Portrait of The Lady – VOGUE UK

One year on from her release from house arrest and The Lady once more appears across the pages of VOGUE magazine with her own indomitable style and grace. At the start of the year we had an appearance in VOGUE Japan but this time it’s the turn of VOGUE UK, and the December issue out now, that my picture of Aung San Suu Kyi and Tai-Chi-Toe feature in accompanying an article written by Rebecca Frayn (screenwriter) about the forthcoming Luc Besson film “The Lady”. Back in September, Jackie and I were kindly invited to a private screening of the film with a few other close friends and with mixed emotions and opinions I think regardless of what criticism it may draw, the film will be enjoyed by many, especially amongst Burmese who rightly so hold such affection for the revered Lady of Burma. It is an almost impossible task to try to tell even a small part of the story of Aung San Suu Kyi’s life and heroic struggle at all , let alone in under two hours. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the film currently comes in at at near to 2:20 (but is being cut) and although long and at times liberal with its historic detail, in no doubt at times a necessity to appeal to the great unthinking masses, it has its moments of emotion that hit home despite some rather ordinary acting and often trying storytelling. A story that is packed with heart wrenching emotion and drama I felt was unfortunately often not transferred to the silver screen. David Thewlis is superb as Dr Michael Aris and Michelle Yeoh gives a fine performance as The Lady, but despite what I felt the film lacked in its storytelling and sense of drama, some of the scenes and sets are superb, especially the replica house at 54 University Avenue. For those of us fortunate enough to be close enough to Burma and its history, we are of course the hardest critics to please if one focuses solely on history and detail within the film. Accepting that it is ‘based on a true-story’ one has to look past ones own personal knowledge, thoughts and beliefs and see it for the film that it is, if not the film that one may want it to be. Anyway, my thoughts and rambling ones at that and I truly hope that the film is enjoyed and receives the plaudits it deserves for trying alone where no-one else has dared try before.

Read the article  here – Portrait of the Lady

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 Defiance – U Tin Oo

Photographed for the ongoing long term project documenting Burma’s dissidents and defenders – BURMA’S DEFIANCE

U Tin Oo, Vice Chairman of the National League for Democracy

Vice-Chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Tin Oo spent more than 13 years in prison and under house arrest. He was released from his latest sentence in February 2010 and continues to work tirelessly to achieve democracy and national reconciliation in Burma in spite of threats and oppression from the ruling military regime.

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On Achieving Democracy Over Tea With The Lady

Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon – February 2011

A short message from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reminding everyone to continue to use their liberty to help promote Burma’s. After all if you did nothing for Burma it would make no difference to your life…

Click below to listen to audio: 

The Lady on political prisoners and her thoughts on the disciplined democracy on offer by Burma’s ‘new’ government. Click below to listen to audio:

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Aung San Suu Kyi: At Home With Burma’s Hope

All photos available to view in COLOUR or BLACK & WHITE

Reflections on tea with the Lady.

Waiting is often the hardest thing and this has been a long wait – almost three years to be precise since we started this project. But with the Lady under house arrest for so much of this time the opportunity has of course only been there since November 13th last year. We had already made the decision not to fly straight to Rangoon when she was expected to be released, knowing that the world’s media would be there along with numerous well-wishers as well as the vultures circling in the sky determined to get their own piece of the action and press their agendas upon Burma’s great hope. It was hard to sit back and watch the moment of history from afar as the crowds surged down University Avenue knowing I could have been there experiencing the momentous occasion, but in the back of our minds we knew the moment was not right for me to go in just yet and that our waiting would go on a bit longer until we could be distanced from the maddening crowds. Personal desire takes second place to making sure this all works the way it should. These aren’t my stories – I’m just telling them.

