Norway Day 2: The Curse of the Dolphins

An early start this morning as it could be a big day. The Democratic Voice of Burma are one of the favourites for the Nobel Peace Prize along with Liu Xiaobo, the political dissident currently jailed in China for his lifelong peaceful struggle for freedom and democracy in China. We get to theoffice just after 7am and Norwegian TV NRK1 are already doing the first interviews of the day. The announcement to be made live on TV from here in Norway by the Norwegian Nobel Committee is due at 11.00am so a tense few hours to fill until then… well, actually no, it’s just another day in the office as TV and radio broadcasts need to be prepared but with more and more media turning up throughout the morning there is hope around that this time we won’t be undone by the dolphins (‘The Cove’ beat ‘Burma VJ’ to the Oscar – ed).

As the countdown to the announcement approaches, there are several film crews, photographers and journalists in the office waiting to hopefuly catch the moment that DVB wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Deputy Executive Director, Khin Maung Win, is interviewed live on NRK TV just before the announcement is made before all our eyes are firmly fixed to the TV screen while the watching TV and photographers’ cameras and firmly fixed on us. And the winner is… damn those pesky dolphins.

Liu Xiaobo, the  Chinese intellectual, writer, and human rights activist who called for democratic reforms and the end of one-party rule in China is one of the most deserved winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in years. He has served as President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center since 2003 but is currently serving as a political prisoner in China. On 8 December 2008, Liu was detained in response to his participation with Charter 08. He was formally arrested on 23 June 2009, on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” He was tried on the same charges on 23 December 2009 and sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment and two years’ deprivation of political rights on 25 December 2009. Now during his 4th prison term he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, thus becoming the second detained Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. When is the world going to wake up to this?

As the world’s media slowly slip away from the office it’s back to work and just another day in the office, but naturally some reflection on what might have been. Just to be recognised as the front runner for such an award is an incredible achievement and shows just how vital the work done by DVB and all undercover journalists in Burma is. The rest of the day is spent documenting a day in the life of DVB and more meetings and planning, before heading to the airport to catch a plane to Bergen, where tomorrow I’ll be meeting former political prisoners who are now living there and hearing their stories. Win or bust the show must go on.

Norway Day 1: Norway & Nobel – A Perfect Blend

After a summer recess longer than even the politicians can manage, we are finally back on the road. A great feeling. Back doing what we do best. Not that we’ve just been sitting around enjoying the sun – far from it in fact, as the last few months have seen Amnesty International launch a major campaign for political prisoners using our work and saw us photograph the British Deputy Prime Minister. But all this time the really important work has been continuing in the background – can’t reveal what yet but one day we will. Justice will prevail.

The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) in Oslo, Norway

An early start as we’re Oslo bound (again) for a catch up with friends plus meetings at DVB before flying to Bergen on Saturday to meet with Ma Kaythi Aye, Ko Cho Cho Tun and the many other former political prisoners living there. A quick three day trip before the election to keep the pressure up and it started in the usual rush of near missed buses, trains and flights but we got here in the end. The only major hiccup was whisky. Not the blend – just too much whisky. But this time not a drop was drunk and my over exuberance got the better of me and as I strolled through customs in Oslo airport I was pulled aside and asked to explain what I was doing with 4 bottles of whisky? The simple answer “I’m Burmese” didn’t wash. A £100 fine and 3 bottles confiscated was not the start I was looking for. Now how are we going to celebrate winning the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow?

DVB broadcasts TV and radio programmes back into Burma

We finally made it to the office and it was great to see everyone again. An afternoon chatting and planning and the usual friendly family atmosphere and just time for some relaxed shots around the office as the day unfolds – no portraits or work documenting today as we’ve already photographed the former political prisoners here in Oslo and at DVB last year. A relaxed evening spent with friends at Ma Thida’s apartment and her kind hospitality ahead of the big announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow – another reason why we are here. DVB are one of the main contenders if the stories are to be believed and 19 years after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded hers it couldn’t come too soon for DVB. Naturally I am biased but it would be an extraordinarily worthwhile victory if it was to be awarded to them – a timely victory at the very least as the elections are now exactly 1 month away. I am lucky to be here and even luckier to be able to work with them. Keep your fingers crossed and tune in to the announcement live as a webcast on the Nobel website.

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DVB Studio Interview on Livestation

As part of the ongoing collaboration with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and as part of the latest documentary shot by Than Win Htut, we did a brief studio interview at DVB headquarters in Oslo explaining the background as well as discussing the current situation of Burma’s political prisoners.

The interview is now broadcast on DVB TV which you can watch on Livestation

Here’s a brief teaser as the interview:

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Norway’s Former Political Prisoners Unite

The first trip to Norway saw 12 former political prisoners unite in joining together to raise awareness about their colleagues currently detained in Burma’s notorious prisons. Further trips to Norway will be made in 2010 to photograph the remaining 20+  former political prisoners who we were not able to visit this time.

