2016 DXO One Grant Winner, Vivek Prabhu, Bangalore, India
I am Vivek Prabhu, and I enjoy telling visual stories of people and places. My fascination for places, especially cities, has evolved from years of travel around the world. However, I was petrified each time I stepped out to take pictures. The fear that I may be doing something that is not appropriate was so paralyzing that most of the time, all I did was to frame the shot in my mind, enjoy the moment and move on. The only time I managed to take pictures that appealed to my artistic sensibilities was when I was confident that I was not being noticed by people around me.
I was searching for a strong incentive to break out of the fear of taking pictures of people in new places when I stumbled upon the DXO One Grant supported by the Luminous Endowment for Photographers. The Grant challenged photographers to visit a new country and stretch their own creative limits, using the DXO-One system. In my application for the grant, I chose to submit photographs that I had taken during my visit to Hong Kong in 2015. Hong Kong is by far one of the most accommodating cities in the world, especially for street photographers. People are warm and friendly, and the city itself is a goldmine for inspiration.
The pictures I shared with the jury were also the best representation of my abilities as a visual storyteller.
I heard of NayPyiTaw (Myanmar’s capital city since 2005) for the first time when I saw a video on YouTube. This video was shot using a Drone and portrayed NayPyiTaw as a modern city with wide 20-lane roads and world-class amenities, but very few people are actually living in the city. It went on dismiss NayPyiTaw as a bizarre soul-less city that perhaps is the outcome of the erstwhile military government’s largesse or paranoia. I found this intriguing and did some more research on the city only to find the same narrative in most of the international media. It became clear to me that NayPyiTaw was off the Tourist map and the only international visitors to the city were those who had business with Myanmar’s government.
I was instinctively sure that a capital city in a flourishing economy would have people who love the place and take pride in their city. By that measure, there must be more to NayPyiTaw than what is reported outside of Myanmar. I was determined to find out and submitted my proposal to explore the “The Road to NayPyiTaw”. The idea was to discover what cities mean to the people of Myanmar and tell the story through their eyes. To have a comprehensive understanding of Myanmar I planned to visit not just NayPyiTaw, but also Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. These cities have all been capitals of Myanmar and had various empires that flourished here in the past.
I planned my trip in a manner that I would get to see as much as possible of urban Myanmar from the perspective of the people local to Myanmar. This was essential for my project because I needed a fresh perspective and didn’t want it to be colored by what was previously spoken or reported about Myanmar. I chose to travel between Myanmar’s cities either by road or river. This allowed me to see first-hand how local businesses worked and how people normally travel for business or leisure
The biggest challenge on my trip was to remain focused on the project once I got to Myanmar. There were so many interesting things to take pictures of, and so many other places to visit. It was hard to silence the tourist and the adventurer in me, both of whom wanted to wander about and explore as much of Myanmar as possible. I also discovered that though fellow tourists or expats can give you more usable advice, they usually know very little of the place.
Myanmar is a classic example of this, as you would rarely find any tourists in the local markets of Mandalay, Yangon or NayPyiTaw. It interesting to note that the tourist circuit is far removed and isolated from life in Myanmar. Perhaps this is by design or just chance.
I discovered that though NayPyiTaw is a new city, the townships of Pyinmana and Loewe, where most the locals live, has a rich history. I learned about some of the crucial moments of Myanmar’s history. Pyinmana is the site where Burma’s National Defense Army was founded during World War II. It is also where Myanmar’s National Defense Academy is located.
The new part of NayPyiTaw has been designed and built as a place for the Government to function and not as a city for people to live. As a result, you have the Parliament, various Ministries, a Hotel Zone for International visitors and the International Airport all connected with wide arterial roads that are either 10 or 20 lanes wide. This ensures an effortless commute for the officials of the Government and visiting dignitaries. Also, because this area is far removed from everything else, the local people are never hassled by movement of these VVIPs.
I had to travel light for this trip. I didn’t want to carry too much of gear that might get in the way of taking pictures. The DXO-One was wonderful for getting up close to subjects for taking portraits. One challenge in using it though was its limited battery life. Although improvements such as the sleep mode helped, it was clear to me that the charge on the camera would not last a day. So, the first accessory I purchased was a portable Battery Bank which allowed me to charge a DXO one six times over. I also carried a DSLR, a Nikon D7000, an ultra-wide angle lens (10-24mm), and a 28mm f/1.8 lens. I needed the DSLR both as a backup and to take exposure bracketed HDR images of the Myanmar landscape.
My advice to other photographers is not to wait for approval or ratification from others to begin or pursue your own personal projects. I am not saying that you should not be considerate of what other people might think, but if you let it get in the way of your creative process, you may never get started. It is also true that projects of a certain scale may only be possible with external support. To get that kind of support you need to realize your creative vision, apply it to a project and try to make a unique contribution to the world.