Myanmar-with a Leica X1 and “Kodachrome”
By John Shingleton
I have just returned from two weeks in Myanmar over Christmas and the New Year.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the land that time has passed by.Once a jewel in the British Empire it gained independence from Britain in 1948.A military coup in 1988 led to estrangement from the West and the imposition of economic sanctions. Since 2010 Myanmar has moved back towards democracy. Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton visited late last year and sanctions are being lifted.
The sleeping beauty is waking up and re engaging with the world .
And what a beauty it is .The years of sanctions have had a wonderful side effect leaving a beautiful country suspended in a less frantic time .No obsession with brands,no KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks ,Coca Cola or even a mobile phone system connected to the outside world and a beautiful, friendly, modest and highly religious people.They are very poor but seemingly content and their culture remains intact .On the other hand the infrastructure is very poor and the education and health systems are even worse and large sections of the country are still closed to tourists as the government fights separatist and insurgency movements in the north and west.
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Myanmar has a basic mobile( cell) phone system but it is not connected to the outside world and anyway it uses old 2G and CDMA technology which is not compatible with western phones .There is internet/wi fi access in the main population centers but it is slow apparently.It is not a place for tourists who want 24/7 connectivity. I left all my mobile devices at home.It was so liberating and so much easier at airline security.I’ll do it more often.
Since the sanctions were lifted tourism is expanding very rapidly but it needs a big investment to handle the projected numbers.Sadly the portents are not good for this growth being tasteful with massive, crass overdevelopment of tourist facilities in nearby Thailand,Bali,China and particularly Vietnam showing how easily beautiful places can be wrecked.The Myanmar I saw may have been a once ever opportunity.All the precedents suggest that in 5 to 10 years it will be gone .I count myself very lucky to have seen it now.
If you are considering visiting go now but only visit if you are prepared for an extraordinary experience involving third world conditions.Don’t even think about going if you want “home away from home”or you don’t like dust and the smoke from cooking fires in the morning and evening.
I flew into Yangon( formerly Rangoon) then upto Mandalay and then sailed slowly down the Ayeyarwady ( formerly the Irrawaddy) River on a traditional river boat for 8 days stopping at towns and villages on the river banks which are not usually accessed by tourists.It was an extraordinary trip.
For this trip of a lifetime I took my Leica X1 compact camera with a Voigtlander optical viewfinder,one spare battery ,battery charger and just one SD card .I also ,wisely ,took a Kiwi filter tube,lens hood ( $40 off eBay) fitted with a B&W clear filter.I used this the whole time and it protected the camera and the lens from the all-pervasive dust.I had my Canon G9 in my bag as a reserve for any mishaps..
For readers who are not familiar with the X1 it is a Leica made compact camera with a fixed 24mm (equivalent to 35mm on a full frame 35mm) F2.8 lens and an APSC sized sensor.It is a much maligned camera and as I described in an earlier post on this site see http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2012/02/13/from-leica-3a-to-x1-a-51-year-journey-by-john-shingleton/ I struggled with mine in its early days but now I love it although I sometimes feel that Steve Huff,myself and one of my friends are its only fans! At the end of the day I don’t care what all the forum “experts” think of it because it takes beautiful images and it has simple controls and easy to access menus.It does not have IS,GPS,WI FI or take movies.It just takes superb still pictures which suits me .Having just a fixed lens does involve compromises but in so many ways it makes things easier as I do not have to make any decisions on which lens to use and it is so light to carry -a critical factor after years of carrying bags of gear around.Been there done that-had a sore back to prove it.
Not having a long lens means that I really have to be in a subject’s face when taking people shots and so I developed a technique for doing this without ,hopefully, causing any offense .In fact it invariably generated smiles all round as well as some great images.
I took about 320 photos over the 14 days of the trip .Pretty restrained by most people’s standards equivalent to 9 rolls of 35mm film but I am trying to adopt a more deliberate and considered film photography like approach to taking digital photos.I deleted about 100 of these on the trip and then culled them down to 110 when I put them onto the computer back home .I ended up with 110 images which I am really pleased with including perhaps some of the best photos I have ever taken in the past 50 years.I am a great believer in being a very tough editor .It’s easy to take bad photos so why keep them? They just use up hard dive capacity .So I am brutal and discard everything which is not “very good” or at least “very good” by my criteria.
I have always been a big fan of the photography of Steve McCurry who has shot many great photos in the Middle and Far East including the iconic Afghan girl photo which graced the cover of National Geographic magazine and has since been published thousands of times .McCurry was the master of Kodachrome slide film with its big,sharp ,supersaturated images.In fact Kodak selected him to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome manufactured in 2010.
I loved Kodachrome and if we were still all using film I am sure that I would have used it on my Myanmar trip to try to emulate Steve McCurry.Anyway I did the next best thing I emulated Kodachrome as far as possible by shooting all my pictures as both RAW and JPEG files.I shot the JPEGS on the Leica’s vivid setting and they are the big surprise .They really are vivid and they remind of Kodachrome.They may not be natural but to me they say very loudly “this is Myanmar” and that’s what I wanted.I hope that you appreciate my personal take on a very unique place.
If you would like to see many more images from the trip go to therollingroad.blogspot.com