From the IS Collection: Napa, Marin, Sonoma Photographer
Sabaidee Laos – An education in vision.

Jody Purdom - May, 2010

Zak PortraitAlthough I didn’t ask this question, I think it’s safe to say photographer Ron Zak is happiest in a far-flung locale with a camera in his hand. From Paris and Italy to Greece and the Baltics, China and Vietnam, to Myanmar, Indonesia and dozens of places in between, Zak’s travels have kept him and many an immigration officer busy.

His most recent excursion was Laos and Thailand – where he guided a group of 15 photography students. His lusted-after tours are done through Solano Community College and students must be serious about photography to tag along. The course is for credit – three – with an age range anywhere from early 20s to late 60s.

“Ron Zak does more than just accompany us on trips. With every journey, he conceives of the idea and fine tunes the details to include only the most appropriate, most interesting stops,” said student Helen Roe. “He masterminds the entire event and pays such close attention to every detail to assure our safety while indulging us in every sensory experience possible including the best accommodations, places to stay and eat.”

Roe is fast to point out this is, still, a photography course for college credit. “You learn how to photograph. Or you learn better photography techniques. You show your work, critique others and get critiqued yourself. After all, Ron is a photography teacher.”

Zak has been a professional photographer since 1989 – following his graduation from San Francisco State University with a Masters degree in photography and printmaking. After graduation, he had the good fortune to earn a Fulbright scholarship, landing him at the University of Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. From there, it was a hop, skip and a shutter click to Paris where he began orchestrating trips abroad for other photography students.

Since then he has taken small groups of students on one or two trips per year, each time to a different exotic location on the globe. He Laosresearches each destination in advance – hence the countless passport stamps – to get a flavor for the area and an idea of what’s to photograph.

Zak’s work and that of his students evoke emotion and a sense of wonder. A saffron monk’s robe hanging on a line to dry, a Thai woman carrying a basket down a lonely market street, a joyful elephant taking a bath, a mist shrouded lake. Each image tells a story, and takes you to a different place. Particularly striking is one photo which captures a village woman surrounded by four dogs. The photo is almost monochromatic. Looking at it, you notice first the woman, then her surroundings, then the dogs. There are some obvious thoughts but mostly, the photos brings up questions.

“What makes this photo work is the overall inclusion of the various ingredients,” said Zak. “But there are secrets. As with any good photo there will be provocation – things you see and things you don’t. When the visuals resonate but leave you wondering, you’ve captured something special.”

This is one of the things Zak teaches his students. Look beyond the photo and engage the subject for a more powerful image. He says although he does typically scout locations before bringing students, communication once there is almost always an issue. Much of the time communication through gesturing is the mode of preference. Given that, he instructs his students to make contact with and acknowledge the subjects rather than doing a “snap-and-run.”

“Each trip is unique. But regardless of location, interacting with the local population is critical and this trip in particular was defined by the people,” said Zak. “Laos is often overlooked on the destination spectrum. I found it a delightful place. The people are charming and the scenery beautiful. We went down the Mekong River and entered Laos by boat. And we stayed in small villages so we really got to meet and mix with the local population. This gives my students a true sense of where they’ve been.”

Helen Roe agrees, “Ron’s trips are really about the experience not just the photographs themselves. Lots of times we might have missed perhaps the best award-winning photograph by slipping the camera aside and being present, being in the moment with the people or the place. That is what Ron’s trips are about – the real core of what he intends for his group.”

Indeed, one student wrote a stirring poem entitled, “Lao Now,” which describes one man’s experience making contact with the local population and “carrying back the moments of our choosing.” Author John Bonick invites readers of the poem to look further than the photos – just as he was taught to look further before snapping the image.

Bonick’s poem will be published in an online book “Sabaidee Laos”, a collection of photos from the trip. Zak creates a book after almost every trip. The entire collection is available through Visit Zak’s Web site at

Lao Now

The children in the temple yard, harsh sunlight upon their heads
have formed into a loose parade, are running now, but clearly led
by a girl with a bucket, a stick and a mission
she beats a marching rhythm, she calls them all to action
and above the market hustle between foreigner and Lao
the girl with the drum sings “now, now, now”

As the Mekong bends in northern Lao, we’ve landed in Luang Prabang
an ancient town where monks come down at breaking light to gather alms
with cameras cocked we stalk the streets to touch their image and their soul
to capture in the fractured light their simple grace, their saffron robes
historic sight that trails as far as morning rays allow
until our quick attention clicks to “now, now, now”

Where the Lang Xang kingdom once prevailed the villages and tribes remain
in stilted homes on dusty roads or muddy in the monsoon rain
with spirit guides so sharing that they offer us like alms
great windows in their children’s eyes, their food, their hearts, their calm
and arching up above the trees the silent Buddha towers
with constant smile that calls us all to “now, now, now”

Across the sea we’ve traveled, these snips of time we’re using
to make contact and carry back the moments of our choosing
but struggle in the telling of the world through which we’ve come
till we think about the girl with the singing and the drum
and though I’m told she talks of “cold” when she speaks the words in Lao
the beats inside our heads repeat the “now, now, now”
the children running in the streets sing “now, now, now”

John Bonick
Vientiane, Laos
January 9, 2010