Visiting USA seems to come as a last minute, unexpected but great surprise. In January we were on a plane with 48 hours of getting the call from Yoko Ono and this time is almost the same as frantic calls between Indiana, New York and DC confirm that it’s now or never. So now it is and a four day four city tour begins in DC currently in full meltdown with a record 100 degree heatwave hitting the city as I land. Beats the 18 percent grey of the UK. It’s 20 years since I was last in DC, back then it was just passing through, catching a few sites and this time is not much different with just 24 hours to take in RFA, VOA and other killers in the airwaves.
First stop was RFA and finally a chance to meet everyone after years of relying on that old communication device, the telephone. Thanks to Nyan Winn Aung for helping to arrange this as back into the streets we went to photograph, Nay Rein Kyaw, Soe Win and Nay Lin. Racing across town, next stop was VOA and a building the size of Buckingham Palace overlooking the National Mall. Catching up with Thar Nyunt Oo who I had met last year in Bangkok amidst the chaos of the Red shirt uprising it was another great opportunity to meet the other half of Washington’s exiled Burmese ‘Saboteurs’ as the regime would like us all to believe they are. Kyaw Thein had helped me set up this opportunity but as before at RFA the first spanner in the works appeared in taking people’s portraits. The role of journalists is to be objective and report truthfully and in the case of all at RFA, VOA and other Burmese exiled media this is in no doubt even if it may appear that they are all activists fighting the regime – it’s not their fault that there is only a bad picture that can be painted about the Burmese government. But unfortunately hand in hand with that impartial role as a journalist taking part in this work appeared to be crossing the line. For me, whilst disappointing, I can understand and respect this decision of the powers that be high up, but for everyone in the Burmese section and particularly the former political prisoners who could now not join their colleagues I felt a sense of sadness. It was always going to be impossible to photograph every former political prisoner in the world and there are of course many who have been photographed in Burma who I cannot show, but now those who are allowed to be photographed will also represent those who are not.
A Selection of Portraits from the Last Leg of this Three Year Journey
With DC wrapped and a quick stop off in between flights to meet Nyi Nyi Aung and Aung Din, the next stop on this flying visit was Fort Wayne, Indiana and the home of more than 7,000 refugees from Burma who have been resettled in this industrial town in Midwestern USA. It is home to a significant number of former political prisoners too and with the help of good friends Aung Khaing Min from AAPP who was in town at the time and Myo Myint, who many of you will know from Nic Dunlop’s stunning film ‘Burma Soldier‘, a non-stop day criss-crossing from one end of town to the other saw another 11 portraits taken. A very special thanks to Karen for driving what must have felt like a thousand miles. Ending this project here in Fort Wayne is fitting. This is no bright lights big city environment of London, Tokyo or New York. It is a place that is real and perhaps with it brings many of the realities of real life. If the struggle for democracy has been a long and difficult one, then the struggle to rebuild your life is as hard. Being here now to end this long journey that has been full of emotional pain and joy in equal measures, it is a perfect place to reflect on what those less fortunate than many of us in this world have to go through.
Returning to America in such haste and so soon after only having been here a few months ago was because of what is to come in the second half of this year. When this whole project first started I could never have imagined I would be where I am now having put together more than 250 portraits, testimonies and personal stories providing a small insight into the horrendous past, present and likely future of Burma’s political prisoners. It was my desire from the start that at some point I could somehow be able to put it altogether into a book that might be able to capture a moment in time of part of Burma’s long struggle and also perhaps help people understand more about the deplorable suffering endured by the Burmese people. Now the final chapter can start. The book has been confirmed and the long process of editing is underway. I hope that the end product will do justice to all of those who’s company I have enjoyed and who’s lives I have been honoured to portray over these past years. The final curtain falls as a new dawn breaks.