Breaking free from the chains: The long road starts here.

Whilst the concept for this project may now be finalised, nothing is going to happen until it’s been fully discussed with the very people who its about and more importantly for… the political prisoners themselves. The single most important part of this whole project is to have their permission, call it blessing if you want, to be able to do this. Without their full understanding about what I want to do and what I hope to achieve with this project then nothing can happen. This is for them. This is to raise awareness, to tell the whole world what’s going on and to ensure that this changes things. Nothing more. Nothing less.

As soon as I got off the bus from Chiang Mai, naturally the first person I had to tell about it all was my girlfriend. Her support and belief is the foundation to everything I try to do for her country. It adds another dimension to everything I see and to everything I do for Burma. It makes everything so much more personal, and when one has a personal connection to one’s subject, the resulting work takes on such greater meaning. She was a student in 1996, sitting in the road at Hledan junction, like so many others with her and like so many others before her… refusing to accept what the military regime were trying to impose… no matter what the consequences… no matter what price they had to pay… it’s their beliefs that we now have to honour. If ever I had any doubt and needed this whole project confirmed to me as being the right thing to do, the three simple words she wrote in response to me explaining it to her did more than anything else ever could and ever will… “I’m very proud”.

The first port of call to contact former political prisoners to discuss this whole project and hopefully move forward with it was with my friends at AAPP. Both Ko Bo Kyi and Ko Tate Naing were away in Chaing Mai – we must have passed en route – so it was thanks to the ever understanding belief of Ko Aung Kyaw Oo whom I first explained the whole idea to in full. He loved the idea. I felt sure that whilst it can be understood as an overview in discussion, the real impact and potential can only be felt when taking and then seeing the pictures themselves. We agreed to arrange a photoshoot with all of the staff in the office when Ko Bo Kyi was back and they had all had a chance to discuss what I was proposing. So on a typically hot sweltering day we got underway at the AAPP office and set about photographing the ten members of the AAPP who were there |(in no particular order): Bo Kyi, Aung Kyaw Oo, Htay Aung, Eibar, Thet Oo, Thargyi, Min Min, Aung Myo Thein, Khin Cho Myint, Wai Moe.

It was great, everyone had fun and whilst some of the photos were not perfect, the main idea was to get them down as tests so the idea can develop and I have something concrete to work with. But most importantly I sensed that they all believed in this idea and shared my hopes about what we might be able to achieve. Only time will tell if we do.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved.

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.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved