A River Runs with Her

The 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women is taking place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 14-24 March. The session is looking at women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development. In Southeast Asia, the Mekong River is a vast waterway with a diverse range of cultures. Christine McNab is a Canadian who has been living in Bangkok for several years. This year, she’s working on a project to highlight the lives of women who live along the Mekong River.

UNAIDS spoke to Christine about her personal decision to launch this photography project and the stories she has uncovered so far.


Khun Gong is 79 years old. She’s been weaving traditional Thai designs her whole life in the Mekong town of Ban Had Bai in northern Thailand. Credit: Christine McNab

UNAIDS: You had a very successful career in global health communications, what led you to give that up and start a new career as a photographer?

Christine: I have had – and really enjoyed – quite senior jobs in global health advocacy and communication that kept me in offices, and haven’t had as much opportunity to go into the field and talk to ‘real’ people. When I traveled I always brought a camera, and realized how much I enjoyed taking photographs. So I thought, here I am in Bangkok, close to so many fascinating countries bordering the Mekong River, so why not take a break and give photography a serious try. I am happy to have this chance and excited to see where this project goes.

There are lots of excellent and very experienced photographers out there. I am not trying to compete with anybody, except with myself and do the best work I can do.

UNAIDS: What is it that inspires you about photography?

Christine: There is the cliché that a picture tells a thousand words – but a good one really does.  In these busy times when we’re overloaded with information, people remember powerful images.  They can tell a story and leave an imprint in just a few seconds.  If you can capture that kind of image, you can communicate a strong, lasting message.

For example in the last months, the images of Syrian refugees reaching Greek shores with their small children trigger intense emotions. You feel something immediately when you see these images and you connect with the story of parents doing everything they can to bring their families to safety. As a photographer you give people a chance to say something, even if they have no words. These images bring understanding and sympathies that might not exist otherwise.


A woman and her daughter gather flowers from “cotton” trees on Don Sao, in northern Laos at the Golden Triangle. Credit: Christine McNab

UNAIDS: What is your project ‘A River Runs with Her’ about and why did you want to focus on women along the Mekong River?

Christine: The world committed last year to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Gender equality is one goal but it is really at the heart of success for reaching all the goals. Women living along the Mekong represent six countries, many cultures, ancient traditions and new ways of life. Some of them are doing extraordinary things. Some of them are just getting by and feeding their families – which in a time of drought can also be an extraordinary thing. So I wanted to tell the story of women’s equality from their point of view.

The Mekong River is an artery – it’s essential for life.  Millions are dependent on this river for their water, food, and livelihood. The river is 4300 kilometres long and has one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world. Work to sustainably protect this environment and mitigate climate change is critical to the future of these communities. The women living along the Mekong are each individuals, but they all rely on the water, and changes to the Mekong affect each of them.


Primary school girls in their classroom in Pakse, Laos PDR. Credit: Christine McNab

UNAIDS: How do you hope your project will have an impact on gender equality?

Christine:  Gender equality initiatives must sustainably benefit all women, especially the poorest, from every culture and at every age. Because I’m self-funded and not bound to tell stories about a specific development project, I can meet with women from all walks of life and try to understand more about their lives.  I hope that the images and the women’s words transport viewers into the women’s lives and help all of us gain insights into what they really need to attain the SDGs – which most of them have never heard about.

UNAIDS: What has been your most vivid encounter so far?

Christine: I recently traveled to the Golden Triangle area where three South-east Asian countries meet.

In the Chiang Rai area I was invited by a wonderful community health nurse to visit the HIV clinic. There were hundreds of people who were receiving services in this district hospital in northern Thailand – including people from across the river in Myanmar and Lao PDR, who could come for testing and treatment prescriptions.

People were very open and friendly, and I was impressed by how many people chose to come to the “open” clinic – a big message about the reduction of stigma and discrimination in the area for people living with HIV.

I talked to one woman whose life was completely transformed by treatment. About 10 years ago she weighed 12 kilograms, and today she is healthy and working her farm. I have heard these stories from afar, but to sit in front of somebody whose life was truly saved by access to treatment had a big impact on me. That’s one story of many that has inspired me a lot and made me really energized about A River Runs with Her.

You can follow Christine and the stories of women who live on the Mekong here: www.ChristineMcNab.com/her-stories/

and you can also follow her Facebook Photography page at:


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