Está en la página 1de 2

14 Photography

Naga man by Myo Myint Swe, from his portraiture work

Lives Along the Irrawaddy, A clay-pot maker at Yandapo Village by Soe Win Nyein

Burmese Photography and the Issue of Control

THERE IS A tendency in Myanmar (Burma) to equate the works of Hla Myint Swe (b. 1948; Bamaw, Kachin State) and Zaw Min Yu as documentary photography. In the opinion of Htein Win (b. 1946; Pathein, Irrawaddy Division), for instance, they are the best documentary photographers of the country. Of course, broadly speaking, their works can be deemed documentary in that they are records of what happened in front of the photographers. But perhaps it is more helpful to locate their works as a more nuanced form of travel or landscape photography that occasionally features straightforward, if not slightly gritty, portraits. Naturally, given the situation in Myanmar, documentary photography, especially in its more investigative format, is not as readily found as compared to some of her regional neighbours like Cambodia or the Philippines. In The Lives of Ordinary People (1994-), Htein Win celebrates the struggles of Burmese commoners scattered across this vast and complicated country. Picking up photography in college, he had to put aside his passion in order to make a living. For years, he worked as a publisher, video producer and interpreter before pursuing photography again in 1994. Since then, he has made some money doing infrequent commissions from international NGOs and private clients. I have always been interested in journalism, which is about the truth that people must know, adds Htein Win. It is the job of the photojournalist to record the events that will become our history (1). In the case of The Lives of Ordinary ASIAN ART SEPTEMBER 2011 People, he accumulated the photographs while travelling within the country for work. Most people I met are like that. They are not gamblers. All they hope for is survival. They never give up in their quest for a better life, either for themselves or their children, Htein Win continues. If you look at their faces, they are always smiling. I want to show their struggles in my work. (2) However, the work is not an enquiry into the cause and condition of these peoples lives. Some of his photographs, like the one taken at Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, are in fact prime examples of travel photography and do not necessarily fit into the theme of the project. And yet, it differs from the work of Zaw Min Yu in, for instance, Alingar (2006-07), where there is a deliberate attempt at romanticism in which the photographer has deliberately ignored the signs of modernity in Myanmar for traditional subject matter that is so appealing to many Westerners (3). In at least part of Htein Wins work, there is a focus on the common people making do with the situation, going about their daily routine or labouring for a better life. This self-funded project has taken him so long to shoot due to budget constraint and the issue of access. Contrary to perception, it is not impossible to photograph on the streets of Myanmar. According to independent female journalist Mon Mon Myat (b. 1970; Yenan Chaung), it is quite easy to take a camera and walk in the downtown areas of Yangon. But most people wont because they do not want to invite trouble from the authorities. Concurring with Htein Wins position, Mon Mon Myat notes that there are specific areas where
The Lives of Ordinary People, 9,000 Lights Festival, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda By Htein Win

authorities are more suspicious of media personnel and there are places where control is more lax. Furthermore, prior to the antigovernment protests in 2007, the authorities were less aware of the influence of blogs and photographic images, adds Mon Mon Myat. Since then, they have introduced some informal restrictions on photographers. (4) Broadly speaking, media censorship is tighter than the states regulation on art exhibitions. Before the 2007 protests, exhibitions in private galleries were generally not subjected

to censorship, according to Htein Win and contemporary artist Aye Ko (b. 1963; Pathein) in separate interviews. Since then, things have changed. Aye Ko continues: Nowadays, we need permission to do shows. The prohibitions from the past still apply no nudity, sex and politics. If you make a painting that is more or less red in colour, the censorship board may not like it as well, since the colour is related to the National League for Democracy. But if you can explain yourself, they may say OK, too. It is also difficult for a Burmese artist to comment about the politics

of other countries, although that depends on whether the country is seen as our friend or enemy (5). Today, the Alliance Franaise in Yangon remains one of the few venues in Myanmar where it is possible to hold a show without going through censorship. However, such events cannot be publicised on official media, adds Aye Ko (6). In the end, it also depends on the whims and fancies of individual officers. Some of them are more afraid of foreign artists (7). In terms of media control, it is hardly surprising that certain stories are harder to publish in Myanmar. Soe Win Nyein (b. 1965; Mandalay), who has photographed the Irrawaddy River quite extensively, notes that it has become harder since January 2010 to photograph near the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, even though access used to be quite straightforward. However, the freelance photojournalist also notes that more local publications have started reporting on the environmental issues affecting the Irrawaddy. Like other photographers who work under restrictive governments around the world, Soe Win Nyein often casts his stories in a positive light to get them published. By his estimate, there are not more than 20 freelance photojournalists who contribute to official publications in Myanmar. Thus far, the highest fee that he has received for publishing a photo story is 5,000 kyat (8). Depending on the publication and fame of the photographer, he or she may receive anything from 2,000 to 10,000 kyat for each photo story published (9). Clearly, photojournalism is more of a passion for Soe Win Nyein, who earns a living as a commercial designer. He picked up photography around 1996 and started pursuing it

Photography 15
more seriously when he bought his digital kit in 2005. Inspired by War Photographer (2001), Christian Freis documentary on James Nachtwey, Soe Win Nyein developed an affinity with photojournalism and has, over the years, attended several workshops in Bangkok and Yangon, including the Imaging Our Mekong (IOM) fellowship (10). Since then, he has also conducted workshops on photojournalism and feature photography in Mandalay and Yangon. I have no interest in beautiful photographs of women or landscape, adds the photographer. Documentary photography allows me to show the reality at this present moment. (11) In Lives Along the Irrawaddy (2005), Soe Win Nyein documents the river from the perspective of a conservationist. As the secretary general of the Burmese Facebook group Green Hearts Environment Network, he got drawn to the issue in 2006 when he travelled to Bago Yoma, the mountainous region in south-central Myanmar, for a design commission by a chainsaw company. Instead of dense forest cover and teak trees, he encountered sites that were more or less barren. The irony was not lost on the photographer when he learnt that his work as a designer had in fact contributed to the increase in chainsaw sales. The river has always been the lifeline of Myanmar and is inseparable from the fortunes of the country. Aware of that connection, he started

taking photographs whenever he visits these riverside towns. Understandably, the project does not show the large-scale exploitation related to the degradation of the river. Instead, Soe Win Nyein focuses on the lives of the nameless individuals who depend on the Irrawaddy for survival, evoking empathy for his subjects. In some of the photographs, he has maintained a certain distance from his subjects, making these images less visually compelling. It is not clear whether the decision has anything to do with the issue of access or his sense of modesty. In comparison, the work of Myo Myint Swe (b. 1966; Magway) on the Irrawaddy, simply titled The River (2009-), appears to be even more detached. Given his fame as a commercial photographer, finding time for his personal work has always been a struggle. Like Soe Win Nyein, photojournalism is more of a passion for Myo Myint Swe, partly triggered by his participation in the IOM fellowship in 2005 where he learnt about the mechanics of the photo essay. Nowadays, he makes small photo essays for himself whenever he travels for assignments. Tea Farmers (2009), for instance, was shot when Myo Myint Swe visited Namsan, Shan State, to take publicity photographs for a tea company. The company is responsible for buying the harvest from small scale farmers working around the area, which is renowned for its tea leaves. Enjoying

Tea Farmers, processing green tea by Myo Myint Swe

The Lives of Ordinary People, A dancer at Taung Pyone Nat Festival near Mandalay by Htein Win

lahpet-yei (black tea served with condensed milk) by the roadside teashops is an integral part of the Burmese lifestyle. But many of these tea-drinkers have very little idea about the lives of the farmers or the process in which tea would arrive in their cups.

Myo Myint Swes work features snapshots of farmers working in the fields, selling their harvest at the market and celebrating the spring festival. One of his photographs focuses on a tea processing machine, hinting at the gradual process of modernisation that has arrived in Namsan. But the work is somewhat compromised by a lack of depth. The lives of the farmers away from work, the condition of their dwellings and the emotional swing that is associated with each cycle of tea production are elements that seem to be missing from the story. Since 2000, as part of his personal practice, Myo Myint Swe has taken many portraits of the Burmese peoples. Understandably, the work has evolved considerably over the years. Therefore, when the photographs are placed together, it feels as though he has adopted two different approaches for

the portraits. Some of his sitters, presumably urbanites, are pictured against a white backdrop. But the minorities, made distinct by their traditional dress, are often photographed in their environment. The photographer concedes that he is more attracted to the minorities, who usually live in the remote reaches of the country. There is a sense of romanticism that informs his work, which he has pursued during his travels for work and leisure. To date, he has taken portraits of around 20 groups. As a photographer, he hopes to reflect their current conditions. Myo Myint Swe adds: Im Bamar. The Bamar make up the majority in Myanmar. We control the whole system politics and finance. The minorities have many problems and have little access to their rights. I feel sorry for them but I cant do anything. I cant even give them education. I can only take photographs and publish their stories in magazines, so that people can understand their situation. But thats not easy because I have to get permission from the government to do so. And the government doesnt want to publish these stories. (12) Perhaps this is why he has stuck to portraiture, which, in reality, tells us very little about the plight of the minorities. Instead of running away as a refugee, this is the compromise that he has to make, as he and his peers continue to document their homeland. More images from these photographers can be seen online at

Htein Win, interview by author, Yangon, Myanmar, April 2008.2Htein Win, April 2008.3Douglas Long, Photographer Dedicated to Capturing the Right Moment, Myanmar Times, 23 February, 2009, http://www.mmtimes. com/no459/n011.htm.4Mon Mon Myat, interview by author, Yangon, Myanmar, August 17, 2010.5Aye Ko, interview by author, Yangon, Myanmar, April 2008.6Aye Ko, interview by author, Bangkok, Thailand, 22 February, 2009. 7Aye Ko, interview by author, Yangon, Myanmar, August 15, 2010. 8While the government maintains that the official exchange rate is at US$1 to around 6 kyat, the influential Irrawaddy magazine regularly updates the actual black market rate on its news portal. On 26 January 2011, for instance, US$1 was worth around 830 kyat. 9Soe Win Nyein, interview by author, Yangon, Myanmar, August 15, 2010. 10Organised by the Bangkok-based Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific, the annual IOM fellowship offers local journalists from the Mekong region working in print, photography and TV to further explore trans-boundary issues. For some of the photography fellows, this is also an opportunity to learn about feature photography.11Soe Win Nyein, August 15. 12Myo Myint Swe, interview by author, Yangon, Myanmar, 17 August, 2010.

W W W. S A N G I O R G I O A S T E . C O M



c a s a

d a s t e




A LARGE CORAL BRANCH DETAIL China, early 20th century

VIEWING: 24 - 30 SEPTEMBER 2011 HOURS: 10,00-13,00 / 14,30-18,30


Casa dAste San Giorgio - Palazzo Boggiano - Gavotti - Via San Lorenzo, 5/17 - 16123 Genoa - Italy Tel +39 010 869 3500 - Fax +39 010 869 3524


Intereses relacionados