Capturing the Human Spirit

July 1, 2016 ·

Eileen Benjamin
Silhouette of women with baskets
Silhouette of women with baskets

The main focus of my two trips to Myanmar, also known as Burma, was to capture images that reflect the human spirit of a people cautiously optimistic for a better future. The people were friendly and for the most part open to having their photograph taken. They smiled with approval when they saw their beautiful face on the back of my camera. This was especially true in the remote regions of Myanmar.

Yangon is a major city in transition. It is a place where many residents of both sexes still wear the traditional longyi even as they chat away on modern cell phones. Construction cranes are everywhere, and sleek hotels and condominiums are popping up like islands in what otherwise is a sea of crumbling structures that often are so unmaintained that trees grow from cracks in the plaster.

A walking tour of the city center reveals lively streets lined with food stands selling everything from sliced pineapple to fish curry (cooked over a wood fire in a pot set right on the sidewalk). Other makeshift stalls offer the psychoactive betel nuts that many locals chew (staining their mouths blood red) while still others offer clothing, electronics and even legal services.

While I was in Yangon, I attended a rally organized by the National League for Democracy, NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke reflecting on her theme “ Time for Change” encouraging her supporters to get out and vote, to not be intimidated. The streets were lined with vehicles and a sea of supporters in red shirts with NLD slogans including Aung San Suu Kyi our president 2015. Election day was close and the air was filled with excitement.

National League for Democracy Rally Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 FE 16-35mm
National League for Democracy Rally
Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 FE 16-35mm

My first trip to Myanmar was in 2014 when I brought a Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III with two lenses; a Canon 24-150mm and a 70-300mm. On my second trip in 2015 I had the new Sony A7RII along with a Canon f2.8 70-200mm, a Sony 16-35mm along with a Really Right Stuff tripod, ball head and L bracket.  For my backup camera I had a Sony a6000 with a Sony 16-70mm lens. Until I purchased the new Sony system I hadn’t realized I had been working with a dinosaur. I was astounded by the image quality. I was also able to more easily access programmed settings for my specific needs. I captured the above shot tilting the Sony rear screen LCD which would have been difficult with the Canon. This shot was taken with a dense crowd, everyone wanting to get a glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyi, including me.

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I witnessed the election process in one of the remote regions. It was orderly, organized and somewhat subdued. Then the election results were announced. Aung San Suu Kyi won a sweeping victory in landmark elections — the latest milestone in an ongoing series of reforms that has led Western nations to lift sanctions and allowed the former British colony to begin emerging from the tourism shadows. If the results are honored by the military and ruling party, it would be the first time in over fifty years that Myanmar voters were able to freely pick their leaders through an election in the slow march toward a more open and prosperous society.

Even though I had been to the Yangon fish market in 2014, it was a must to return in 2015. It’s an experience like no other. The unloading, sorting, wholesale selling, and processing is organized chaos. I was there before sunrise and greeted by the strong fishy smell, then friendly smiles and curious eyes as people saw my camera. I saw proud workers showing off their biggest catch of the day, men carrying huge baskets of fish, men throwing ice blocks into crushers in an icy haze.

Throwing ice into a crusher Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Throwing ice into a crusher
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

 

Thiri Mingalar fish market Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Thiri Mingalar fish market
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

After experiencing the dynamics of the fish market , our group went back to the hotel to shower and wash our fishy scented shoes and clothes. We regrouped after breakfast to drive to a more peaceful scene; a monastery where monks are studying. 

Monk studying at Kowin monastery Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Monk studying at Kowin monastery
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

The traditions of Buddhism are upheld very strongly in Myanmar. Monks pray throughout the day to honor the teachings of Buddha. Myanmar has the highest proportion of monks and nuns in the world, with somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the population practicing Buddhism.

Many families from poorer or more rural backgrounds take the opportunity to send their son or daughter to be a monk because it means a free education. Some are orphans and the monasteries take them in. No child is left behind.

Our guide, Win Kyaw Zan, provided countless opportunities to photograph monks in monasteries, villagers in remote areas, as well as everyday people going about their daily lives. He was a kind, gentle soul whose rapport with his native people was natural and genuine.

A visit to the Shwedagon and the Kaba Aye Pagoda speak so profoundly to the importance of the Buddhist religion in Myanmar. The image of the historical Buddha is of primary significance. Just before his enlightenment, the Buddha sat meditating with his hands as depicted in the images below to call upon the Earth to witness his worthiness to become a Buddha. The gold represents spirit rather than worldly wealth. 

