The Birth of an Idea

The bus journey from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot is nothing to write home about. There is no particular beauty to admire. There is nothing really memorable about the rest stops along the way. As with most transport, it serves a purpose. However, this particular trip which has been done many times will forever be permanently etched in my mind. On Friday 30th January as the bus was no more than 20 minutes into the journey back to Mae Sot the final pieces of the jigsaw that was the idea of this whole project fell into place. The past years had seen many thoughts and concepts for creating a documentary photography project for Burma’s political prisoners come and go. It is a subject that is close to me for many reasons. Just dealing with the subject of Burma, let alone  that of political prisoners, is often hard enough with all of the restrictions and dangers that lie in wait. After all, it was never going to be possible to actually photograph the prisoners themselves, or even the prisons in which they are detained – getting within close proximity would likely land me in jail too. In fact this was actually the creative starting point – a decision to not have any identifiable visible connection to prisons in the photographs and to continue my working theme and interest in images which have a more hidden meaning – that aren’t necessarily documentary at face value, that can pose a challenge to understand what its all about and demand a closer connection to the finished work… to draw people into the little known world of Burma’s political prisoners. So the immediate obvious choice was to photograph former political prisoners rather than those currently detained and the inspiration for that came in no small way from the AAPP who after all were instrumental in providing much of the inspiration to do this in the first place… the simple statement which is their motto “Though imprisoned they are everywhere with us” made the idea of photographing former prisoners the perfect solution. But it would have to be a portrait that would also contain a visible message or symbol of some sort that would provide the clue when you look at the finished photograph as to what its all about, after all there has to be a link as a simple portrait is no good, it’s not challenging or subversive enough. There have to be layers of meaning and that was really important to this whole concept. This gives the perfect hidden meaning to the work as its not immediately known that the person in the finished photograph is also a political prisoner too. This was therefore the basis of the idea that was born in 2008 and procrastinated over for a year as I just could not find that final piece to the jigsaw that would work for me… that is until the now infamous bus journey from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot, when the Eureka moment happened and it all fell into place…

I suppose I really have to thank the monk who was sitting in front of me for providing me with the final moment of inspiration. I suddenly thought back to one of the main elements I used in creating “Burma: Behind Closed Doors” (my work when I was at Central St Martins College of Art) – one of the buddhist symbols the Abhaya Mudra. Suddenly it all came together… the forward facing palm of the hand symbolising fearlessness – something that sums up the courage and determination that the political prisoners have in abundance… and by continuing my love of using text within my work I realised I could write the name of a current prisoner on the palm of the hand of the former prisoner who was being photographed – this becomes the perfect silent, statement and after all by writing something down you want to remember it – we often write on our hands to remember to do something… it snowballed very quickly… the title for the project came next… although the former prisoners who have been freed from jail are free in one sense, in another sense they are not because their colleagues are still detained, despite being free they are not because they are all still working to free not just their colleagues but also their country… “Even Though I’m Free I Am Not”…

So there I was, stuck on the bus for the next 8 hours unable to tell anyone that I had finally cracked it, unable to share my mixture of emotions of excitement and relief, unable to share the thousand ideas running through my head as I had to just sit there silently staring out of the window, alone with my thoughts. In someway this was symbolic to the whole idea itself and the very people to whom it is about and dedicated to.

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