Opening the Shutters on Previously Shuttered Burma

Kyaw Phyo Tha The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — Hiding cameras in the bottom of a backpack, one photographer sneaked past security checkpoints and trekked mountains to bear witness to an anarchic mining town in northern Burma. In the same region, a different shutterbug spent nearly three years at refugee camps and frontlines, documenting the lives of ethnic rebels waging war against the central government. Another slipped into a conflict-torn area where people armed with every imaginable form of primitive weaponry walked the streets, bringing back images of communal strife in western Burma.

The results: A collection that tells visual tale of some of the problems afflicting Burma today—civil war, lawlessness and sectarian violence.

In an exhibition titled “Six: New Photography from Myanmar,” a half-dozen stories documented by some of the best young photographers in Burma are now on display, pushing boundaries as the country undergoes wide-ranging reforms that have included dramatic changes to its media landscape.

For visitors, the photo exhibition provides an intriguing window into an emerging body of documentary photography that, in the past, they might only have seen in pictorial books by foreign photojournalists.

“I hope people will come in and see some work that they haven’t seen before,” said Myanmar Deitta’s Matt Grace, who organized the photo show called “Six,” a namesake tribute to its contributors: five photographers and one shutter-happy group.

Among the collection are portraits of the lives of men in a jade mining town in northern Burma, an area off-limits to foreigners, and ethnic rebel frontlines in the same region that are almost inaccessible to outsiders. Other exhibition photos’ subject matter ranges from sectarian violence between the Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma to villagers troubled by wild elephants to urban street scenes.

Hkun Li, an ethnic Kachin freelance photographer and one of the show’s contributors, spent three years visiting Kachin Independence Army (KIA) frontlines and five refugee camps in northern Burma.

“I wiped away my tears secretly several times while taking those pictures,” he said, “especially when taking one of two amputated soldiers cutting each other’s hair.

“They are the ones who suffered from the civil war. I did it because I want people to know the consequences of the civil war,” he added.

Grace, the director of operations for Myanmar Deitta, an organization promoting documentary photography and filmmaking in Burma, said more than six dozen pictures are on display. They are the product of photographers who are pushing boundaries, Grace said, while the Burmese media is still in a period of transition—a time when nobody really knows what is acceptable.

“It’s great that there are photographers pushing these things and photographing those stories and bringing back great work on things that not long ago would have been impossible to work on,” he explained.

“It’s great that there are young Myanmar photographers, not always Western photojournalists, coming in to cover this stuff,” he added.

Minzayar, a Burmese photojournalist working for the international news wire Reuters, is another contributor to the “Six” photo exhibition. His pictures focus on the day-to-day lives of laborers in Hpakant, a jade mining town in northern Burma where arbitrary killings are common, heroin “shooting galleries” are mushrooming and drug-fueled jade hand-pickers are routinely buried alive while scavenging for the precious stones.

“I felt I was traveling around in an anarchic region,” the 25-year-old photographer recalled.

“Those hand-pickers’ lives are very hard. I want to shed a light on their lives and what is happening there,” he explained.

Another photojournalist showcasing his first-hand experience of communal violence is Kaung Htet of the Myanmar Times.

Last year he ventured out to Kyauktaw in western Burma, where sectarian strife between the Arakanese and Rohingya raged on. Kaung Htet documented scenes of chaos, including photos shot at a local hospital inundated by bloodied victims of the violence.

“It really looked like a hospital in a war zone. Some wounded people died right in front of my eyes,” said the weekly newspaper’s chief photographer, who also spent time photographing the situation in camps for displaced Rohingya.

The 30-year-old said he was just doing his job to report what was happening in the restive region while sticking to the truth as best as he could.

“I just put a spotlight on the current issue,” he said.

‘SIX. New Photography from Myanmar’ is open to the public at the Witness Yangon Documentary Arts Space on the 3rd floor of the Pyan Hlwar building, 4A Parami Road, Rangoon. The exhibition runs through Feb. 13. (Monday-Saturday, 12pm-5 pm)