Leaving London is never hard. Not even when its minus 9 upon arrival at your destination. Norway has long played a hugely important role in Human Rights and none more so than to Burma. More political refugees from Burma are resettled in Norway than any other European country and it is home to more than 40 former political prisoners. It is also the home of Democratic Voice of Burma, possibly the most important and significant of Burmese exiled media organisations… and this is exactly where we are heading to kick off this flying trip to the land of the midnight sun.
9am and its minus 9. Welcome to Norway. This most welcoming of countries springs an immediate surprise – no later than taking literally a few steps off the plane we are questioned and have our passports checked. “What’s the reason for your trip to Norway? Business?” asked the plain clothes police officers… surely the Junta can’t be monitoring me that closely? But this time at least, it’s not me the authorities are looking for. It’s cold… but a truely warm reception as we reach the DVB office in Oslo and time to catch up with friends – in particular Than Win Thut, senior producer/reporter who made the short documentary about the project in Chiang Mai back in July and also Pascal Koo Thwe, author of “From the Land of Green Ghosts” and also working here at DVB. Founded in 1992, the Democratic Voice of Burma is a non-profit Burmese media organization broadcasting uncensored news and information about Burma, the ruling military regime and its political opposition. More than often the stories relay the horrible truth about life behind closed doors where journalists are seen as terrorists and foreign media are banned. DVB have teams of undercover reporters working inside the country taking huge risks each time they dare so much as to walk down the streets with their cameras hidden under their arms. It was DVB’s images that told the world exactly what was going on in September 2007 on the streets of Rangoon during the Saffron Revolution and that subsequently went on to form the basis of the award winning documentary film Burma VJ – winner of the Rory Peck Award 2009 and shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. Run by Burmese ex-pats DVB’s head office is in Oslo but also has offices in Chiang Mai and India and reporters in many countries all across the world. In July 1992 it started broadcasting short wave radio programmes back into Burma and in 2005 it expanded its programming and began satellite television broadcasts that now are not only broadcast into Burma but also across the world, reaching tens of millions of people. You can now watch DVB on the internet at Livestation.
As well as being here at DVB to discuss this project and work on a few ideas to collaborate on in the future, the main reason of course is to photograph the former political prisoners who work here in the DVB office. This time, however, I am very lucky to have someone with me on this trip, doing more than just working along side me. Without my girlfriend, Jacquelin San, this trip would not be able to come together in the way it is, not just because she is Burmese and naturally makes interviews and speaking with people easier, but more importantly because it brings a closer personal context to the whole thing. She is quickly re-named the new ‘Secretary General’ at DVB as she is truly pulling the strings in getting this show on the road!! With Gambari now out of the way I know who gets my vote to start making in-roads at the UN…
It’s a usual busy working day at DVB so in between the various broadcasts, editing and interviews the staff are busy doing I manage to grab a brief time to chat to and photograph Yee Yee Htun who works on radio broadcasts and Moe Aye who is News Editor. Yee Yee Htun has participated in political movements since the 1988 democracy uprisings. She was arrested in December 1996 after her involvement in the Student demonstrations in Hleddan Junction. She was interrogated for 10 days then placed in solitary confinement in the women’s cellblock in Insein prison. She was finally put on trial in March 1997 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Moe Aye was a student at Rangoon Institute of Technology RIT throughout the 1988 uprising as a member of the ABFSU and the youth wing of the NLD. He was arrested by Military Intelligence on November 7, 1990 for an article he had written and was charged under Section 5(j) of the 1050 Emergency Provision Act being sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labour. He spent more than 6 years in Insein prison before fleeing to Thailand where he resumed his journalism and is now News Editor at DVB in Oslo.
We manage to take each portrait in the working environment of the DVB offices – one in the radio broadcasting studio and one in the TV studio. Not easy given the size of the radio broadcasting room and four people squeezing in, but we make them both happen and they are truly great shots, capturing each person in the DVB world… the world that is showing the rest of the world what’s going on inside Burma. I am particularly pleased with Moe Aye’s portrait as it’s my anti-portrait shot… it would have been too easy to stage a perfect shot in the TV studio as we had every kind of light possible to make it a typically beauty studio portrait… but that’s exactly the kind of image I don’t want. By showing it simply with elements of the studio in the final frame, like studio lights and cameras, it gives it a more documentary feel. The message is in the whole photo, not just the hand or the face. Often it’s what is going in the background or what the background is that has as much relevance – showing where the person is now living or what they are doing and what’s going on around you that you are not necessarily aware of…often under the surface where the real hard work is being done to make change inside Burma.
As well as taking the photographs of the former political prisoners, DVB also want to make another short documentary of the project whilst I am here – continuing on from the previous one shot in Chiang Mai… maybe this will be the next Oscar nomination!! Than Win Thut again follows me around capturing every moment and detail as we set about shooting inside DVB offices and across Oslo. An amazing first day comes to an end as we retire to stay with Than Win Thut, Pascal and Maung Htoo at their apartment just around the corner. The Secretary General cooks a feast for us all… and whisky and plenty of talk late into the night does the rest.
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