Monk praying at Shwedagon Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Monk praying at Shwedagon
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 24-105mm

 

Buddha at Kaba Aye Pagoda Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Buddha at Kaba Aye Pagoda
Canon EOS 5D Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

The Yangon markets are vibrant and filled with activity. I enjoy going to markets in every country I visit. They are streaming with traffic, pedestrians, shops and markets. Roadside stalls serve sizzling food and snacks. They are chaotic, smelly and lively. I’ve heard some say, “you see one, you’ve seen the all”. I find each one unique and fascinating. In these markets you discover insights into the ethnic diversity of the city, it’s produce, heritage and traditions. I also find the human spirit heartwarming.

In search of… Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
In search of…
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

 

 Hugging a friend with thanaka powder Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Hugging a friend with thanaka powder
Canon EOS 5D Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

From Yangon we flew to Bagan, famed home to more than 2,000 stone temples.

Sunrise at Shwesandaw Pagoda Sony A7RII w/Sony f2.8 70-200mm
Sunrise at Shwesandaw Pagoda Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm

As incredible as the pagodas are, it was the people who peaked my interest. My portraits were close-ups as well as environmental because both had stories to tell.

Nuns carrying baskets of food through covered causeway to Shwezigon temple Sony A7RII w/Sony f2.8 70-200mm
Nuns carrying baskets of food through covered causeway to Shwezigon temple Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm

Bagan is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive.

For decades, Myanmar has been almost unreachable to travelers. But with the recent shift in politics opening up the country to visitors, Myanmar’s gracious residents are welcoming visitors with open arms.

Myanmar-18
Young monks lighting candles Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm

 

Myanmar-16
Young girl posing for our cameras ony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm

As a side note, in 2014 I was fortunate enough to be in Bagan on the morning of the November Fullmoon Shwezigon Pagoda Food Offering Festival where thousands of monks lined up in a procession on the pagoda grounds. Candles and fireworks are offered first and then on the day of the full moon people are offering alms bowls of food and various domestic articles to the monks.

Monks line up to receive alms bowls Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Monks line up to receive alms bowls Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm  
Monks line up to receive alms bowls Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Monks line up to receive alms bowls Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Monks line up to receive alms bowls Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Monks line up to receive alms bowls Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

During my 2015 trip to Myanmar, my group left Bagan and drove eight hours to Kampalet. Visiting the remote villages is what I looked forward to the most. Kampalet is high in the hills of Myanmar’s Chin state. In Kampalet we visited local religious sights, a local market and a couple of Tattooed Chin families. Intricate webs of tattoos cover the faces of women, going back to a time when women disfeatured themselves to dampen the lust of lowland marauders.

Ethnic traditions are vanishing as Myanmar opens up to the changing political and economic times and the Chin tribe is no exception.  There’s also a generational disconnect: Older people are mostly illiterate while the young are attending primary schools and going on to higher education. The young are gradually leaving the villages wanting a better life.  As restrictions on tourism are being lifted access to some of these remote villages are becoming more readily available.

Tattooed woman from Chin tribe Sony A7RII w/Sony f2.8 70-200mm
Tattooed woman from Chin tribe Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm
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One of the last nose flutist from Chin tribe Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm
Chin woman carrying wood Sony A7RII w/Sony f2.8 70-200mm
Chin woman carrying wood Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm

My approach to doing environmental portraits is twofold:  get up close or zoom in with a long lens to capture the sparkle in the eyes or step back and capture their natural surroundings or activity to tell more about the person. If I’m making an outdoor portrait and don’t have the natural light I want, I’ll pose my subject in open shade, preferably in a setting that has something to do with the message I’m trying to convey.

After two days in Kampalet we drove back to Bagan where we boarded a boat to Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River where we are able to stop at more remote villages.

Man with trowel Sony A7RII w/Sony f2.8 70-200mm
Man with trowel Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm
End of a long day Sony A7RII w/Sony f2.8 70-200mm
End of a long day Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm
Young monks holding hands Sony A7RII w/Sony f2.8 70-200mm
Young monks holding hands Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm
 Young monk posing
Young monk posing Sony A7RII w/Canon f2.8 70-200mm

From From Mandalay we flew to Kyaing Tong. That evening we photographed the Ngwe Palaung people. The women stand out among the other hill tribes for their colorful traditional dress. Their garments include velvet jackets of green, blue, or purple and longyi fastened with belts. Black caps, long, brightly colored hoods, and cloth leggings complete the outfit. Some women wear a different kind of headdress made up of colorful bands of cotton. The Palaung are famous for the tea they grow.

Young girl with candles Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm
Young girl with candles Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm

 

Villager posing with a candle Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm
Villager posing with a candle Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm

The next day we visited the Eng tribe, also known as the ‘Black Teeth Tribe’. Their teeth are black due to their love of chewing betel. They are also one of the most traditional ethnic groups found in Burma. They are another diminishing tribe who live in the hills. The hike to the Eng village was hot and muddy due to recent rains but definitely worth the effort to get there. It was my second time in this village.

Eng Hill Tribe woman Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm
Eng Hill Tribe woman Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm

 

Eng Hill Tribe woman Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm
Eng Hill Tribe woman Sony A7RII w/Sony f4 E 16-70mm

 

Akha Hill Tribe women Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Akha Hill Tribe women
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

 

The image of Akha women was taken on my first visit to Myanmar in 2014. It was a fun and spontaneous encounter. We were driving to a village when we saw two Akha women walking along the road in traditional dress with their baskets filled with purchases from their trip to the market. We stopped our van and our guide asked if we could take pictures. They were friendly and obliged his request. Next thing I knew we were giving them a ride to their village, well, part way to their village. The rest of the way would be on foot.  We were the first visitors to their village. All eyes were on us as we entered. The two women agreed to let us photograph them in traditional dress at their home, then others dressed up and joined them. Villagers, young and old, came to watch the spectacle. It was an unexpected highlight of the entire trip.

The Akha are an ethnic group living in small villages among the mountains of China, Laos, Myanmar and northern Thailand, where they are one of the six main hill tribes. In Myanmar, most of the Akhas are found in the Shan State.  Their villages are high in the hill regions.

In 2014 I visited Inle Lake. The people on the lake are largely self-sufficient, living by fishing and farming. Extra household income comes from the making and selling of handcrafts. – the area is well known for its woven textiles and hand-rolled cheroots in particular – and from the relatively newly burgeoning tourist trade. Most communities around the lake are Buddhist. Villages of rustic single- and two-story wooden stilt houses straddle active waterways. Inle is also known for its lotus weaving, meticulously spun using the long stems of the lotus plant. The only practical way of getting around the Inle Lake is by boat.

Fisherman posing Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
Fisherman posing Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

This fishing style involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. This unique technique evolved because the lake is covered with reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds, however, this leg rowing style is only practiced by the men.

“Long neck” lady Canon EOS 5Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm
“Long neck” lady Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III w/Canon f4 EF 24-105mm

We visited a souvenir shop with a few Padaung women. Originally intended to make Paduang women less attractive to raiding parties from neighboring tribes, the application of heavy brass neck-rings causes deformation of the collar bone and upper ribs, pushes the shoulders away from the head. Padaung women reach a stage where they are unable to carry the weight of their own heads without the rings as additional support.

My two trips to Mayanmar will remain forever etched in my memory. Each trip was uniquely different even when I revisited a region. Seeing the Golden Shwedagon restoration complete and being there during sunrise and sunset was incredibly peaceful and spiritual. The thousands of stupas that scatter the plains of Bagan will always be mesmerizing no matter the number of visits.

I could easily write a story about the people from each of the areas I visited. I was able to capture so many iconic moments with my camera reflecting tradition, human interaction, spirituality and a way of life.  This article represents only a small fraction of the images that I was able to take. My goal was to capture the heart and soul of the Myanmar people with my environmental portraits.

As the country takes steps towards democracy and conveniences such as mobile phone coverage, internet access, young people are leaving the remote villages in search of a better life. Change will take time, but there is a sense of hope for a better future for the people of Myanmar. I’m thankful to have seen many of the traditions before they disappear.


Eileen Benjamin
April 2016

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Eileen Benjamin

Benjamin is recognized as one of the most accomplished black and white photographers in the state of Colorado. Benjamin’s early work was with a 4x5 film camera. She has since migrated to digital format and color. Beside the work of Edward Curtis, Charles Russell, Frederic Remington and Thomas Moran, Benjamin’s photography was part of a collection of Art of the American West, exhibited at the U.S. Embassy in Spain. Her photographs are included in personal and corporate collections throughout the United States and abroad. Benjamin’s first book, If You Listen: Poems & Photographs of the San Juan Mountains, was done in collaboration with poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Other publications by Benjamin include a self-published book, Telluride, Landscapes and Dreams, foreword by Jay Dusard, and A Spiritual Connection, Living on the Edge of the American Rockies, foreword by Richard Moe, President of National Trust for Historic Preservation. She has just completed a mixed media project entitled “The Fabric of a Woman, A Celebration, a book she has worked on for the past decade and is in the process of getting it published. While working on the mixed media project, Benjamin has traveled abroad capturing moments in time of people and places. Her travels have taken her to Scotland, Ireland, Turkey, Jordan, Bali, Viet Nam, Peru, the Galapagos, Guatemala, Nepal, Myanmar and South Africa. Benjamin is currently working on a project of women in remote regions of the world and will be an instructor on the 2016 South Georgia and Antarctica trip sponsored by Luminous-Landscape/Rockhopper Workshops. Her passion for photography has no boundaries and she is open to all possibilities. www.eileenbenjamin.com

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