text by Natalie Pace, independent curator
Every year between July and December, at the height of the snow season, people gather in the mountains between Washington and Oregon, America, to hunt for rare and highly precious mushrooms and berries. Veasna’s vivid series of photographs tell the story of a common, lucrative work practice and recreational activity, lesser-known outside of this locality. In depicting the people’s successes and evoking the spirit of a thriving working community, they serve to highlight the link between empowerment and individual autonomy in choosing and being justly compensated for one’s work.
Veasna is defiantly both intrepid participant and avid documenter. Born in Cambodia, he moved to America alongside some of his family in 2007. Having witnessed some of his relatives undertaking this month-long adventure, and as an emerging artist, he decided to embark on his own ‘search for gold’. Armed with his camera, and prepared for the cold temperatures and lack of basic amenities, Veasna set out with a watchful eye intent on capturing the experience.
This resulting series of work provides documentary images with a highly aesthetic quality. His portraits constitute a near anthropological narrative, detailing the practices and techniques required. The landscapes are imbued with romantic sensibilities, strongly expressing the majesty and diversity of the natural world. Together, these photographs present a place of work, filled with beauty, unknown adventures, and exciting possibilities.
For those who venture up the mountains, the financial rewards can be great. The sought after matsutake mushroom, for example, can be sold for $200 or more each. Given as token of friendship in Japan, these prized mushrooms take skill and knowledge to find. Whilst they are hard-to-see, they can be largely distinguished by their characteristic odour. Poisonous species can cause serious illness or death so identification should not be done alone.
Approved by the government as a valid means to earn a living, the area draws people from across America. Rather than constricted by office conventions, stifling factories conditions or motivated by corporate targets, here in the mountains, people work for themselves. Despite the desire of each individual to reap their rewards, Veasna conveys the enthusiasm and cooperation he saw and was truly inspired by.