SUDDEN LIGHT IN BURMA
had to shoot furtively in the streets, hiding his camera in
a backpack, then discretely removing it, pre-setting his
exposure and taking a few quick shots of subjects as he
walks by. “i’ve probably missed a lot of shots,” he says.
to get access to hiV clinics, which were operated by
the nLd, he has sat by a phone for days, waiting for his
contacts to call with an “all-clear” message. then they’d
call with instructions to show up before dawn, wearing
traditional Burmese garb, so they could sneak him in
and out of an hiV clinic in the dark. (if they were caught
helping foreign media, the clinic might be shut down.)
officially, the rules haven’t changed. Most journalists continue to keep a low profile by entering on a
tourist visa, and not drawing a lot of attention. But the
work is much easier.
© christiAn holst/reportAge by getty imAges
© AdAm deAn/pAnos pictures
“the people you are working with and relying on for
access are much less scared now so [they] are able to
help you with sensitive stories that were much harder
to access in the past,” says dean.
Above, left: Two patients lay on a mat on the floor of a shelter for HIV-infected people on June 29, 2007, in Yangon, Myanmar.
Right: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, campaigning for the recent parliamentary elections.
While some areas of the country remain off lim-
its—notably border areas such as the Karen state
where ethnic strife is concentrated, and the northern
hinterlands, where the gemstone and other mining
industries are located—the central part of Burma is
largely accessible. Photographers who go now, dean
says, “will find it hard to understand all the fuss about
working there in the past.”
Photographer sim chi yin, a native of singapore
who is based in Beijing, entered Burma on a tourist visa
in March to cover the elections. While there, she also
photographed stylish young men and women on the
streets of the capital, rangoon, to show not only the
newfound hope of the people, “but also the apparent
wealth gap, and the creeping tentacles of globaliza-
tion.” she shot other human-interest stories, too, in-
cluding one about a boy who has taken up traditional
Burmese boxing to try to fight his way out of poverty.
“it’s not a quick-bang photo story kind of place, but
i think it suits photographers who like to dig in and
invest time and heart into the place,” she observes.
sim was able to find and shoot her stories openly,
using public transportation and motorcycle taxis to
move around. “i did get local flip-flops and used a scarf
while on a local bus riding south further than foreigners are officially allowed to go,” she says. and journalists still have to be careful about putting their local
contacts at risk, she warns.
But the biggest challenges now for photographers
are logistical. By all accounts, the road conditions outside of major cities like rangoon and Mandalay are
terrible; short distances can take hours to traverse. in
areas that are off limits to foreigners, there are no hotels, so finding a place to stay for the night is difficult.
dean says it isn’t difficult for foreigners to find taxi
drivers who speak enough english to help navigate. But
the cost of hiring a car and driver is high (they’re scarce,
and gas costs a lot). Fixers are also expensive—$100 to
$150 per day, holst estimates. “Working in and around the
big cities, if you’re walking around, then it’s quite cheap.”
tourists (ahem) can get visas at Myanmar’s em-bassies in Bangkok and hong Kong. Flights from
Bangkok to rangoon are frequent, and take a little
more than an hour.
With Burma’s unexpected shift to democracy, photographers have
opportunities to document a nation that has been off limits for years.
But plenty of practical challenges remain. By David Walker
For decades, the southeast asian country oF
Myanmar (formerly Burma) was one of the most
challenging places for foreign journalists. the country, which is nestled below china between thailand
and india, has operated under an oppressive military
dictatorship with a closed-door policy. But suddenly,
everything has changed: the military dictators eased
restrictions, recognized the opposition, and recently
held free and fair elections.
Photographers streamed into the country in april
to cover those elections, and all eyes were on daw
aung san suu Kyi, leader of the opposition party
national League for democracy (nLd). after years of
living under house arrest, she stood for a seat in parliament and won in a landslide. the Western media
was flooded with images of suu Kyi swarmed by supporters at one campaign rally after another leading
up to the april 1 election.
But the elections aren’t the only story in Burma.
suddenly, stories that the military had blocked journalists from covering for years—about the culture and
daily life, the economy, failed educational and health-care systems (and the country’s tragically neglected
aids crisis), ethnic conflict and other subjects—are
more accessible. that presents new opportunities for
“it is unclear whether any specific restrictions on
foreign media … have been lifted, but it certainly feels
like there is a lot less surveillance, paranoia and interest in us when working on sensitive stories,” says photographer adam dean, one of a handful who worked
undercover in Burma despite the risks and difficulties.
(he’s made nine trips since 2007.)
another photographer working under the assumed
name of christian holst has made 11 trips into Burma
since 2006. (still concerned about compromising his
access and sources, he asked that we not publish his
real name.) Like dean, holst has been sneaking in on
tourist visas. Burma has several tourist meccas, and a
lot of exotic beauty, so government officials were used
to seeing tourists with a lot of camera gear. that made
it easy enough for photographers to sneak in with their
gear, holst explains.
the challenge was to shoot non-tourist subjects
that were off limits, without drawing attention. the
secret police lurked just about everywhere. it was dan-
gerous to talk to locals in tea shops and restaurants,
holst says. the risk to him was summary deportation,
and although the authorities were polite to journalists
they escorted out of the country, the locals who were
caught helping them risked beatings and jail.
even so, there were activists determined to help pho-
tographers like dean and holst get their stories so the
world could see. to protect them, the photographers had
to work slowly and deliberately. “i re-set my expectations
whenever i went there,” holst says. he typically spent
two weeks at a time. “if i brought out one or two good
pictures for longer term projects, i would be happy.”
he surmises that so few photographers made the
effort to do serious work in Burma in the past because
of the difficulty of getting images. “a lot of photogra-
phers are not oK with traveling in a country for three
weeks and not being able to bring out a huge set of
pictures,” he says. “i totally understand that.”
holst has been documenting the aids epidemic, as
a way of showing the neglect and incompetence of the
ruling regime; he’s also documented daily life in an effort to show “what it feels like to be a person living in
Burmese society.” (the emotional cues, rather than the
content of the images, are his focus, he explains.) he’s