54 University Avenue, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home that has also been her prison

Fast forward a couple of months and the timing is now right as not only has the media long gone but also the cover stories of fantasy car chases has passed and all eyes are firmly back on Naypidaw as a new government is about to sit. Unlike previous trips this one required a more meticulous approach due to the number of people we planned to meet and the obvious risks to them. The last few days were spent lie-ing low in our border office away from the heat in both senses of the word, going through final checks and meetings before making one last call to confirm our date with destiny. The next thing I know a soft eloquent voice, speaking perfect English, is on the other end of the phone. Whatever it is you do in life they say you always remember your first time and this will be a moment that stays with me forever (despite what is to come – ed). The aura of the Lady is infectious and the reality of what we hope to achieve these next weeks with so many people inside Burma hits home in a sense of excitement and anticipation. The funny thing is the filming we’ve been doing for the past few days of interviews and getting ready missed the funniest moment that would have been my face when I realised who it was I was talking to. But words mean everything and those spoken to me by my good friend and colleague Ko Myo as he dropped me off to catch the night bus back to Bangkok resonate still in my heart and head as much as those of the Lady. Loaded with phones, cameras and plenty of cover stories, this may be a mission, but it’s no more important or different from every other one both us and others do every single day that thankfully go unnoticed by Burma’s authorities. I’m only hoping this one does too.

Aung San Suu Kyi at home with her pet dog Tai Chi Toe bought for her by her son Kim

The welcoming party in Rangoon took me by surprise but thankfully it was not for me – you can read all about it here in a previous post (chronology of this Burma trip is not published in date order for obvious reasons). One decision that we made in planning this trip that went against the grain was to do the most high profile thing first and thanks must go to the General Secretary, San San (mine and the one and only) for suggesting and ensuring that this happened. Logic would dictate that you should do the thing that has the most chance of you being caught last of all on your trip, preferably the same day you are leaving, thereby ensuring a swift exit from Burma with perhaps nothing more than being followed by military intelligence. But with so many people to meet there are risks everywhere and putting the Lady first would mean that at least we could get the one the world would know about should we be caught after seeing her or at any other time. So after a day spent being a tourist and buying postcards from young vendors outside Bogyoke Market, finally the day arrived to meet the Lady.

Behind the gates to 54 University Avenue. For years Aung San Suu Kyi stood at these gates giving speeches to thousands gathered outside

As the taxi turned into University Avenue my mind was cast back to my first visit here many years ago, standing alone outside the famous gates (then a faded green) of number 54 whilst Burma’s most famous political prisoner sat alone inside. I dreamt then that one day both I would be able to walk in and that more importantly the Lady would be able to walk out. As we pulled up to number 54 the big yellow gates were opened and we drove through into the the famous compound, a sense of excitement and disbelieving inside me mixed with a nirvana of memories and stories that have been shared with me over these past years by those former Tri-Color students and other NLD members who spent so much time here working and looking after the Lady. I had to pinch myself that I was really here, standing in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, closing my eyes imagining what it might have been like to be standing behind these gates with thousands cheering outside as the lady delivered her speeches back in those heady days of the late 1990’s let alone just being here at any other time over the past 20 years.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Burma’s political prisoners:

The house is now a hive of activity with building work and restoration ongoing and meetings being held on the front lawn looking out across the beautiful Inya lake. A warm smile and welcome from many that I already knew and others just recognised and I sat down inside, facing the beautiful huge portrait of General Aung San, waiting for his daughter, the democracy icon of Burma and hero to us all to walk through the doors. It really doesn’t get any better than this. Trust me.

Aung San Suu Kyi at home in Rangoon

“The Lady is coming” said U Nyi before exiting to allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to walk into the room. My heart missed a beat as in she walked and with her an aura that is simply indescribable. Everything anyone has ever said is true. And then some. Dignity, grace and beauty personified, I was completely captivated by her and in awe to be in her prescence, which may well sound contrived or over the top but to meet the Lady is more than just a lifelong dream and personal ambition, it is a truely incredible experience, made more so if one has more than just a passing interest in Burma or are here just to get your story. To do so here at her home in University Avenue is a great privilege and all the more memorable. We chatted and shared tea for some time (hours in fact) and whilst a few short sound files can be listened to here (actually from our second meeting the following week) our conversation roaming from politics and prisoners to pianos remains personal as I had already made a conscious decision not to sit there with microphone in hand armed with a barrage of the same old questions just asked in a slightly different way. I left that for the journalists with editors to please and newspapers to sell as this meeting was personal and personally one to be cherished – a chat and afternoon tea with the Lady and I think secretly she enjoyed the alternative approach as smiles and laughter around ensued.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on democracy and the new government:

