Abhaya Preview as Advance Copies Arrive

At the weekend we managed to get our hands on an advance copy of the book and here are is a sneak preview of a few pages, including from inside Burma, to give you some idea of what’s inside… 224 pages, 244 portraits and background information, foreword by Aung San Suu Kyi, statements from AAPP and Human Rights Watch… and available for pre-order now on Amazon before it’s worldwide release in 3 weeks time. I think what I’m really looking forward to most is reaction and reviews – whether good or bad, it will just be good to finally see the work out there for all to make up their own mind.

Next stop London, New York and Bangkok, but will they all be released before the book? Here’s hoping so…

CNN Slideshow of ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’

CNN anchor, Kristie Lu Stout, presents a slideshow of ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’ on the primetime daily show, News Stream, on the day that 227 political prisoners were released from jail in Burma. Topping the headline news makes a welcome change for Burma and one we could relish as well with our work on display to millions across the world enjoying their breakfast in America, afternoon tea in the UK or evening noodles in Asia. The early morning call from Hong Kong lead to a crazy day dashing across London as slowly, one by one, political prisoners were being released. Being stuck in Europe on this of all days was not ideal considering the time difference and logistical difficulties trying to get updates using Skype and G-talk whilst constantly on the move, but luckily I managed to find a quiet room at Getty Images to do the voice over that took more attempts at trying to get a clear line than it does when trying to call into Burma. A moment in the spotlight for this work and Burma, despite the end result seeing fewer released than expected. Hopefully there is more to come as the countdown to the book being launched in Rangoon in mid-November draws ever closer.

Burma’s Voices at the Asia Society New York

Last week the Asia Society in New York played host to an evening of readings from the acclaimed book “Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime” by Maggie Lemerre and Zoe West. The event was produced by PEN, Open Society Institute and the Magnum Foundation and featured a multimedia slideshow of work from “Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness” alongside esteemed Magnum photographers Chien Chi Chang and the legendary Lu Nan.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to New York – that trip will have to wait a few more weeks until the opening of the Moving Walls exhibition in late November – but it’s always nice to see things turn out well and thanks to my friends Ma Su Mon and Ko Zaw Win for the photo below.

The Waiting is Over. Now The Games Can Commence.

Finding myself on a European timezone was not ideal with the long expected prisoner amnesty about to unfold. The first phone call of the day was at 4:00am and a long day ensued. It’s hard enough getting verified information out of Burma at the best of times, but in times like these it can become chaotic almost instantaneously as thousands turn to Twitter and other social networks, making announcements and forwarding third hand information that creates hysteria one minute and heartbreak the next. With reporters stationed at most of the key prisons across Burma, the exiled media and underground reporters, as well as citizen journalists, played their role in breaking the news live and with DVB’s rolling live updates for once it felt Burma was not a million miles away. An unexpected call from CNN in Hong Kong woke me from my early morning slumber as Zarganar was walking through the gates of Mytikyina prison and a request to be interviewed and show our work on the main network news at 08:00 Eastern USA time. The Guardian centrefold had got round the world quickly and brought with it more requests to show the photographs and give analysis and opinion as hopes of real reform in Burma started to fade once more. From Hong Kong to Bush House in 10 minutes flat and we just made the BBC World Service in time, but as the Norwegian Foreign Minister was starting to exaggerate the change underway the presenters cut short what was about to turn into a fully heated debate.

This time expectations were higher than before, but caution was key, as before too long it became clear that this would be just another game of smoke and mirrors, once more played out to make a mockery of the watching world. Zarganar was freed early on as was expected, soon followed by a host of political prisoners who had suffered illness or had been jailed for many years – Nyi Nyi Oo would finally taste freedom after 23 years jailed for being framed for a bombing incident that the KNU would later admit to. U Than Lwin and U Kyaw Khin, two former NLD  MPs elected in 1990, walked free but left behind 10 more who are still incarcerated. Rumours from Reuters soon had the world believing Ashin Gambira was free, but alas it would be the closest we would come to seeing any of the more prominent dissidents and opponents to this tyrannic regime be released from their dark cells. I expected 400 to be released, as had been widely touted by many. I hoped that the 88 Generation Students would be among them, but only hoped with no real expectation. My friend Andrew Buncombe, South-East Asia correspondent for The Independent was texting me from Bodh Gya in India, where Thein Sein was seeking enlightenment and doing his best to dodge Andrew’s questions.

Montage of Burma’s political prisoners taken from the forthcoming book ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’

This prisoner amnesty has been expected for some time and now that it has been and gone and the dust starts to settle. it’s time to take stock, a step back and wonder what cards the Generals and the democracy movement will play next. Rightly so, Burma’s so-called civilian government must face worldwide condemnation for this farcical amnesty and in no way must any form of concessions be given away in regards to sanctions or deals of any other kind from the IMF and World Bank. But I do not believe this is the last that we will see. I think that this could be the first part of Thein Sein’s plans as he tests the water to see just how much he has to give away to get what he wants. I strongly believe that, as in 2004, we will see further releases of political prisoners over the coming months and hopefully culminating with the release of the 88 Generation Students and other key protaganists who must be free to shape Burma’s future including ethnic leaders and more than 250 members of the NLD who still remain behind bars. Despite the joy that must be acknowledged in seeing 220 political prisoners walk free, I am deeply dissatisfied with the 24 hours that have passed. But I retain hope and the belief that there is more to come.

