By Corrie Tan
(2,400 words, 12-minute read)
Art that Moves is an occasional series where we ask artists and other creative workers to reflect on artworks, performances or events that were personally important to them.
Minzayar Oo is a Burmese photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Yangon, Myanmar, and represented by Panos Pictures. He studied medicine at the Yangon University of Medicine until 2011, when he decided to pursue his newfound interest in visually documenting the transition of his country. His image of Aung San Suu Kyi thronged by supporters appeared on the front page of the International Herald Tribune in 2012, the day after the country’s historic by-elections that elected her to parliament. Minzayar has covered urgent stories and socio-political issues in Myanmar, from the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state and the persecution of the Rohingya, to the billion-dollar jade mining industry in conflict-ridden Kachin state in northern Myanmar. His work has been published in publications such as TIME, The New York Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, GEO and many more. He was named a finalist of the Magnum Photography Awards 2016 for his series The Price of Jade. In 2017, Minzayar became the first photographer to receive the Martin Adler Prize at the Rory Peck Awards in London.
ArtsEquator caught up with the award-winning photographer in Singapore, ahead of the opening of his solo show at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film, titled State of Flux: The Work of Minzayar Oo. It runs from 17 March to 15 April 2018 at Objectifs’ Lower Gallery. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Corrie Tan (CT): You were going to become a doctor, and then you started stringing for Reuters – I read an interview with you where you talked about attending a visual storytelling workshop that changed the direction of your life?
Minzayar Oo (MO): When I started, when I first bought a camera, I just wanted to take landscape pictures and scenes. Then I received an email one day saying that there was a photography masterclass at the French Institute taught by the French photographer Christophe Loviny, the director of the Yangon Photo Festival. So I signed up for the workshop, and that was the the first time I saw that photos can be used for storytelling. I saw a glimpse of the power of photography in telling stories. These could be strong issues, very important issues, or could be simple stories about yourself or your family. As I did more and more photography, I wanted to become a professional, so at the by-election in 2012, I decided to follow the campaign of Aung San Suu Kyi with my camera. I got that high. I wanted to keep doing it again and again. At the end of the campaign, I got the chance to string for Reuters part-time.
CT: During that workshop, did you get the chance to look at other types of photography work by other artists?
MO: I saw photo stories on different issues, like a protest in Nepal, or the journey of a photographer in China, or the story about HIV patients in Cambodia, or also the work by Myanmar photographers who had taken this workshop before, like self portraits by a studio photographer. I saw all these different kinds of work, the variety of it, and at the end of the workshop I thought, I want to become a photojournalist! But even though I worked with Reuters, I was always more interested in working on in-depth feature stories. I wanted to go somewhere that hadn’t been reported on before.
CT: I think film and photography are really booming in Myanmar right now, especially with the introduction of smartphones that have allowed so many people to capture different kinds of work. Are there any photographers working in Myanmar alongside you now whose work you really like and respect, and hope that more people will get to know their work as well?
MO: I’m part of the earliest generation of photojournalists and visual storytellers in Myanmar. But when I started out, I saw that there were already a few photographers, like Kaung Htet from The Myanmar Times, or Soe Zeya Tun who’s working for Reuters – I was really inspired by their work. Kaung Htet is the chief photographer at The Myanmar Times, he’s a news photographer covering different issues. His pictures are really great, but beyond that, it’s the courage he has to be able to be there. For example, when there was a big explosion in Pazundaung, he went there, he was very close to it. As for Soe Zeya Tun, he’s also a news photographer shooting for a wire. With the biggest news events in the country, he’ll bring back shots that are amazing. For example, his pictures of the crackdown on student protests in 2015, there’s a picture of the police beating up one student who’s running. For me, the most important inspiration is the commitment. When you see that someone is not just doing – not just wanting to be a photographer, but being passionate and delivering good work.
Now, I see a lot of new-generation photographers. For example, there’s Hkun Lat, who’s only 21 years old, but already doing a great job. There’s another photographer called Ko Myo, he’s not a professional photographer in that he doesn’t make a living from it, but every year he goes back and he shoots stories about elephants, and he always brings back a different story. He’s been working for three to four years on these projects on elephants. And there’s Yu Yu Myint Than – she has a very special kind of special, conceptual documentary storytelling that’s very personal. There’s not a big group, but there are a few promising photographers trying to push boundaries in each generation.
CT: You’ve covered the jade mines and the prospectors in Kachin state, and you’ve covered the crisis in Rakhine as well. I feel that in a lot of your work – let’s say the very intimate portraits of the Rohingya community on Skype in a makeshift internet cafe – I believe you happened to be working in that area, and you saw this, and that’s how you came to photograph it? It’s a very personal project. There’s no specific political agenda behind your photographs; you’re capturing a person having a tender moment with their family.
MO: That’s a perfect example. I’ve worked a lot in Rakhine on news stories, like the health crisis or the aftermath of violence. But this story, it’s not about whether they’re Rohingya or Bengali, or who’s been there first. You’re trying to bring it closer to the audience, down to a very personal, human level. It’s about family, and a connection. It’s not like, “Okay, I will go do this story and I will come back with that.” I’m usually working on a different assignment, and then I come across a story.
