Mahout Family

Photostory description: “The word “mahout” is often misunderstood and misused.

The term derives from Hindi and means elephant keeper. In Thai, the term is kwan chang and is often translated as “one who walks with an elephant”.

Traditionally, the role of a mahout passes down patrilineally along with ownership of a family’s elephants. Being a mahout was never very profitable: they were probably on par with farmers. But historically mahouts were held in high esteem because they and their elephants were useful in times of war.

Again, traditionally, a mahout usually owned his elephant and typically worked with a single animal throughout its life.

Today, the picture is very different. Like the issues facing elephants in Thailand, the issues facing mahouts have changed drastically with the evolution of the tourism industry. Many mahouts are members of indigenous groups or immigrants from Myanmar, working more as low-status day laborers rather than as traditional mahouts, and the lifelong bond between keeper and creature is becoming a thing of the past.”

August 2012, I have received a scholarship from Document Art Asia to get a free seat in Foundry Workshop which is organized every year in different countries and Chiang Mai – Thai land was chosen to hold. This time is the second for me to get an opportunity to meet more one hundred young talent photographers and great instructors from many different continents.

In this workshop, I was instructed by Walter Astrada who is a brilliant photojournalist and an enthusiastic mentor during 6 days. After one week, each student had to report by one photo essay and all of the selected images would be shown in a conference room of Chiang Mai University of fine art at the last day of the workshop. This photostory belongs to my photo essay about the mahout’s family living in the forest. In this project, I had a chance to learn about the relationship between mahouts and their elephants.

“Life today is hard for mahouts and their families. They can be left with no option other than to take the family’s elephant to the city or tourist area to earn a living. They often have young children and wives whom they may only see once a year.

They are often more aware than anyone that conditions are incredibly harsh in the tourist camps. Elephants have to be restrained on short chains and suffer a poor, unvaried diet. The animals have virtually no social interaction and cannot thrive.

The mahouts have to work long hours to supplement poor salaries with tips and often live in very basic shacks in the camps with poor hygiene facilities and sometimes even with no running water.

To make matters worse, unscrupulous camps will often employ the cheapest labor possible. They hire young and inexperienced men who are often frightened of the animals in their care, which easily leads to abuse and accidents. These men are not “true” mahouts with generations of knowledge behind them and, sadly, bad reputations turn into stereotypes. All mahouts get labeled as forceful and abusive.”