Archivist Salvages Myanmar’s Neglected Photographic History

By Lwin Mar Htun 20 February 2019

Austrian photographer and archivist Lukas Birk collects vintage images by local photographers and exhibits them with the aim of reinterpreting Myanmar’s history and reviving the stories told by photographers of bygone eras.

His major project, the Myanmar Photo Archive, is an ongoing labor of love comprising more than 20,000 images so far. Lukas is himself a photographer but has devoted the past decade to working on historical research in various countries. He started his Myanmar project in 2015 after learning of the country’s rich photographic history.

“What I found interesting in Myanmar is that there was such diverse photo production, actually. Incredibly interesting…incredible studios that have been active here for the last hundred years. It’s quite interesting to see that when you compare Burmese photography from the 1950s and 1960s; [it’s] very similar to anywhere in the world,” Birk said.

“But, there’s very little known about it,” he added. “There’s very little you can read about it … [and few opportunities to] see photographs.”

In museums, people can see many photographs by the British and German photographers who lived here in colonial times, but there are few opportunities for people to see the great job Burmese photographers were doing, he said.

“That was my main interest in this project; to discover some of the stories, like [the one on display in] the ‘Number One Amateur Burmese Photographer U Than Maung’ [exhibit], which is currently being shown in Maha Bandoola Park as part of the Yangon Photo Festival,” he said.

Birk praised U Than Maung, saying, “He is such an incredible photographer, such beautiful images he took, such a strong sensitivity for how to compose the photo and hand coloring; [they’re] very beautiful. You will see these at the exhibition.”

He added, “That’s really exciting, to bring out an exhibition or book with something that is hidden, but which has always been there.”

Lukas Birk shows some of the images on display at the ‘Burmese Photographers’ exhibition at the Secretariat in Yangon in February 2018. / The Irrawaddy

To obtain the photos for his collection requires talking to many people and often paying antique dealers and photo studios. Some photos are located through the original photographers’ relatives, he said.

“For the U Than Maung exhibition, his daughter came to talk to me at my exhibition last year, ‘Burmese Photographers’, at The Secretariat [in Yangon]. She gave me the photos and those are very nice. Now, I’m making a book and exhibition,” Lukas said.

At the Yangon Photo Festival exhibition, he displays a total of 25 vintage photos taken by U Than Maung.

“I just wanted to show the small story of U Than Maung, and Maha Bandoola has so many exhibitions—it’s [just] one of them,” he said.

Birk’s photo book about U Than Maung will be launched on Thursday with two of his other books at the Goethe Institut.

As part of the Yangon Photo Festival, Birk is also displaying the results of a five-day Photobook Workshop he conducted earlier this month.

“Photobook culture is a new trend worldwide. There are very different ways to make a photobook, not just paper and print. You can do special binding techniques, use special materials. So, the workshop was about how to do it yourself,” Birk explained.

At the workshop, all participants were young photographers. Some are already very skilled photographers and have come up with strong photo stories, but had never created a book before, he said. Some of the books they made will be shown on Feb. 21 at the Goethe Institut and in Maha Bandoola Park.

Some of the photos collected by Lukas Birk to be displayed at the ‘Burmese Photographers’ exhibition at the Secretariat in Yangon in February 2018. / The Irrawaddy

“Another event of mine is a ‘Digitization Station’ on Feb. 22-24 at Maha Bandoola Park. If your grandfather took interesting photos, if you still have them and you have a good story, we will photograph the photos and we’ll record the story in the archive. Then, your family story becomes part of this big archive. That’s what we do at the digital station,” Birk said.

He added that, “The archive I have is all about the history of Myanmar. And actually, history doesn’t mean what happened at the government level or what happened [involving] big things. Everyone has a history and it’s important. That’s the whole point of collecting family stories.”

Birk’s project is growing rapidly and he’s planning to present it as a large online archive in the future. All the photos will be online and people will be able to search in English and Burmese using key words.

“Then, you will see a different history of Myanmar—and that’s my big dream,” he said.