© Adam Dean/Panos Pictures
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 healthcare systems (and the country’s tragically neglected AIDS crisis), ethnic conflict and other subjects—are more accessible. That presents new opportunities for documentary photographers.
“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 dangerous 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 photographers 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 photographers 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 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.
“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.
While some areas of the country remain off limits—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 globalization.” She shot other human-interest stories, too, including 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 embassies in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Flights from Bangkok to Rangoon are frequent, and take a little more than an hour.