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Burmese children smile for Chris Briscoe’s camera in a Thailand refugee camp school. - Chris Briscoe

A life-changing trip

ASHLAND — After a nearly 30-year career of shooting portraits of everyone from local families to celebrities and political powerhouses, photographer Chris Briscoe wanted to get out of his comfort zone.

So last year he hopped on a plane to Bangkok, not knowing where the journey would take him.

Where it took him changed his life.

Traveling around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam by moped and bus, Briscoe quickly found himself among the common people, giving them the first portrait they ever had, printed immediately on his battery-powered Hewlett-Packard photo printer.

Just as the photos were a high point in their lives, the people of Southeast Asia were a peak in Briscoe's life — even though some of his best pictures were taken in a garbage dump, where refugees from tyranny and violence in Myanmar were eking out a living.

His journey led to a touching, privately printed book called "Common Ground," which has found its way to the U.S. State Department, which now wants Briscoe to do a similar project in Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere.

"What I learned is that families living in garbage dumps have the same threads running through their lives as we do," Briscoe says. "They want the same things: a good education for their children, a happy life."

In one picture, a small girl stands atop a pile of trash, her tent home in the background, wearing a wild array of castoff clothing and addressing the camera with an expression of pure joy.

"In a lot of respects they are happier than we are," Briscoe says. "They're grateful for everything. I was struck by that over and over, even though their lives are defined by their struggle."

Mae-Wen Richards of People's Bank of Commerce in Ashland points to a large print of the picture in her office and says, "She's in a dump with a very happy smile. Immediately you realize she really has nothing and lives there in that dump. What Chris is telling us in this picture is that maybe they're the happiest people of all."

Coming home to the U.S. was, for Briscoe, the real culture shock, as he saw our culture with fresh eyes.

"We don't have to struggle," he says. "We're on third base already. We don't have to dodge bullets to survive. Over there, in the jungle regions, one in 250 people have lost limbs because of land mines or from bombs left over from the Vietnam War."

So moved was Briscoe during a month in Southeast Asia in spring 2008 that he came home to take his 15-year-old son, Quincy, back to the region in summer for another month. Quincy, a member of the Ashland High School varsity tennis team, took two racquets and 100 tennis balls with him. He taught Asian kids how to hit the ball and gave the balls away, to their delight.

The book is a set piece of contrast, with awe-inspiring studies of the lined faces of the aged and workers struggling under heavy loads beside shots of irrepressible kids in classrooms, shooting rubber bands in the dump or chasing after Quincy and his tennis balls.

John Davis of Davis & Cline Gallery on A Street, writing in the book's foreword, lauded Briscoe's pictures for their "artistic completeness and vision of humanity" amounting to a contemporary work of fine art.

Virtually everyone Briscoe met saw America as the golden land of opportunity, security, choice and a good education — and they wanted to come here, Briscoe recalls.

"It gave me a new perspective. When you grow up in the jungle surrounded by land mines, how do you take anyone out of that and put them in Costco and Disneyland?"

Briscoe established contacts in the region with the help of Project Enlighten, which is run by volunteers and gives aid in Southeast Asia for humanitarian, educational, environmental and other purposes. The organization, at www.projectenlighten.org, is using Briscoe's book as a fundraising tool and gift to some donors.

Briscoe, a Santa Barbara native, came to Ashland in 1971 and taught third grade at Walker Elementary School. He found his way into photography by freelancing for the Ashland Daily Tidings starting in 1980. Among his clients have been Kirk Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Dennis Miller, Rob Lowe, Olivia Newton-John and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

Briscoe's "Common Ground" is available at his studio at Fourth and A Streets in Ashland or can be ordered by e-mail at photo@chrisbriscoe.com.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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