A Centrefold Premiere In The Guardian

On the day the Burmese regime finally announce the long expected prisoner amnesty, the Guardian newspaper pull out all the stops and go big for a double page centre spread on the former political prisoners from this project that is now better known as the book ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’. There is also a beautiful online slideshow gallery that can be viewed on the Guardian website with a premiere showing of the Lady’s portrait and others from inside Burma including U Tin Oo and Dr Daw May Win Myint.

See the full size article here – Guardian Eyewitness: Abhaya Burma’s Fearlessness

Today is also the day that the book gets launched at the Frankfurt book-fair. It’s been a busy day all round but nothing has been achieved yet. Here’s hoping that later on today there will be good news and we can finally start celebrating the release of political prisoners… and everything else as well.

Burma’s Political Prisoners book: ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’ with foreword by Aung San Suu Kyi

After 3 long years of  hard work and over 100,000 miles travelled, finally the book of our long term project documenting Burma’s political prisoners will be published in November 2011 by River Books. Hopefully all political prisoners will also be released by then as well.

Featuring a foreword written by Aung San Suu Kyi and portraits of more than 250 former political prisoners in exile around the world (as well as over 50 from inside Burma, including leaders of the National League for Democracy), ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’ captures a moment in time in Burma’s history, dated October 2011, with more than 2,000 political prisoners incarcerated.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Abhaya mudrā (“mudrā of fear-not”) represents protection, peace and the dispelling of fear.

In 1962 a military coup lead by General Ne Win saw Burma, an isolated Buddhist country in South-East Asia, come under the power of one of the world’s most brutal regimes. For the past five decades, thousands of people have been arrested, tortured and given long prison sentences for openly expressing their beliefs and for daring to defy dictators who tolerate no form of dissent or opposition to their rule.

Today, more than 2,000 political prisoners including monks, students, journalists, lawyers, elected Members of Parliament and over 300 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, The National League for Democracy, are incarcerated in Burma’s notorious prisons.

In Burma and across the world, almost 300 hundred former political prisoners have come together to raise awareness of the tragic plight of their colleagues still detained in jail. Photographed standing with their right hand raised, palm out-turned facing the camera, the name of a current political prisoner is shown written on their hand. The sacred Buddhist gesture of Abhaya, “Fear Not”, is not only an act of silent protest, but also one of remembrance and fearlessness.

“The people featured in this book have all had to learn to face their fears squarely during the decades they have passed in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. Their commitment has been their courage. It is important that they and what they stand for should not be forgotten, that their sufferings as well as their aspirations should be remembered.”

“I hope that all who read this book will be encouraged to do everything they can to gain the freedom of political prisoners in Burma and to create a world where there are no political prisoners” Aung San Suu Kyi

View the project in its entirety at www.enigmaimages.net

 

 

Burma Selected for OSI Moving Walls 19

The Open Society Institute has selected my long term project for Burma’s political prisoners ‘Even Though I’m Free I Am Not‘ to be part of the prestigious Moving Walls exhibition programme. The exhibition opens in New York with a reception on November 30th and lasts for 9 months before moving to Washington DC for a further 9 months. With 400 applications submitted, being selected as one of seven photographers to be part of this programme is humbling to say the least. Also with my work being shown in the main reception area, it’s a massive honour for me and for everyone involved in this work over the past 3 years and is of course very exciting, but most importantly it gives the issue of Burma’s political prisoners another platform and hopefully valuable exposure –  there will be an exclusive first showing of a number of former political prisoners from inside Burma who we have been waiting for the right time to show to the world. This is that time.

CLICK HERE for full details on the OSI website

This is without doubt one of the biggest recognitions possible for this work. To me it’s like winning an ‘Oscar’ especially when I look at all the names of those whose work has been chosen for this exhibition programme since it’s inception in 1998 including the likes of Tim Hetherington, Marcus Bleasdale, Eugene Richards, Steve McCurry, Larry Towell, Lynsey Addario, Stefano de Luigi, Ami Vitale, Ed Kashi… the list is endless. It’s astonishing and I am totally humbled. From the OSI website:

‘Moving Walls represents the transitional condition of open societies and the promotion and maintenance of democratic values. It recognises the brave and difficult work that photographers undertake globally in their documentation of complex social and political issues. Their images provide the world with human rights evidence, put faces onto a conflict, document the struggles and defiance of marginalized people, reframe how issues are discussed publicly, and provide opportunities for reflection and discussion. Through Moving Walls, the Open Society Foundations honor this work while visually highlighting the mission of our foundation to staff and visitors.’

