Exhibition Captures ‘Vanishing’ Ethnic Traditions

By Andrew D. Kaspar 30 September 2013

RANGOON — A photography exhibition documenting Burma’s “vanishing” cultural heritage was opened by Aung San Suu Kyi over the weekend, with the democracy icon celebrating the country’s ethnic diversity and thanking photographer Richard Diran “for bringing beauty into my life at an unexpected time.”

“The Vanishing Tribes of Burma,” an exhibition based on a 1997 book of the same name, showcases 70 photographs that Diran says include at least 40 distinct ethnic groups, documented over more than 25 years and constituting “the most comprehensive study of Burmese ethnography since [Sir George] Scott more than 100 years ago.”

Suu Kyi, who received a copy of Diran’s book while she was under house arrest in Rangoon 15 years ago, later penned a letter to the photographer in which she thanked him for his work.

“I was struck by the beauty of our people, and the beauty of diversity,” she said on Saturday at the exhibition opening in Rangoon’s Inya Lake Hotel. “This is what we have to recognize: that diversity is beauty, it is beautiful.”

Both Suu Kyi and the American Diran expressed hope that the exhibition would help further efforts at national reconciliation. Many of the faces on display belong to the ethnic minority groups that have waged decades-long wars with the central government in Burma’s border regions.

Diran said the portraits are a chance to humanize people whose ethnic identities were in the past linked by the military government to insurgent terrorists.

“I would say that 99 percent of the [ethnic majority] Burmans who are living here in Rangoon have never laid eyes on the people that I’ve photographed,” Diran told The Irrawaddy.

Originally traveling to Burma in 1980 as a gemologist in search of the rubies, jade and other precious stones that the country remains known for to this day, Diran said he was side tracked by the ethnic diversity and unfamiliar cultural practices that he observed as he ventured into the country’s hinterlands.

“I just thought, ‘Boy, these people are really amazing looking, I gotta get this on film,’” he said.

With globalization and Burma’s increasingly open orientation to the rest of the world, Suu Kyi acknowledged that much of the traditional dress and practices of the country’s hill tribes faces extinction in the face of cultural assimilation.

“We must preserve the memory of that heritage,” she said. “And these photographs manage to do that beautifully.”

A stone-faced Naga warrior sporting a helmet with protruding wild boar tusks; elderly Chin women, faces covered in tattoos and sharing a pipe smoke together; three Yinset Riang bachelors from Karenni State, looking proud in their colorful, turban-like headdresses and racquetball-sized, fuzzy earrings. This is the cultural mélange that Diran says today is “gone.”

“I have friends with the same sorts of ethnographic interests that have tried to go out and duplicate a lot of my work and they’ve been stymied because it’s gone. NHK, the Japanese television broadcaster, sent a crew into Kachin State, it was about 1998 maybe, to see if they could find even one Hkahku woman left. They couldn’t find one.”

Asked if there was one experience in particular that stands out during his 25-year foray documenting people and customs largely unknown to the rest of the world, Diran said there were many, including “watching hundreds of Naga warriors stream over the top of the hill screaming, with ox-hide shields and spears, running over the hills toward me like ants.

“With human-hair hats and tiger claw necklaces and wild boar tusks and dyed monkey fur, glazed eyes. That was stunning. It was like being in the Wild West in 1880.”

It was the Naga New Year, 1996.

The exhibition runs through Monday. All of its photographs will then be donated to Burma’s National Museum.