Fri 30 Aug 2013
Filed under: Other
Burma’s democratic reforms have led to the lifting of sanctions and an explosion in tourism, so it’s no surprise to see a flood of new books about this alluring destination.
Of course, even in its most dismal phases, the country was never completely closed, only grim and dangerous to traverse. And that was catnip to Bangkok-based journalists Nic Dunlop, Thierry Falise and Hans Kemp.
Riding a wave of renewed interest, all three have released Burma photography books. Each offers insight into a nation whose recent history is tragic and incredibly complex.
Mr. Dunlop’s “Brave New Burma” is the darkest of the three, not only in content but in its moody, black-and-white photographs. Many of the scenes were shot surreptitiously.
Although known mainly as a photographer, Mr. Dunlop’s previous book showcased some of Asia’s finest reporting and reflective writing. “The Lost Executioner” detailed his quest to find Comrade Duch, who ran the Tuol Sleng torture center for Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. After the peacekeepers had left, and the world believed this gruesome killer had disappeared or was dead, Mr. Dunlop found him hiding under a new identity in refugee camps. Comrade Duch is the sole person jailed for crimes that wiped out an estimated one quarter of Cambodia’s population.
Devoid of photos, “The Lost Executioner” was as much about the ethics of journalism, and issues of humanity, as it was an intensely personal investigative journal. “Brave New Burma” is much the same. Largely influenced by the time Mr. Dunlop spent in Burmese refugee camps and border areas, the haunting black-and-white pictures are a blistering indictment of the misery and tragedy inflicted by decades of Burmese military rule.
Mr. Falise also takes a journalistic approach to his photography, not surprising because he spent many years as a correspondent for the Associated Press and various papers. A fearless reporter once jailed in Laos for reporting on a persecuted minority, he’s written several previous books, including a biography of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Mr. Falise first visited Burma in 1987 on an illicit cross border trek from Thailand, where he moved in 1991 to further his ever-widening journeys into Burma and around the region. For “Burmese Shadows” he scoured his archives, offering priceless views of festivals from 20-25 years ago, as well as arresting shots of boy soldiers and other border armies. But he also took advantage of Burma’s new opening, revisiting every corner of the country. The result is a record not only of Burma’s transition, but every aspect of modern life, up close, in sensational color. “There is a lot of debate about color versus black and white,” he conceded. “But life is in color.”
Mr. Falise intersperses this finely structured tome with marvelous tales. In 1995, accompanying missionary Allan Eubank, he ventured deep into Wa territory, whose residents still relished their traditional head-hunting. “I have heard your religion only allows a man to have one wife,” the headman tells them. “The problem is that I have 12 wives, so what can we do about this?” An accommodation was reached, and Mr. Falise returned with more stories and phenomenal photographs.
For the armchair traveler, Mr. Kemp’s “Burmese Light” may be the most entertaining introduction to the country. Originally from the Netherlands, Mr. Kemp has lived in the region since the 1980s and is known for books from Vietnam and Cambodia. “‘Burmese Light’ is really about this moment in transition,” he explained before the book’s launch last week in Bangkok.
Mr. Kemp concedes a commercial motivation. In late 2011, as embargoes relaxed and Burmese reforms escalated, he decided to focus on this emerging nation. “I wanted to make a record of that moment of transition, before it was gone.”
He was another early visitor to Burma decades ago. Beginning in early 2012, he made several new visits and traveled most of the country shooting anew. Contributing writing is Tom Vater, a Bangkok-based author and Mr. Kemp’s partner in Hong Kong’s Crime Wave Press, which releases Asian-focused detective novels.
Mr. Vater had never visited Burma, and brings a freshness to his commentary. “In small towns everyone gets around on cycle rickshaws pedaled by skinny, cheroot-puffing old timers. For longer distances, the Burmese hop onto pickup trucks called lain ka, a name derived, apparently, from ‘line car.’ The railroads are a world of their own—rickety, challenging, ancient. Hard seats only. The bridges look like action movie set pieces, ready to collapse. In the end,” he writes, “everybody gets there, of course—in Burmese time.”
Design-wise, Mr. Dunlop’s book is the clear winner. Its compact size and high-quality reproductions make it alluring to art photography buffs. But each book offers something special to fill the formerly sparse shelves of Burma watchers.