One of the things they say about Myanmar is that the people are really friendly. Actually they say that about a lot of places – and sometimes it’s true. But it tends to be only true in parts. In most places people will be people: some are friendly, some are only pretending to be friendly because they want something from you, some are too busy to talk, some are grumpy, some are shysters trying to rob you. And that’s probably true of a lot of Myanmar too… except that when I was there it really didn’t seem that way. Everyone was lovely!
One of the things I love about being a photographer is that it makes you interact with a place and its people in a much more intimate way. Without a camera, you can just wander and observe but you never really engage. But if you want to take really great travel portraits, you have to engage with people. Make eye contact. Use sign language to ask to take a photo. Make them laugh. Stand there for a while, don’t just walk on by.
And I really found Myanmar such a fantastic place to photograph people. Absolutely everyone was delighted to let me take their photo, happy to smile or not smile, showing no signs of getting annoyed or bored with me, and never asking for anything in return.
Why might this be? When I went, in 2015, Myanmar had only recently re-opened its doors to tourists after a long period of military dictatorship. That means people hadn’t had time to get annoyed with tourists, or jaded. In places like Thailand it feels like everyone just looks at you and sees dollar signs in their eyes like some sort of cartoon character: everyone is out to rinse you for all they can get. Myanmar may get like that eventually too, but for now, people are still just genuinely pleased to see visitors. They’re happy that you’ve taken the trouble to visit their country, they know you’re going to experience their culture and spend your money in the local community, and they really do want you to have a nice time and leave with a positive impression.
I spotted this lady while hiking in the hills near Kalaw. She was hoeing the ground, and didn’t look up for ages. I could see the opportunity for a photo, but it was no good with her looking down at the ground. I waited… and got totally left behind by my group. Then a guy came past on a motorbike – clearly someone she knew. He spotted me standing on the edge of the field with the camera poised and said something which made her laugh – and I got the exact photo I’d been waiting for.
This fabulous lady is one of the the famous long-necked Padaung tribeswomen. From their mid-teens they begin pressing down their collarbones and elongating their necks using brass rings, all in the name of tradition and beauty. There’s a fair amount of debate about whether they should really be encouraged to do this sort of physical damage to themselves just for the sake of looks – but there are many things we all do to look beautiful that are extremely questionable, and as a photographer I try not to judge – I just capture. And it must be said they do look incredible.
I found the markets to be especially great places to photograph people. Markets are my favourite kind of place for taking photos: they are always so full of life, and people, and interesting things, and hustle and bustle. And Myanmar’s markets were no exception. And yet again, market traders sitting waiting for customers were more than happy to let me take their photo.
You’ll have noticed many of the people in these photos have got this strange yellow stuff on their faces. This is a traditional paste made out of tree bark called Thanaka. It’s used as protection from the sun and also for decoration, as you can see on the little girl above.
This last image is my absolute favourite from my entire Myanmar trip. It was taken at a market in a village on the shores of Inle lake, which is in the Shan region. The Shan people are known for their colourful turbans, but what caught my eye was not this lady’s headgear, but her incredible face. Those deep-etched lines that speak of so much experience and such a life lived, and those ancient, watery eyes, full of so much knowledge. I also love how she’s put her hand behind her neck, almost like she’s modelling, even though she’s, I dunno, 150 years old! I know I’m getting a bit overly poetic here which I don’t usually do, but I honestly could just look at that face for hours. I just wish I’d been able to talk to her beyond a bit of sign language; I bet she’s got some amazing stories.
If you want to read more about my trip to Myanmar, check out my post on the Lonely Planet blog, here.