Thousands of Rohingya refugees stand in endless lines among shelters of plastic tarps strapped with rope, clutching their empty pans and buckets, waiting for food. In another photo Larry Louie took here, heavy bags of rice weigh down the shoulders of men unloading them from trucks. But the image of these people that really gets me is the one of a crowd of children behind a bamboo fence, one girl looking out with a mix of anger and sadness.
For four days in January 2018, Louie spent several hours a day photographing at this Rohingya refugee camp among the hills near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Since 2005, he has traveled to many other remote places in the world, including China, Nepal, the Philippines, Mali and Tanzania.
What a contrast to his life as an optometrist in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. During a visit to Portland, Oregon, where I live, Louie tells me all about it over espresso and pastries at a French café in my neighborhood. We had FaceTimed and talked by phone, and now we’re meeting in person for the first time. I’m immediately welcomed in by his warmth and gentle nature, and the buoyancy about him, an easy smile sparking his eyes with excitement.
“My photography is the other side of me. It’s my artistic outlet,” he says, leaning across the table toward me, between us an envelope with his photos I’m dying to see. “I love the old world and the disorder and energy of these far-reaching places we tend to turn a blind eye to. I’m intrigued by people working with their hands to make a living, and the simple life of family and friends around them. To get that, you have to go into the poor areas of the world. I always make a connection with the people in these places, and that encourages me to continue photographing. It’s my way of sharing my experiences, and it allows me to raise money to help them.”
Through his optometry and his photography, Louie wants to improve people’s vision. With eyewear, his patients see their own worlds better. With his camera lens, he gives people a view of the vanishing traditions of others’ worlds. He brings the two together at Louie Eyecare Center and its Louie Photography Gallery, which exhibits his work and that of other local photographers. His images for Seva Canada, an NGO that helps restore sight and prevent blindness in developing countries, are on its website and in his calendar for the organization. Oxfam, which addresses poverty, injustice and inequality, and other causes, also benefits from Louie’s photos.
“I want to see the world. The camera gives me a reason to travel and a purpose to my photography, and the NGOs allow me access to these dark places and the people who live there,” says Louie. He says the desire to help was never his main purpose, until he met and fell in love with these people he has photographed. His wife, Joanna, a pharmacist, joins him on trips. “We’re a small cog in the machine,” he tells me, “working with grassroots organizations without a lot of overhead. We give what they need — food, school supplies, surgical beds, cataract surgery, money — and where we can see a positive outcome from our help.”
In those dark places, he looks for the light. About 130 of his black-and-white photos appear in Beyond the Darkness, due out fall 2018, one of several of his self-published monographs. In the book’s five sections — A Traditional Life, A Working Life, A Playful Life, A Hard Life and A Meaningful Life — Louie illuminates the complexity of indigenous cultures around the world: Sarongs give way to blue jeans, but religion and family life keep traditions alive. Earning, on average, three dollars a day for ten hours of labor, men and women heave heavy bricks and toil in dusty jute mills, or they won’t survive. Children work, too. Louie shows us that they also can turn a garbage-strewn cemetery into a basketball court and make a playground from a patch of dirt. And though families may sleep in filthy streets and makeshift shelters, their lives are filled with love.
“Larry’s work is not nice,” says Larry Wong, award-winning international photojournalist for the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun. “His images are not the types of photos that most people would use as wall art, but what he captures is hauntingly beautiful. He travels to places where most would not even consider going, and he portrays the stark reality of the human condition, showing what the human race is capable of enduring in order to survive.”
From the rows upon rows of the Rohingya’s plastic-tarp tents and Nepal’s earthquake-rubble streets, to Manila’s flooded homes and Kathmandu’s garbage heaps, “I like to show the strength of humanity via the hardships in living conditions, but also the hapiness there,” says Louie. “You don’t have to live a life of misery just because you live in a poor environment.”
Though Louie has never known poverty firsthand, his traditional, working-class parents struggled to make ends meet when the family emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada. Just six years old, not knowing English and feeling like an outsider, the foreign kid with glasses took in this new world with his eyes, letting them also do most of the talking. “Everything important to me was visual,” he says.
On his 12th birthday, he got a Kodak 110 Instamatic camera and started taking pictures, first of street scenes and nearby landscapes of prairies, snowy trees and the Rocky Mountains. A few years later, he ventured into a rundown part of town and spent time getting to know the city’s homeless, and soon he was photographing them. Meanwhile, National Geographic magazines fueled his imagination about all the places in the world he would go, and by his late teens, he had saved up enough money for an SLR. More than anything, he wanted to be an international documentary photographer.