Like the Skype story. I walked into this little street, and for the first time ever, I saw people shouting in front of the computer, and I was wondering how these computers and internet huts got there. And for the first time, I saw something hopeful in the camp and I was inspired. With the jade mines, I got assigned to it, then I was just blown away by the landscape and how people were working there. For a lot of Myanmar people, we know that Hpakant exists and many people go there to work. But people never know what it’s really like. Even though my first trip was only one day, and I was on assignment for Reuters, I came back and I wanted to keep working on it. I had to keep going back. I was just amazed by the landscape, how things were working, how people were working, but also realising the vast amount of money that’s linked to natural resources.
I do look at other photographers’ work to get inspired. For example, for the jade mines, when I got there, the first picture I connected it to was Sebastiao Salgado’s famous picture from the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. But this is in terms of aesthetics. For the stories, it mostly comes with the people that I speak to. That’s why it’s very important to not just shoot, shoot, shoot. It’s more important to talk to them and to understand. That’s the only way you’ll get your story. Because more often than not, when you’re really obsessed with just getting the strong imagery, you sometimes tend to forget to know the story for yourself.
CT: You’re absolutely right in that you can focus on the aesthetics of a photograph, but if you’re only looking at the aesthetics of a photograph, then it’s just a pretty picture.
MO: Yes! Maybe it’s because I don’t consider myself an artist. For me, I’m using art as a tool to tell a story. For me that’s more important. It doesn’t mean that my photos can be bad – the photos have to communicate the story. I think the special thing about telling stories with photos is that it has the power of communicating at a different level. It doesn’t just give information to the audience. It connects audiences to the art, to touch and move them. That’s why, with strong photos, you feel the story of the subject.
But for aesthetics, I also look at paintings. I really like Caravaggio, the Italian painter. For me, he’s a really big inspiration. He also tells stories in his paintings. His portraits are nice, but I’m more interested in his paintings with a lot of interactions. There’s always one person talking to another person, and at the same time there’s an action going on, and then the lighting is very dramatic. I think they say he’s something like the earliest photographer. His paintings are just like photos. He’s also very dark at the same time, like his painting of Judith Beheading Holofernes, cutting the head off. I bought a book of his paintings.
CT: When Myanmar was beginning to open up in 2012, a lot of former censorious laws were abolished; there’s now supposed to be freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But right now, of course, we’re seeing that’s obviously not the case. A lot of Myanmar journalists are in the line of fire, journalists and photojournalists alike. How do you navigate things like, say, 66(d)? How do you negotiate with these issues as a photojournalist yourself?
MO: Press freedom is not great at the moment, and some issues are very sensitive to work on. I try to be careful, but at the same time, the stories have to be told. We have to try to push boundaries. This is the only way to keep it going further. I try not to be advocating or criticising any person in my work. What I work with in the field, most of the time, are people at the very ordinary level. I work with them, I learn their stories. And this is like the consequence or the impact of all the politics. Instead of being critical or advocating something, I just try to portray their story in the best way that I can so that people understand, and realise that something’s going on.
CT: I think a lot of people are aware that it’s a difficult time for Myanmar. I think the country is often misunderstood whether inside the country or outside of it. What do you think can be done for photographers and photojournalists like yourself who are trying to communicate these stories to the public?
MO: We need to have more press freedom and freedom of expression. Because if you cannot even start working, you can’t do anything. Then we need more institutions: we still don’t have an institution for photojournalism, for example. There are definitely more channels and mediums for people to pursue photography now. But it’s important for the general public to understand the job as well. For most people in Myanmar, when you say you’re a photojournalist, they think you’re a news photographer. It’s not necessarily the same thing. Yes, news photography is part of photojournalism. But when you go out on the street and shoot ordinary people they ask, “Am I in the news?” So for people to understand this more, I think we need to do more displays, not only in the media, but things like exhibitions and festivals.
CT: I have an enormous respect for Myanmar photojournalists. There are a lot of constraints to shooting in the country and a lot of sensitivities, but a lot of photojournalists just go ahead and shoot the work even though it might put them in a difficult situation. Let’s say when you were in prison in Bangladesh, for example, were you afraid that you were never going to get out, or what would happen to your work, if you’d ever be able to shoot again?
MO: When I was stuck in Bangladesh, the biggest worry was family – not being able to see my family again. The scary thing was the uncertainty of it. Because you haven’t committed a crime. You’re like, “Did I do something wrong? I didn’t do anything wrong. But then, when am I going to be released?” You don’t know. All these uncertainties were the scary part. But that’s also the first time I realised the serious consequences that I could get for the job. It made me think, is it worth it? But this doesn’t discourage me from working. It just makes me think about being more careful. When you get into that sort of trouble, it had better be for the right story!
State of Flux: The Work of Minzayar Oo runs from 17 March to 15 April 2018 at Objectifs’ Lower Gallery.