Photo Essay: after four decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar is taking faltering steps towards democracy. Simon Willis spoke to the photographer Matthias Messmer about capturing a country with a complicated present and a murky future
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2014
The boatmen wouldn’t say what their barges were carrying. The river (below) marks a porous border, busy with trade—not all of it legal. On the left bank of the Shweli, with its mud and telegraph pole, is Yunnan province in southern China. On the far side, through the dawn haze, is northern Myanmar, where rebel groups are fighting a guerrilla war against the government, partly funded by border trading in illegally logged teak and sandalwood. “They’re probably carrying timber,” says the photographer, Matthias Messmer, who was waved away when he approached the boatmen early one morning in February. They didn’t want to be photographed, and the picture he took has a kind of tense stillness. Like the others in his photo essay (see slideshow), it’s an image of uncertainty.
That morning came at the end of an overland trip through Myanmar that Messmer took with his Taiwanese collaborator Hsin-Mei Chuang. They began in Yangon before heading to Mandalay, where they spoke at a literary festival about their latest book, “China’s Vanishing Worlds”, a photographic document of rural towns, villages and ancient customs in a changing China. Then they headed north by road and rail—to Hsipaw and Lashio in Shan state, and then on the old Burma Road to the Chinese border. Along the way they captured Myanmar’s shaky transformation, as elections loom in 2015. The result is an essay in apprehensive hope.
Messmer is a sociologist as well as a photographer. He grew up in Switzerland but has spent the last decade living in Shanghai. His first book was about Jews in modern China, but he began to feel that words and pictures combined could be stronger than words alone. For his latest book he mixed the text, written with Chuang, with his photographs.
He first visited Myanmar more than 20 years ago, when the military junta was at the height of its power. “I felt both overwhelmed by the kindness of the people,” he says, “and at the same time guilty. I felt terrible about visiting as a tourist. I could see prisoners doing forced labour in the fields.” Since then the change has been dramatic, for better and worse. After 30 years of military dictatorship, the new president, Thein Sein, has relaxed the censorship laws and released political prisoners. Aung San Suu Kyi, kept under house arrest for two decades, is free to campaign for the party she leads, the National League for Democracy. But the constitution still reserves a quarter of the seats in parliament for the army and prevents her from being president because her late husband was British, as are her sons. Yangon, the run-down former capital, is undergoing a building boom. Advertising billboards are going up, second-hand Japanese cars clog the streets, foreign businessmen fill the hotels and people talk on mobile phones. “If you’d asked someone just months ago whether you could use a mobile phone,” Messmer says, “they would have laughed.” But while a few cities develop and the economy grows, rural Myanmar is as poor as ever and along with ethnic violence in the north, there’s been a surge in anti-Muslim attacks by mobs of Buddhist radicals near the border with Bangladesh. In Mandalay, where Buddhists, Muslims and Christians have long lived peacefully together, mosques have been burnt down. “I met a Muslim in Mandalay who said he got his education from an Italian priest,” Messmer told me. “It didn’t matter that you were a Muslim—you could go to a Christian. It’s a pity things are turning out like this.”
This mix of new freedom and lingering oppression is encapsulated in Messmer’s picture of the royal palace in Mandalay (top), which is still used as a military base. A dog sits in the road while men and women perform quiet morning exercises against a low wall. In the background, a sign at a palace checkpoint exhorts the army and the people to “crush all those harming the union”. “There used to be many more of these banners,” Messmer told me. “That sign has been there for decades. With the opening up of the country it seems somehow out of place. But it’s still threatening, as if to remind people that the military is still there.”
Messmer has symbolised Myanmar’s predicament more generally and more personally too: with low skies and fog. “Tourist photos are all pagodas and blue skies. In our pictures the weather isn’t the best, and to me that reflects the situation and my perception of it. As a foreigner you can observe, but whether you understand what you see is another matter. The haze blocks the view. There are many uncertainties ahead for Myanmar.”
Top The Royal Palace in Mandalay
Above The Shweli River, on the border between Myanmar and China
Matthias Messmer is a photographer. He co-authored “China’s Vanishing Worlds” with Hsin-Mei Chuang, who helped with this photo essay
Simon Willis is digital editor of Intelligent Life