It's not just the places, it's the faces

27 Jun 2017

Myanmar is in a fascinating state of transition — simultaneously a cause for celebration and, for us photographers, perhaps a slight tinge of concern. Will this amazing time-warp of a country end up looking like every other booming southeast Asian nation? A new Singapore? That, after all, is one of the idées du jour being bandied about in the ambitious corridors of economic power.

Certainly, a stroll along the teeming streets and bazaars of Yangon is worryingly reminiscent of parts of booming Bangkok, just 75 minutes away by air. Indeed, like Bangkok, Yangon boasts a fascinating street culture and counterculture: trendy skateboarders practice their chops in the parks and underpasses, while fluorescent mohawks and metal-chained punks share the sidewalks with shaven-headed, saffron-robed contemporaries immersed not in Sid Vicious but in the nation’s strong Buddhist monastic tradition.

But of course, it’s mainly the monks we want to photograph. After all, what could be more different, more exotic compared with what we see in our own cities? Look though a little closer though and you’ll see these students of the Buddha sporting smartphones under their robes, peering at pop videos on YouTube and Facebooking friends and family back in some faraway mountain village.

Out in rural Burma, it’s still the gloriously rich photography Klondike that gets all of us shooters gold-rushing to Myanmar. Out here, the monks are many and the punks are non-existent. (Come backstage with Travelshooters, though, and you’ll crack a smile when you see an old game console running on a bubble-screened TV in the monks’ dormitories and, in the bamboo villages, solar panels charging shiny Android smartphones on sunny window sills.)

If you come as a landscape photographer, the pickings are rich. It’s not just the admittedly stunning panoramas of the Bagan temple-fields: landscape compositions are everywhere, enlivened by forests and mountains and bullocks and livestock pushing up photogenic low-hanging dust to season the morning and evening shooting. But I know of many a landscape-crazy client who has been drawn irresistibly to a different shooting genre — the faces of Myanmar and the delicious environmental contexts in which they sit. As the photos at the top of this page demonstrate, the dark gnarled hardwood rooms with light-streaming porthole windows, the airy high-key temple halls and corridors, the shady trees concealing a sun-weathered shepherd’s face as he or she grabs a moment’s rest from the blazing sky… it’s enough to tempt even the most committed landscape shooter. And anyway, what are you going to do in the long hours between pink dawn and golden hour?

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