Aung San Suu Kyi on the front steps at home with Tai Chi Toe

The time came for ‘the photo’ and it took no time at all and for better or worse as usual I made do with what we had – we shared a good laugh when I said all I had and needed was my Leica. A smile came over her face perhaps reminiscing of other more elaborate shooting requirements. With the large portrait of General Aung San as a backdrop, what could be better. For now the photo remains embargoed along with all the others from this trip inside Burma, including NLD leaders and dissidents, for the book which I’m hoping will be out at the end of the year. Stay tuned and i hope you can all join me in Rangoon for the launch. We then decided to shoot some more with Tai Chi Toe, her pet dog given to her by her son Kim. The VOGUE magazine article leads with one of the images I managed to capture before Tai Chi Toe decided it was time to chase imaginary rabbits in the garden and so I took the opportunity to take a few portraits of the Lady at home. It was no surprise when she adopted her now famous pose so beautifully captured in my friend Nic Dunlop’s powerful black and white portrait from 1996. I showed him the images soon after out of guilt that I had somewhat inadvertently re-created his classic moment in time, but his sincerity in response was re-assuring. But perhaps it also shows something much deeper, that nothing has changed in Burma and that this Lady is still as strong and relevant to the country’s future as she has always been. The Generals and many foolhardy world leaders, academics and businessmen would do well to take note. Before I knew it, it was time to leave and step back into the real world once more, or rather the very unreal world that the people of Burma must face every day. We joked about the not so secret service watching and waiting outside before saying our goodbyes. With everything hidden and also already on its way out I took one last look around this magical place before tightening my longyi and driving away through the bright yellow gates. No frantic chase, no flying market stalls. Maybe nothing achieved other than personally. Only Time will tell.

A final message from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on helping Burma:

The hardest thing about it was that I could be here at all when my beloved and so many of my very close friends and colleagues could not. For them just returning to Burma let alone the chance to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not an option. A swift return to Insein is what the regime would provide should they try. But they were with me here in spirit – every single one of them and like the Lady herself continues to re-iterate, as do I, it’s not about us. It’s about the political prisoners. This whole long journey has been possible because of them and I owe everything to everyone of them, both those incarcerated and those freed. It is their story, not mine. I’ve just had the privilege of trying to tell it and one day I hope we can all enjoy sharing it over tea with the Lady.

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Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘The Dignity of Freedom’ VOGUE Magazine

London, Paris, New York, Tokyo. Not just the fashion capitals of the world that act as a byline to the famous high-couture houses, but also just a few of the cities we have visited in compiling this long term project for Burma’s political prisoners. And now Rangoon.
These images of the Lady at home in Rangoon were shot when we met earlier in 2011 and some have now been published in VOGUE Japan magazine. It’s been quite a ride getting this article completed and is a story in itself which can’t really be shared here but massive thanks to Mayumi Nakamura, editor at Vogue Japan, for bringing Aung San Suu Kyi and the issue of Burma to the readers of Vogue Magazine.

