A Burmese Adventure; Street Photography in Myanmar
By Mark Seymour
Photographing the world’s street life has really captured my imagination in the last few years. There are so many incredible and diverse people and places to capture, the inspiration is endless. 2016 took me to India; Jodhpur, Silchar and Kolkata, Easter in Sicily and a first time visit to Vietnam’s Hanoi City, ……and 2017 is starting out to be no less an adventure!
‘This is Burma,……it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’ Rudyard Kipling
Myanmar, formerly Burma has opened its doors to visitors from the West, and is a country full of energy and hope for the future whilst still rich in all its Asian culture and history. The local currency is the Kyat, but you need to take American dollars and change your money there. The language is Burmese and the main faith is Buddhism. With a population of over 48 million the average life expectancy is 64 years for men and 68 years for women.
From London Heathrow via Doha on Qatar airlines (great service, leg room, films and amazingly efficient turnaround between connecting flights), I flew into Yangon, formerly Rangoon, the capital and took a cab to the City Star Hotel. The hotels throughout the trip provided a clean, basic place to rest after a long day’s photography. Breakfast was included and there was lots of fresh fruit. For dinner we tended to eat at the local cafes, I mainly ate chicken fried rice as deciphering the menu was tricky as everything is written in Burmese. I would recommend you try the local avocado coffee drink, it was delicious.
We arrived at Chinese New Year and managed to capture some of the celebrations including the dragon dancers along the street and the red lanterns lit against the night sky. There are lots of different types of street photography in Yangon as a busy capital city including street markets, the train station and then the fishing port and market.
At the fishing port I took a series of shots focusing on the guys shifting and cutting up the blocks of ice for the fish to be kept in in the market place. No health and safety, the guy wore t-shirts and shorts, flip flops on their feet and used great metal hooks and saws to move the ice and break it down to smaller blocks and ice chips.
Returning to the same situation and photographing at different times of the day means you capture the complete story and can make use of the different times of natural light. I really like the photos I took from dusk into sunset of the boats and fishermen in silhouette.
There are also many street markets; there is a great range of fresh fruit and vegetables, local fish including octopus, and a lot of dried fish. The meat market is an experience – the cheaper cuts and offal being bought by the locals and the better cuts of meat going to the more affluent members of society.
Everywhere you look young boys are playing football on the street with compact wicker balls. Also simple wooden hoop and stock are still played along the streets. The local men gather on the floor to play card games, but be mindful here as they do not like being photographed gambling on cards.
The Burmese people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, everyone is eager to greet you and let you take their photo. We took an internal flight to Meiyek and the customs guys asked for our passports and used their i-phone to take a photo of them and let us take pictures of them, then they pointed us in the direction of truck outside to collect our suitcases.
Following our one internal flight we spent the rest of the trip travelling between places in a small hired van along very basic and bumpy roads. Women are employed to pick up the gravel and then cast it over the surface of the new roads whilst the men stir tar along the road side.
Posting my images from Myanmar, one of the comments lots of people have made is ‘what’s on the women’s faces?’ The answer; Thanaka, which is a local beauty/skin care product made from cuttings from the Thanaka tree. Its astringent properties cool the skin, act as a spot treatment, as well as being an effective sun block. In addition to their faces, women wear a thick layer on their arms to protect against the tropical sun when working outside. Young girls working in the cities use the same product as a fragrant natural makeup.
One of the main projects I focused on was recording the monks of Myanmar. Many of the monasteries included young boys that had been orphaned as well as young men that had entered the life of the monastery rather than end up in prison. The monks welcomed us in, gave us food and were happy for us to photograph them as they went about their day. The monks wore dark burgundy robes and with their shaven heads against the pale blue walls, created stunning natural situational portraits. I took photographs of the young monks as they went about their prayers and studies, and completing daily chores.
We visited an Islamic school which again we were invited in to photograph, my favourite shot was a detail picture of the Islamic script. We had a day or rest and relaxation on the beach, gorgeous soft sand and sea water as warm as a bath, really was a little bit of heaven.
We stopped at the location that was the inspiration for Kipling’s poem Mandalay, Mawlamyine, and it remains pretty much as it would have been when he was there writing.
We photographed the wonderful Buddhist temples, including the golden pinnacle in Yangon and the famous Giant Reclining Buddha at the Chaukhtatgyi Temple, with its while skin, red lips and golden robes, it is an incredible sight. A second reclining Buddha is currently being constructed. A whole community had grown up around the temple so there are lots of street life photography opportunities here as well as the Buddha and Temple.
Although Buddhism is the main faith, Myanmar is made up of 135 ethnic groups and their different religions and faiths. We photographed the opening of a new Hindu temple, with many people coming to bring offerings and to pray.
This was such an incredible experience, really like no other place I have been lucky enough to visit. Here is a selection of some of my favourite photographs from this trip. I don’t feel I even got a hundredth of what there was to capture and I really can’t wait to go back. So if you fancy joining me in 2018 to explore and photograph this stunning country please sign up for my newsletter and keep following and liking my post of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep updated with training course information and booking details. I hope you’ll join me, I know you will have an amazing experience.