combined with quality substance, made for a very engaging experience.”

Gwen Lafage, 33, lives in San Francisco, where she moved five months ago from Paris. Formerly a business director for advertising agencies, she is passionate about photography and is currently starting a new photo project in San Francisco.

“I had already seen Tomas’ photos on the VII photo agency site, and I really enjoyed his perception of the world, his photographic style. I read a lot about photography so I was aware of before its launch, and when I saw Tomas’project there I instantly decided to follow him.

“I like the idea of photojournalists going places that are not top priority in the news.”

I like that some of them dedicate themselves to long-term project to give us a deeper perspective on a story. And I loved the idea of being able to follow a photographer though a project, to better understand the details of his daily life, how he manages his day, how people react to his presence, where he stays, who he meets, etc.

I decided to back Tomas’ project specifically because of his previous images, and because he was going to a country I wished to see. I traveled for a year a few years ago, but because of a motorcycle accident in Malaysia I had to shorten my stay in south east Asia and I didn’t get to visit Laos, which was part of my plan.

I really enjoyed Tomas’ posts; they were very well written, very detailed, and very real. I also enjoyed being able to start a ‘relationship’ with him. It felt as if I had a friend writing me emails from the opposite side of the world, which is really different than reading a story in the news.

I’m very concerned by the changing model of photojournalism and the threat it presents for photojournalists, and everyone else. News travel fast with the Internet, and we can get easily overwhelmed, but newspapers don’t have the money to pay for long-term projects anymore. We rush through news and don’t take the time to read a good story, to learn more about something.

I love that some people have innovative ideas and are trying to solve these issues – is a great idea! I mentioned it and Tomas’ project to my friends on Facebook, Twitter, and on my blog.

Now I’m looking forward to seeing more images, to getting the final book, and hopefully an exhibition, possibly at my new gallery, Carte Blanche in SF! :) I would be interested in being involved in the book-making process or on the selection of images; of course not for everything he does, but maybe for some of it.”

Selim Korycki, 36, was born in Poland and currently lives in London, UK, where he has been a freelance photographer for the last few years (and was a bike messenger for ten years before that). He will graduate with a photography degree from University of Westminster next year.

“I came across Tomas’ work from North Korea following an online link about two years ago — I was glued to the computer screen. Having grown up in a country ruled by a socialist government, I was interested in how socialism and communism are being represented since the Iron Curtain went down.

The experience of living in both political systems — a socialist republic and a western democracy — gives me a unique point of view on both. Tomas’ work on 21st-Century communism totally fascinated me. Over the last couple of years I kept coming back to Tomas’ website and blog, and that is how I learned about and Tomas’ plans to go back to Laos.

My main reason to back his project was the “behind the scenes” access to the preparations, itinerary, choice of places/people/situations. It is a great way to learn. The ability to see images/footage that may not make it to the final edit is simply priceless. So are the comments and thoughts of the photographer.

“Memories fade away quickly and any writing about the project at the later stage is likely to be very different than blogging right there, right then.”

Another reason to back Tomas’ project was the ability to contribute to creation of a body of work that would communicate what is happening in Laos, which many Western visitors perceive as an exotic place they visit to get stoned.

I have pointed a few of my friends towards projects featured on Why? All those projects are dealing with important issues that otherwise may not get the coverage they should be getting.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the final edit of the images, the actual visual narrative. I’m also very curious to see the published project, and to find out which outlets will decide to disseminate it. Also what impact the project can have on the situation in Laos, and on Western perceptions of the country.”

Andrew Stanbridge is a 32 year old photographer based in Portland, Oregon, and Southeast Asia, who describes his work as “toeing the line between photojournalism and fine art documentary photography.”

“I think all photojournalists know about at this point through the grapevine. I have been following Tomas’s work for some time and was excited to see that he was going to approach Laos finally in his quest to document the surviving Communist nations.

I have been photographing in Laos intensively for the past 12 years and contacted him to see if he wanted any advice as to places to photograph, themes, contacts, etc. From there we started a fun back-and-forth of emails, before and during his trip.

