Few countries attract less attention than Laos, and fewer still are as deft at repelling scrutiny. Over the years, the landlocked nation evolved into a perfect repository for secrets. Laos was the site of the CIA’s largest paramilitary operation and the most extensive clandestine bombing campaign in history. The U.S. was defeated and Communists took power in 1975, but the tradition of secrecy held firm. Even today, grave incidents which would provoke outrage elsewhere – persecution, abuse, corruption, starvation – are easily shrugged off or quietly ignored. A potent blend of Leninist political theory and shady business practices keep the Communists firmly in power. Despite the end of the Cold War, the government of Laos continues to relentlessly hunt and kill ethnic Hmong people who collaborated with the U.S. more than three decades ago.
Tomas van Houtryve is a photographer, artist and author who engages critical contemporary issues around the world.
Initially a student in philosophy, Tomas developed a passion for photography while enrolled in an overseas university program in Nepal. Immediately after graduation in 1999, he devoted himself fully to photojournalism, starting out with the Associated Press in Latin America. He was the first AP photographer to cover the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in 2002 he traveled to Kandahar to photograph families of the Guantánamo inmates.
Tomas left AP in 2003 to concentrate on large-scale personal projects, starting with the Maoist rebellion in Nepal. The resulting photos of the rebels’ rise to power earned wide recognition including the Visa pour l’Image-Perpignan Young Photographer Award and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents.
In 2006 Tomas was named one of PDN’s 30 Emerging Photographers. He was awarded an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 2008, and in 2010 he was named the POYi Photographer of the Year.
Tomas’ first monograph book, Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism, was published in Spring 2012. The seven-year-long project documents life in the last countries where the Communist Party remains in power: North Korea, Cuba, China, Nepal, Vietnam, and Laos. The series won the 2012 POYi World Understanding Award.
In 2013 Tomas began working on Blue Sky Days, a drone’s-eye view of America. Images from the project were first published in Harper’s as the largest photo portfolio in the magazine’s 164-year history. The series was awarded the 2015 ICP Infinity Award and honors from POYi, World Press Photo, and the White House News Photographer’s Association.
Tomas has had solo exhibitions of his work in Paris, New York City, Spain and Italy. Many of his photographs of intense political actions are distinguished by their intimacy. Tomas is frequently interviewed on radio and television and has appeared on the BBC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, ARTE and France 5.