Check out the details in this image: the produce neatly arranged, the clothes the women are wearing (and the fact that they are all women), the woven shopping bags, the digital scales… You can learn so much about a country by visiting its markets, and it’s one of the main reasons why markets are probably my favourite type of place to take photos.
Wherever I travel, I always make a point of going to photograph the local market, and I am never disappointed. You can find out so much about people’s lives by checking out what they’re selling, who’s buying, how they operate, and what they wear.
And markets are simply stunning, too. Look at the colours! When it comes to photogenic markets, Myanmar certainly didn’t disappoint.
Myanmar is still a very traditional country, but modernisation is creeping in everywhere – and you can really see that in the markets. This woman has brought her produce to sell in the traditional way, and she’s wearing the traditional thanaka (Burmese cosmetic paste) on her face, but wearing a Western-style shirt and talking on her bright pink mobile phone.
Many of these photos were taken at 26th Street Market in Yangon, which is the capital’s main outdoor market. Yangon is constructed on a grid system like New York, and every day 26th Street, right in the city centre, is taken over by traders who have brought their fresh produce to sell.
Like many city centres, the heart of Yangon is busy, sweaty, noisy, dirty, and heaving with people and traffic. But turn into 26th Street and suddenly you are forced to slow down, look around you, and take it all in.
As a documentary photographer I love being able to people-watch, and markets are fantastic for that too. All the traders are sitting still, waiting for customers, so they’re usually happy to engage with you and let you take their photo.
Sometimes it’s nice to catch someone’s eye and get them smiling at the camera…
But it’s also good to sneak up on people and grab the shot before they’ve noticed you, when they’re relaxed and natural.
It’s fascinating to see what people are selling, too. Beyond the usual fruit and veg that you might find in any market anywhere, there are always quite a few weird or surprising things on sale. Anyone for a tasty snack?
This woman is selling thanaka wood, which is used to make the yellowy-white paste you see on people’s faces. The paste (also called thanaka) is made by grinding up the wood or the bark with a little water. It’s used for decoration, but it’s also believed to be good for your skin, to help with acne, and to prevent sunburn.
It’s not unusual to see chicken for sale in a market, but I did find the juxtaposition of these live birds with their unfortunate relatives both poignant and also kind of darkly amusing.
And this is Myanmar’s version of a payphone. Well, you pay, and it’s a phone!
It’s got an enormous covered area with endless corridors in which it’s extremely easy to lose your bearings.
And when you do manage to find your way out, the market also spills out into the surrounding streets in every direction.
Maybe it was because I spent so long there, but I found the people at Nyang U Market to be exceptionally friendly and happy to be photographed.
These Buddhist monks aren’t shopping, they’re collecting offerings. Every day monks travel all over their local neighbourhoods collecting offerings of food from the people. It is a ritual that builds bonds between the monks and their communities and allows ordinary folk to prove their piety and earn a sort of religious ‘credit’.
Another market I enjoyed was the central market in Kalaw.
High up in the hills in western Shan State, Kalaw is an old colonial-era hill station established by the British as a place to escape from the heat of places like Yangon (then called Rangoon).
The market is the beating heart of the town, and villagers from all the surrounding hills come here every day to sell their produce. The Shan tribeswomen are notable for their brightly coloured turbans, which makes this market particularly photogenic.
This woman is selling turmeric.
Many Burmese chew betel, a mild stimulant similar to tobacco. It’s carcinogenic, and it stains your mouth and teeth a dark red colour. I saw lots of people in the markets with their mouths horribly stained like this.
And of course after all that wandering and photographing the busy market it can be just as interesting to watch the traders pack up and head off home…
If you want to read more about my trip to Myanmar, check out my post on the Lonely Planet blog, here.