“I will be backing many projects on, since I see it as a big part of the future of how independent projects will be possible.”

I was ready as soon as the site went live, thinking about which ones to back. I also have shared and continue to share the idea of, as well as individual projects that either fascinate me or that I think may intrigue particular friends.

I went a little larger on Tomas’s than I expected (being the starving photographer that we all are), but I was excited to add his small book to my library of Laos-related publications. I also think that we photographers need to have each other’s backs, be it sharing advice, equipment, encouragement, or money.

Ethnic Hmong women return from the jungle with baskets full of roots to be eaten in the Vientiane province of Laos. Photo by Tomas van Houtryve.

As a backer, I felt the same way that I do whenever I come into contact with people who are interested in similar subjects and are not carrying a big ego on their shoulders. I think that the myth of the photographer is held by those not in the field. Most of us know each other as the same sort of people, scrambling around the world, figuring out the best way to tell the stories that resonate with us.

I am looking forward to sharing a Beer Lao with Tomas somewhere in the world and comparing notes on our experiences in Laos. In the meantime, it was great to get both the personal notes from him, as well as the updates that he created for all his backers on

In the end it is about the rewards of knowing that I got to help in little ways to make a very worthwhile project come to fruition, as well as being part of the beginning of a powerful new crowdfunding model for photographers.

Now I’m looking forward to seeing how Tomas puts the photos together to tell the story that has evolved during his travels. I am particularly interested in the defined project of Laos, but will also be paying attention to how he fits it into his broader project on communism. I imagine that certain images will take on more meaning as he begins to edit, and I hope to see some stories/reflections along with those images when he is ready to share them.”

Anja Lampert sent this comment to Tomas unsolicited, and he suggested I include it in this post, since it highlights yet another way his work has been helpful to a backer.

“Hi Tomas! I find your blog entries really interesting and want to say thanks for this opportunity to get some background info on your project and Laos itself.

I never knew about Laos (apart from that it existed on the map), about the heavy bombings during the Vietnam war and how people are still living with the aftermath of this era until I had to research some info about Benzoin Resinoid.

I work for a cosmetics company and we use quite an amount of this resin. We buy it from a few villages in Laos, and it was quite complicated to get in touch with the people who produce/collect it. As I had to hold a training session on this particular ingredient, I also found out more about Laos, but then discovered that most people hardly know anything about this country, and that it’s not easy to get information about how people live there.

This is a great opportunity for me to get some more information about this country, plus having all this information brought along with pictures, which are a pleasure to see!”

(Compiled and written by Miki Johnson)

130 Editors: Insights from a photographer’s first crowdfunded project (via the blog)

The following interview by Miki Johnson was copied with permission from the blog.

• • •

The team is so grateful to the photographers we’ve collaborated with and the 750+ backers who have pledged more than $60,000 to their projects. Many people have taken a leap of faith on this new funding model for visual journalism — now it’s our responsibility to return the favor.

In this post, and more to come, we hope to contribute to the growing discourse on innovative journalism funding models and to help develop success strategies for and other crowdfunded projects.

We’re excited to kick off with Tomas van Houtryve, one of the first photographers to have his project fully funded on, despite the fact that he was forced to fundraise and update backers while simultaneously making the photos he was fundraising for. Luckily for all of us, he succeeded despite the obstacles (something photojournalists are known for, after all) and has returned from Laos with important insights and advice.


From reading Tomas’ posts from Laos, I was excited to learn that his backers were already impacting the quality of his work, and not simply by supplying him with financing.

One of his backers has worked and photographed in Laos for 12 years and gladly shared his thoughts and contacts. “It was really really helpful,” Tomas says, and convinced him to stay longer in a few places he was initially planning to just pass through.

I wondered if Tomas had ever experienced anything like this before? He hadn’t. Mostly because, in the past, he never would have publicly broadcast online what story he was planning on doing for fear that another photographer might try scoop him.

“This turned the tables completely, turning people from potential competitors to supporters,” he says. “It turns out, at least on this story, any worries of competition were unwarranted, and I had a lot more supporters out there than I would have imagined.”

Tomas now has around 130 backers who he communicates with regularly, posting exclusive updates on his Making Of Zone and fielding questions and comments. So what’s it like to have so many people invested in his story? For Tomas, it’s “fantastic.”

“A backer means so much more to me than just a reader in a magazine because they have a stake in the story; most readers are equally distracted by the ads next to the story,” he explains. “That increases the pressure a little bit, too, but not more than having an editor who gave you money to accomplish a story. In either case, when someone invests in a story, you’re going to feel a sense of commitment and want to get it right.”

Ok, but wasn’t there ever a moment of hesitation, where it felt like maybe he was giving away his secrets?

“Not at all,” Tomas insists. “I can’t, in good financial conscience, sit on the Internet all day telling people how I work. But if I’m paid as a teacher, or if backers are contributing, that’s sustainable, it’s not time lost. And it’s even nicer to be able to do it out in the field, instead of entering an academic structure or setting up a workshop. That’s a golden combination.”


While in Laos, Tomas posted eight updates, ranging from traditional journalistic reports to personal reflections and observations. In one he discussed Phonsavan, “one of the most heavily bombarded places on earth,” where locals use unexploded ammunition as building materials, including “four bombs which were used as columns to prop up a chicken coop.”

He also included a more technical post about his equipment, and a lighthearted tangent on a mysterious suitcase filled with Russian electronics he found in an attic (which turned out to be an early computer). Comments on the posts help Tomas understand his audience’s interests and gave him an important outside perspective.

His backers were eager to know: how Laos compares to other communist countries; how they can help people in Laos; and if Laos is experiencing effects from recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Some backers grew up in Eastern Europe under Communist regimes themselves, and were able to their share and compare their own experiences.

Grateful for the context his backers added to the story, Tomas was keen to respond to their comments and questions as quickly as possible.

“I’m trying to give people a vastly different experience than they would get from a newspaper or magazine website,” he says. “If you post a comment there, no one ever gets back to you, or it often becomes a shouting match with other people leaving comments.”

Backers also helped Tomas see his work with fresh eyes, expressing how hard it was to relate to and understanding a place as war-torn and impoverished as Laos. They asked Tomas to follow up on more pictures of daily life, ones they could relate to better, which he did later in the trip.

“When you only show the extreme points of a story, it’s a little intimidating; it doesn’t always give people a bridge into the topic,” Tomas realizes. “I’ve been working on this topic for a long time, so it was good to be reminded what pieces of context they needed to understand the story.”


Working with an enthusiastic pool of backers seems like an ideal situation, but what we really want to know is: How did he convince 130 people to support his project in the first place?

Tomas’ experience echoes a rule I’ve heard over and over from every corner of the social media landscape: You have to be there already. It sounds simple, but also like a bit of a Catch 22.

Long before posting his project to, Tomas had already joined every social media platform he came across: blogging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a social micro-funding site called Flattr. Over a year or so of regular use, he’d built up a small audience on each one, people who trusted him, liked his work, and were therefore willing to support his project by donating and/or by sharing it with their friends.

“I think Facebook was quite effective, but its downside is that friends, family, and colleagues are all mixed together, so everyone is getting the same kind of message,” he reflects. “These tools aren’t perfect, but if you let them build up organically, then send out consistent messages, it eventually filters out to the wider public.”

In addition to the help gives all photographers in promoting their projects, attention was funneled to Tomas’ by his posts on several blogs. These likewise grew from relationships he’d established earlier.

Like many photographers, Google Image searches have helped Tomas find his photos scattered across the Internet, mostly on personal blogs. “The bad news is, I’m not getting paid for the use and reproduction of my photos; the good news is the person who put this on their blog is clearly interested in my work,” he thought.

First he contacted the bloggers and asked them to include a Flattr button next to his images, at least reminding viewers that someone had spent time and money to make this image, even if the remuneration from Flattr was mostly “symbolic.”

“That got me in conversation with quite a few bloggers I hadn’t been in touch with before,” Tomas says. “Those people were then interested to hear more as I was experimenting with”


Part of Tomas’ proposal includes the creation of a mini-book from his Laos work that backers will receive, as well as help to edit and decide which policy-makers it’s sent to. I imagine the idea of “editing by committee” makes many photographers cringe, so Tomas outlined his idea for me.

He plans to do the “top level” edit himself, sifting out images that are technically flawed or weak. He mostly plans to ask for input when he has doubts or questions. His backers include professional photo editors, fine art photographers, as well as those completely inexperienced in photo editing.

“I think it’s good to get a trained eye, but also somebody that’s fresh,” he reflects. “People who have a fine arts background are interesting too; they might like ambiguity, while people from another point of view will like images that clarify.”

Tomas has also been inspired by the spirited conversation in his posts’ comments and now plans to incorporate the words of his backers into the mini-book. It’s a kind of homage to Gilles Peress’ influential 1984 book, Telex Iran, in which his images are “captioned” by telexes, communications to and from Peress’ lab technicians and the Magnum agency.

“Those images were made in 1979, so it would be really interesting to apply his concept to this completely new way of communicating and funding a project” Tomas says.

(Interview by Miki Johnson)

Down to the Wire

*UPDATE, APRIL 4, 2011: The project reached and surpassed its funding goal of $8800. It could not have happened without the amazing outpouring of support and generosity from 130+ backers, plus dozens of others who shared and posted the project link. To everyone that pitched in to help this project, I offer my most sincere thanks. This is very exciting, and I am thrilled to learn that so many people care about this issue and are willing to support in-depth photojournalism. Again, thank you.


Previous post continues below.

Thanks to the combined contributions of 100 supporters, we have raised $7371 in the last 24 days. I am truly inspired by the generosity and enthusiasm that this project has sparked. I extend a huge thank you to everyone already involved.

Now, it is down to the wire. There are only 4 days left to raise the remaining $1429 needed for the project. That means four days left to get a signed collector’s edition Laos mini-book, or a limited-edition art print from North Korea, Nepal, China, Moldova, Cuba, Vietnam or Laos. There are only four days left to get access to the project’s “Making Of Zone,” where backers are already posting dozens of interesting questions and comments.

If you are still wondering whether you should get involved or not, now is the time join us!


In partnership with, an innovative internet startup, this project is a groundbreaking experiment in community-funded photojournalism. For the past three weeks, I’ve been simultaneously fundraising, photographing in Laos, and sending exclusive updates to project supporters.

My intention is not only to build a community of supporters that care about this subject, but to distribute this underreported story in a powerful way. Mini-edition books will be sent to prime backers, human rights groups, NGOs, and influential policy makers, while a multimedia piece will be featured in VII The Magazine.


By contributing, you become an active participant in shaping the future of photojournalism. If this project is successful, it will offer new proof of the importance of in-depth visual journalism, and show that dedicated individuals are ready to stand up and support it.

Crowd-funding on is all or nothing: if we don’t reach the $8800 goal by April 5th, all contributions are returned to backers’ accounts.


Since this project campaign launched 24 days ago, it has gathered considerable interest in the press and on blogs, with mentions in The New York Times, The British Journal of Photography, Wired RAW File, A Photo Editor, Photo District News, Photoshelter, Eclats de guerre, and  Rapporteurs Photo. We’ve got some serious momentum behind us, and the finish line is now only days away.

If you haven’t already done so, please add your contribution to the project and join in spreading the news.

After the War, the Bombs

As cruise missiles and air strikes rain down on Libya today, it is worth looking back at the legacy of previous American military bombing campaigns. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has bombed at least 25 countries.

Of all of them, no country’s population was hit as hard as that of Laos. The entire war in Laos was carried out in secret, without congressional approval and far away from TV cameras. Only the CIA and the Laotian people knew what was happening between 1964 and 1973, when U.S. warplanes dropped over two million tons of bombs on the landlocked nation, which amounted to more than two tons per person, based on the population at that time.

As part of my project which is being supported by backers, I just spent several days photographing one of the most heavily bombed areas in human history. Four decades later, the bombs are still around. Munitions that didn’t explode on impact continue to detonate and claim lives of civilians in Laos today. Scraps of war junk have become fixtures in a grim landscape.