View the photo-story, a personal portrait of The Lady at home – CLICK HERE

You can buy your copy of VOGUE Japan Magazine CLICK HERE

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The Lady Awaits As The End Of The Road Draws Near

The barriers are gone but the shackles have not been removed. A simple drive down University Avenue, past the bright yellow gates of number 54 that for so long have kept the Lady of Burma a prisoner in her own home, still strikes fear into the heart of most. Military Intelligence officers still sit outside, lurking in the bushes, noting down those who pass and with far greater interest anyone who should enter. The first time I made this journey I walked, managing to slip past an unobservant soldier too busy sleeping to notice me sneak past the barriers, creeping in the shadows. On reaching 54 I paused outside the gates (a fading green back in those days) for a fleeting second or two and imagined what lay behind… and now as destiny awaits the end of the road draws near…

Full details on Thursday 28th April…

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Watching the Watchers Where Intelligence Brings Fear

Downtown Rangoon and the taxi shudders to a halt. The streets are the same as last time and each time before that. Very little changes in this crumbling yet beautiful city or for that matter wider afield throughout Burma as a whole. Whilst several Western and Asian Governments and so-called academics proclaim that elections have and will bring real change to this ravaged country (they won’t – ed), what is certain for sure is that they bring no hope. Real hope may be simmering underneath with the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the belief that a new dawn of democracy may be on the horizon, but hand in hand with hope always comes fear. That is one thing that never changes here in Burma. Fear.

Every time I arrive in Rangoon I expect it to be my last. Not necessarily because of what I’ve done in the past or what I am here to do now, but because you can’t second guess this regime. Two thousand one hundred political prisoners, silenced in Burma’s jails, symbolise that fear that is endemic in Burma. You can sense it everywhere and yet fleetingly in moments of security where the watchers are not watching, someone will speak of hope. But once that brief moment of safety has passed, hope fades back under the covers of darkness for fear of retribution. Yet the brave both in the shape of the opposition movement including the NLD and other groups and dissidents of all political and social leanings across Burma continue to defy the regime through showing no fear. Throughout the country the ordinary people have been silenced by this regime for decades – fearful of talking, fearful of writing, fearful of meeting with one another or even more so with foreigners of any ilk. If silence is truly golden then there is no more fitting name for this country than ‘The Golden Land’.


Military Intelligence officers detaining a foreigner in a Rangoon Hotel

These trips inside are not taken lightly and planning is critical for everyone concerned, especially those who I am meeting. They are the ones who have real reason to have fear. Having been in Burma for no more than a few hours I was confronted first hand with Military Intelligence at work in the hotel where I was staying that night. Police and plain-clothes MI officers swarmed in the lobby before heading to the lifts to knock on some unsuspecting person’s door. Naturally I decided to follow, camera hidden but ready at hand inside my bag. I felt a small sense of relief as they passed my door and continued to the end of the corridor – it would have been a shame to have only lasted a few hours when there is so much to do and at stake on this trip. Later that day their ‘man’ had returned and was duely detained before being accompanied to the airport. Despite my best efforts unfortunately I could only manage to film the short clip shown above whilst sitting in the lobby without drawing too much attention to myself.

Despite your political or journalistic background you can slip into the country on a tourist visa yet still be detained within hours or days once they realise who you are (Dan Rivers of CNN despite being banned managed to make it to Naypidaw). Whilst it is easy to be of the opinion that Burma’s once famed secret service is now a faltering shadow of its once feared past when under the iron rule of General Khin Nyunt, you can underestimate them at your peril. Foreigners can almost rest assured that even if caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing then they will likely just be politely escorted to the airport after a fairly lengthy but not intimidating questioning (maybe even with a preceeding extravagant car chase apparently). State policy of torture and arbitrary detention is not on the agenda for those from outside (mitigating circumstances of course). That is left for those who you meet. There is no apology and a shake of the hand for them when Military Intelligence come knocking on the door in the middle of the night.

But one thing is certain and that is that you are being watched almost all of the time by someone. With that in mind planning is paramount and is done so meticulously by the network I am part of who have much more to lose than me with my roles of film. I live with the words spoken to me by U Win Tin in my thoughts whenever I am back working inside Burma – “You don’t like to go back (to jail) but you can’t help it, you see that depends on them, their idea and their intention”. And this is why there is still real hope deep inside Burma. Not because of any sham election that brought nothing to the country but a change of wardrobe to the ruling Generals. But because there are still many brave enough to speak out and operate in spite of what may come their way. With no rule of law in Burma it is impossible to play by any rules and know what their intention is other than to stop foreigners from telling the outside world what is going on or from acting as a voice for those they are trying to silence.