Platon, Portraits And Power To The People

Time stood still in November last year as for many the moment they never thought they’d see actually happened as Aung San Suu Kyi walked free. Some weeks later Time stood still again for another moment deemed never to re-occur as the Lady returned to grace the magazine once more. Last night saw internationally renowned portrait photographer Platon and the person who took ‘that’ cover shot present a slideshow of his work to promote his new book “Power” at LSE in London. Interestingly also having begun his career at Central St Martins in London he went on to RCA (that’s where the similarities end for now as I was rejected twice!) and over a 20+ year career has photographed a plethora of celebrities and world leaders often in his unique and renowned style. Wide angled lenses right up close an inch and a half from the face of Gaddafi and Mugabe, like it or not, his work is different, engaging and at times incredibly powerful.

Platon’s cover shot of the Lady on show at his talk in London

But it was often the stories behind the image that proved more compelling as he recounted tales from the Kremlin to the White House in a self depreciating and humourous fashion. Interestingly when you consider all of the people he has photographed, from Obama to Pacino, the only person who he was not permitted to discuss at all was his shoot with David Beckham. Four non-disclosure contracts he was forced to sign saw to that. Licence to roam between facts and fantasy is the right of the storyteller and likewise the right to pass judgement on any alleged ego or self importance that anyone may show in so doing is up to those who choose to look and listen. It is too easy to slate someone in the public eye or in a position like Platon’s for having an ego, however big or small one might think it is or however right or wrong one may be in thinking so either through fact or jealousy. But there are many in this world be they photographers, celebrities, politicians or ordinary people who have their own agendas and are at times deluded by grandeur – I’ve been accused of having an ego for not telling people who I really am or for not showing my face. At times it often seems there’s just no pleasing anyone. I’m not interested in passing judgement publicly on anyone’s character and whilst his trip inside Burma and the resulting frantic car chase may at times seem a little OTT at least he went there (and wants to go back) and it was superb to see him dedicate a large section of his talk to his work with Human Rights Watch on the Thai-Burma border as well as his visit inside to meet with the Lady. An audience who perhaps had come to see the power of Clinton or the beauty of Monica Bellucci were instead stunned into further silence at the horrors of Burma. I got the chance to catch up with him after the event and we chatted about Burma, the Lady and working inside the country amongst other things. He was genuinely deeply humbled by the work that undercover VJs do inside the country and all those whom he had met on the Thai-Burma border. On a personal note it was great to meet him due to a mutual relevance in the work he has recently done for Burma and so many of the people he has met and photographed. He told me something that cast aside any self-doubts I ever had and means more to me than he could ever know (for those thinking my alleged ego is creeping back into the room it was not him saying how much he admired my work or how brilliant it was. Nothing like that. Rather it was something that others had said to him about it). An invitation to meet up with him in New York at the end of the year was laid on the table and that is an opportunity I hope might happen. Who knows, I might finally learn to use lighting.

The Final Curtain Falls as a New Dawn Breaks

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.

The Lady and the Lectures

This year’s BBC Reith Lectures on the subject “Securing Freedom” feature the world’s most famous former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Having clandestinely recorded the lecture’s at her lakeside home in Rangoon, the recordings were played back to a specially invited audience at the BBC World Service in London to enable audience participation and debate with the Lady via a phone link back into Burma. We were invited to attend both lectures and the first one has now been broadcast on the BBC World Service and you can listen to it via the link below:

Securing Freedom “Liberty” by Aung San Suu Kyi

Read the transcript here

In the opening section as Daw Suu starts talking about U Win Tin and Dr Daw May Win Myint and then go on to discuss Generation Wave, my mind immediately drifted back to them and other colleagues and close friends that I’ve come to know over the years inside the country. The second lecture and debate with The Lady took place last night and with an evening slot (after midnight in Burma) a bigger audience was able to enjoy the occasion. Both lectures were packed with an audience filled with leading human rights campaigners, NGO’s and academics as well as family members with whom we were attending. Questions often varied from the sublime to the ridiculous and at times left Sue Lawley tongue-tied, but the participation of the Lady was a joy to behold and even through an often fading phone line, it was as though she as there in the room with us. Perhaps most poignant moment in the evening was when Lord Steel reminded the world to the other side of the struggle for freedom and that of personal loss and questioning if sacrifice can be too high a price to pay in the end. Daw Suu talked boldly of the NLD’s continued growth and stature in the country in spite of everything the junta have thrown at them and perhaps it was this side to the discussions that were most telling. The youth have a role to play, one that is even more important than that of the international community. Did we learn anything new? Well if nothing else, then her spirit and that of her party is stronger than ever should anyone be left with any doubts.

The second lecture will be broadcast on Tuesday 5th July. In the meantime you can listen to Jacqueline San (campaigner at the Burma Campaign UK and also the other half of most of the work you see on this website) as she was interviewed on BBC World Service discussing the first Reith Lecture along with other dissidents from across the world: