The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has long been shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Formerly known as Burma, the country sits on the Bay of Bengal where it lies nestled between India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, and China, and has been subject to invasions for the better part of the past millennia.
For the past six decades, it has been ruled by a military dictatorship that has worked to keep its borders closed. “We have this idea that the country was closed off from the world and to some extent it was – but certain things always come through,” Austrian photographer and archivist Lukas Birk reveals.
In 2013, Birk launched the Myanmar Photo Archive (MPA) to create a comprehensive archive of Burmese photographers working between 1890 and 1995. Featuring some 10,000 photographs, it provides an inside look at the nation through the eyes of its citizens. A selection of the work is showcased in the new book, Burmese Photographers (Goethe Institut Yangon), which includes fascinating chapters on youth culture between 1970 and 1990.
“I found a lot of private photography and I really wanted a centralised body of work from a photo studio where the work that was created is very specific to the city where it was made,” Birk explains. While photo studios had thrown away old photos and negatives, Birk was lucky to come upon the Bellay Photo Studio, which Burmese photographer Har Si Yone opened in 1963.
“His son Tun Tun Lay, who runs the photo studio under the same name today, kept thousands of negative kept in plastic bags,” Birk says. “He was very keen on the idea that I would preserve them and work with them, so I scanned about 4,000 negatives.”
The discovery was an incredible find. The 1970s was a period of dictatorial power, inflation, food shortages, and government corruption. Despite (or perhaps because of) the political crisis going on across the nation, the photo studio became an oasis where young men and women were free to express their ideal selves within the magical oasis of the photo studio.
“It was a difficult time for youth to be themselves,” Birk observes. “Most of the fashion photos that I have were not intended for public use. Girls and boys would come into the studio and take pictures in their favourite dress, flared trousers, Western clothing, or extra sexy local skirt that they would never wear outside.”
When Birk exhibited these photographs in a large public park, a former student of U Sann Aung approached him and said: “My former master, he’s the man who brought colour photography to Myanmar. You should include him in the archive.”
Sann Aung became famous in Yangon during the 1980s and 90s for his colour photographs that embraced pop culture sensibilities. Sann Aung opened several shops in Siek Kan Thar and at Yuzana Plaza in 1998, where he was the sole distributor of Kodak and Agfa film. After the US imposed sanctions on Myanmar and Kodak pulled out, Sann Aung developed a partnership with Konica and remained in business.
“Sann Aung’s archive is completely gone. All that is left are the photographs I used in the book because he printed them really big – these are famous actors and actresses and they were produced for calendars,” Birk notes.
Burmese Photographers is a landmark publication that changes the way we think of Myanmar. “There is always a need for expressing, for being creative, and for making something more than what you have in front of you,” Birk observes.
“People might have smuggled in one little fashion magazine like Vogue or ELLE, and it was copied and shared because people had the need to do something beyond what they were allowed to do. That is something you take from: People are people. This need is everywhere, in every environment.”
Find out more information on the Burmese Photographers project at Goethe Institut Yangon.
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