As I am traveling through Laos, I am sending out exclusive updates from the field to project supporters. If you would like to get involved in this project and receive the updates, the minimum contribution is $10. Books, prints and other rewards are available for larger contributions. Every bit helps, and I need your support to spread the news to others to make this project a success. The deadline for participation is April 5th.

Please visit the project page on to get involved:

(Once registered, you can access more images and the latest updates from Laos by clicking on the “Making Of Zone” tab.)

Get in on the ground floor. Become an early participant in my 21st Century Communism project

Update – March 8, 2011: The website has been launched and early participation is now finished. The links in this post have been updated to take you directly to my proposal on

In advance of the official launch of, my crowd-funding proposal about 21st Century Communism is now open for early participation.

The first round of backers started pouring in last night. A warm thanks to Susan Glen, Kevin Moloney, Franck Joucla Castillo, Craig Ferguson, Danielle Alberti, Stephanie Davis, Ashley Gilbertson, and Mira Kamdar for being at the front of the line!

To join them, visit the proposal page on my website and then fill out the early participation form. Please note, early participants will not be charged anything at this time. When the platform becomes fully operational, you will be contacted to follow through on your commitment. Check out the video and project synopsis below.

21st Century Communism: Laos | support this project

Project synopsis

For the past seven years, I’ve been documenting the last communist holdouts around the world. Surprisingly, communism is not dead. Several communist governments have endured and evolved in unexpected ways. Even today, the ideology lies at the heart of several contemporary conflicts and human rights abuses. Such is the case in Laos, which never fully recovered from the war in neighboring Vietnam.

I first traveled to Laos in 2007, and though my visit was brief, it was extremely intense and troubling. I photographed CIA-trained ethnic Hmong guerrillas who have been living in hiding since 1975, when the United States pulled out. They live in the jungle, constantly in fear of attacks by the Laotian army.

Although the story had an impact in the media – with three photos printed on the front page of The New York Times – I was not able to stay in Laos long enough to put the situation in broader context.

Behind the rare headlines, what is really happening in Laos? How has communism survived against the tides of history? In addition to the tragic story of the Hmong opposition, how have the scars of war shaped the current situation?

With your participation, I’ll return to document contemporary Laos, the final step in my series on 21st century communism. Together, here is what we can create:

1) An in-depth photo essay from Laos
The finished essay will be submitted to traditional outlets for publication. It will also be distributed in innovative ways to maximize impact and scope. Read below.

2) A mini-edition book that will be sent to prime backers, human rights groups, NGOs, and influential policy makers.
The mini-book will showcase the Laos photo essay with depth and permanence. For every 10 mini-books ordered by backers, I will send one free copy to an influential policy-maker or organization connected to Laos.

3) A multimedia feature in VII The Magazine
I will reach out to the wider public with a multimedia feature in partnership with VII The Magazine, which syndicates photo features to, Lens Culture and other sites.

4) A new form of behind-the-scenes collaboration
I’ll send you exclusive updates from the field and share my insights and experiences as the creative process unfolds. Backers will be able to help select which photos make the final edit. They will also be able to vote on the list of organizations and policy-makers to be sent mini-books.


My project budget is $8800 USD. Funds contributed to this project will go toward reporting and publishing costs. These include airfare, local transport, food, lodging, translation, visa fees, printing and shipping costs. The VII Photo Agency will cover multimedia production costs. The budget does not include any personal renumeration.


Since 2004, my series on global communism has entailed 25 separate trips. Seven were financed upfront by the following publications: TIME, The New York Times, Newsweek, VSD, Le Figaro Magazine, La Vie and the International Herald Tribune. Two trips were paid for with a $20,000 grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The rest were paid for out of my own pocket.

I passionately believe in the importance of this work. I’m even willing to pay my own way back to Laos alone if needed. But with your help, we can ensure this underreported story will be told and distributed in a powerful way. I urge you to get involved and add your support.

View the Project View the Project

Protected: Uncovering the CIA’s Legacy in Laos

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