So once again here we are in Burma, continuing our work in an attempt to both tell the world and act as a voice for the silenced in the small way that we can. If today is the closest I come to Burma’s Military Intelligence then hopefully I will have some stories to bring back. Only time will tell.

(Names and places in subsequent and previous posts regarding this trip will often be changed or disguised for security reasons to protect those with whom I work)

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Dignity in Defiance from Behind the Iron Curtain

“If they can’t accept a point of view that is different to theirs and they are threatening to annihilate us simply because we express a different point of view, what sort of a government is this? What sort of democracy is this? Democracy, even disciplined democracy as they put it, has to accept that there are different views otherwise there would be no need for democracy and you just keep to a dictatorship.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 15th February 2011… (excerpt from an as yet unpublished story).

 

Behind the gates to 54 University Avenue that keep prying eyes at bay

Once more Burma. Our beautiful Burma. A land of dreams and distant still voices where shackles detain hope yet still the brave defy the authoritarian regime. Once more we enter this land of fear…

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USA Day 3: Meeting An Icon. Yoko Ono

After Saturday’s full schedule and a day off yesterday to take in some sights and see friends, today is the day I have been waiting for. There was always another motive for making the trip to New York. Not really an ulterior motive, more an essential one, maybe just for me on a personal level I guess. Naturally, meeting the former political prisoners was the major issue in planning any trip, but before committing to coming to New York there was always one person I was waiting on. Today, after over a year of waiting, the day has finally come.

I first wrote to a number of what you might call ‘A-list’ celebrities back in 2009 when this project first got off the ground. I was selective in who I approached both as people I would like to meet because of who they are and in what they do for Burma and Human Rights (George Clooney was one of them and although I never heard back from him it was a nice surprise to see the front cover of the book about his latest film “The American”directed by one of my hero’s Anton Corbijn… a beautiful portrait I’m sure you’ll agree). But it wasn’t until late October 2010, well over a year after my initial approach, that I suddenly received an email from Yoko Ono saying that she would like to be photographed by me for this project. I actually dropped my phone in shock when I read the email. I never once honestly expected anyone I had approached to ever to agree to be in this work, but personally, she was the one person I had really hoped who might just say yes.

Yoko Ono stands in solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi

Of course there are many reasons why anyone would want to meet Yoko Ono. She is an artist, musician, author, leading peace activist and of course she is John Lennon’s wife. Who really wouldn’t want to sit down and have a cup of tea with her? The chance was simply too good to miss, she was someone who I would die to meet, so we dropped everything when she emailed me last wednesday and here we are now.
We headed down to Greenwich Village, with time for a relaxing coffee in this beautiful part of town before making our way to her gallery where we had arranged to meet. I have to say now that this is not the sort of work I am accustomed to at all – being far more comfortable working in the background out of sight and mind or clandestinely in Burma as is often the case. But despite this I think we managed ok and got a half decent shot, but the photo was really just the icing on the cake – the cake itself was of course just meeting Yoko Ono and talking with her. She is amazing, a wonderful, kind person and I never really doubted she would be. As soon as she walked in to the studio, we were greeted with a broad smile and as soon as she saw Jackie (on seeing she was Burmese) she went straight up to her and threw her arms around her. If it had been appropriate for us to cry tears of joy I think it might have happened. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that she might have connected so much to what we are doing and to Burma in general. We chatted, smiled, laughed, took some photos and chatted some more… and more hugs all round of course.

When the time came to leave we made our way outside and said our goodbyes, huge thanks to Karla and everyone for making this happen. But as she drove off into the distance we only then noticed that looking down on us all from high up above was John Lennon, himself. If meeting and photographing Yoko Ono achieves nothing more than providing me with an immense personal moment in my life, then so be it. But at the same time rest assured, she is totally and utterly impassioned with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s political prisoners and the people of Burma as a whole. Her heart and soul are very, very much with you all.

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