‘Separated by Only a River’

By Ya Hsuan Yang 30 June 2014

Photographers from Burma, Norway and Bangladesh came together recently for a reporting workshop in Yangon. The workshop was organized by Myanmar Deitta, an NGO focused on documentary photography, in collaboration with universities from Norway and Bangladesh, and each participant completed a photo story.

Zarni Phyo, 26, one of five Burmese photographers who received a scholarship to attend the workshop, focused on telling the story of people who live alongside the Rangoon River in Dala Township. His photo story, “People of the River,” is now on display at Witness Yangon Documentary Arts Space until July 18. The Irrawaddy spoke with him about his experience capturing the images for his project.

Question: Why were you interested in the daily lives of people along

the river?

Answer: Honestly, when I started this project I had only a vague idea about these people and their lifestyle, but I was fascinated by the divers. However, as I continued with the project, I developed a sense of admiration for and interest in not only the divers, but also the whole culture and society that these people have carved out of their difficult circumstances, and the advantageous benefits of living on a river bank. There are a lot of dangers about their way of life, but they continue anyway because, for some, this is the life they were born in and they can’t think of any other prospects. For example, there’s always a chance that when aboard a ship or boat something can happen. Divers also have to go underwater with just a rudimentary breathing apparatus, without all the necessary diving equipment.

Q: What was one of the most memorable experiences you had in the process of taking these photographs?

A: There was an incident on one of the days I went to the Yangon [Rangoon] River to do some shooting. The boat that I was on sank. It wasn’t a dramatic sinking, like the events they portray in movies, where the boat gets entirely submerged and swallowed by the water. We were very lucky—at the time, the tide was receding, meaning the water level was relatively low, so only part of our boat was underwater. We made it safely back to shore when some fishermen came by and gave us a ride.

Q: Why did you choose to make your photos black and white?

A: Personally, I prefer it. I think that by making my photos black and white, the audience can focus entirely on the subject of the photos and really understand what it is I want to show without focus being partially shared with the colors. Another reason is that it helps me achieve a rather dramatic effect.

Q: What is the main message you want to convey through your photographs?

A: My main aim is to capture the plight of these people, and to show the stark contrast between Dala and Yangon, even though the two are separated by only a river.