Click here to view all the portraits in full size and go the ENIGMA IMAGES website

To read all the details of this trip to Norway please view the section on this website – Norway December 2009

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Norway Day 6: So Long, Not Goodbye

The final day of our whirlwind trip to Norway and still no time to see the sights. It’s a shame but it’s not a problem because we’ll be back in Norway at least 3 or more times next year… I feel this is the start of a long affair. With 11 former political prisoners already photographed on this trip so far we have just one more person to meet today in Oslo before we head back to DVB for a final round of interviews. There are a number of people who we have not been able to see in both Oslo and Gjovik, mainly because they were either unavailable or we could not contact them, but to have photographed 12 former political prisoners is a fantastic result in this quick trip an dsets it up nicely to return in 2010 to photograph all of the others. We make our way across town to meet with Dr U Win Maung at his home. He was jailed for 5 years in Mandalay prison for his political activities. The former political prisoner chosen to be written on his hand is Bauk Naw, an NLD leader from Dr U Win Maung’s home town of Mytkyina in Kachin state. One of only 4 Burmese doctors in Oslo, he is currently still waiting to pass his final conversion exams to be able to practice fully in Norway. As this is our final day we do not have as long as we would have liked to spend with Dr U Win Maung but our interview will be available here soon.

The rest of the afternoon was spent back at DVB for some final filming as part of the ongoing collaboration with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and as part of the latest documentary shot by Than Win Htut, we also did a brief interview explaining the background as well as discussing the current situation of Burma’s political prisoners. Here’s a brief teaser as the interview and dcoumentary will be broadcast at some point in early 2010.

There’s always a surprise around the corner and I wasn’t expecting a full studio interview – but it was fun and no doubt will take a lot of editing as once I start talking its often hard to stop! Unfortunately that marks the end of our first trip to Norway and the latest leg on this world tour for Burma’s political prisoners. It’s been incredible, so much more than I could ever have imagined with friends made for life but more importantly some very good portraits taken that will build this campaign and take it to a new level. There are just too many people to thank here for making it all possible. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. But that said the final word goes to the Secretary General for all her hard work in making this happen as it couldn’t be done without her – especially for all those hours spent holding her hand in the air as a stand in. So long Norway… but not goodbye.

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Norway Day 5: Reflection

Whilst it’s easy to get carried away with the beauty of a place it’s just as easy to forget that that can often only act as a cover to a more pressing and often desperate situation that lies beneath – just think of Burma for example. Lillehammer, like so many places in the world, is beautiful but it’s a very long way from Burma and also is a long way from being able to be readily and easily involved in one’s activist work. This is one of the main problems that so many former political prisoners face when re-locating to a foreign country and in particular to a small town. It’s not just the whole physical and mental aspect of re-locating and trying to settle and find new work and start a new life – that’s hard enough. But it’s the fact that when you are there in your new town thousands of miles away from Burma or the activist networks in Thailand and elsewhere and often now living in the middle of nowhere, then continuing your activist work seems at times depressingly impossible. Perhaps living with little or no money, possibly no job, no access to communications or ability to meet regularly with colleagues it’s as though a second sentence is being passed down for the crime of wanting to free your country – the years in Insein were clearly not enough. Now you must go and live in the hills far away where you can’t bother the SPDC any more. The distant former life as a student, lawyer, doctor or whatever held no rank in Thailand to where these former political prisoners fled – the only life available there was in hiding or in a camp but only then if the UNHCR would recognise you as a refugee and thats a battle in its own right. Stateless people like so many who have fled Burma over the years. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to live like this, to have been politically active in spite of such brutal repression and then being forced to leave your country and now finding yourself what must feel like a million miles from home and at times also feeling isolated from being able to do what your heart and head is craving to do… continue your work to free Burma and your colleagues you’ve been forced to leave behind inside. It’s no guarantee but it must surely be somewhat easier if you are based in a major city where there may be better chance of work, access to services, activist groups, community etc but to be re-located to a small town far from anywhere in whichever country and even further from your home is particularly hard. It’s not just here in Lillehammer, but everywhere else I have been so far its so often the same story, from the camps on the Thai-Burma border to the big city metropolises where the suffering often seems to continue for people who have to leave everything behind through no choice of their own. But there’s a very special bond that unites every former political prisoner wherever they are in the world, whatever they are doing. For even though not everyone can be at the forefront of banging the drum of change for Burma, not one second goes by when all of their hearts don’t beat in time with that drum. My admiration and respect knows no bounds in the company of these men and women.

Today was just a day of reflection in Lillehammer. We catch the train back to Oslo in the early evening for tomorrow its a final day at DVB before returning to the un-real world back home.

Norway Day 3: A Winter Wonderland

An early start as today we’re heading out of Oslo and making our way to the small town of Gjovik some 2 hours north by train. It has been such a pleasure to stay with Moe Maung Maung and yet again I have made a new friend for life. We said our goodbyes and headed off to Central station but unfortunately my planning was not up to ruthless efficiency of the Secretary General and we had to hang around for an hour for our train… stick to taking photos, that’s the moral of the story. Whilst central Oslo was somewhat lacking in snow as soon as we got through the suburbs we were met with the full splendour of the beautiful winter wonderland that Norway is famous for.

Gjovik is a beautiful town located on the banks of Lake Mjosa with plenty of snow and a distinctly chilly -12 today. This section of the trip had been planned with the help of Kyaw Soe Lin who was also kindly having us to stay with him and his wife. In fact a very special thanks needs to go to not only Kyaw Soe Lin for his help in planning this trip but very importantly to both Kaythi Aye and Cho Cho Tun without whose help the whole Norway trip would not have happened. Both Kaythi and Cho Cho are also former political prisoners but unfortunately we will not have time to see them on this trip as they live in Bergen which is on the West coast of Norway some 7 hours by train from Oslo – but it’s a trip that will happen in 2010. We arrived at Gjovik and were met by Kyaw Soe Lin, U Zaw Win and Yin Min Oo and also Jimmy who had made the trip specially from the nearby town of Hammer even though he was working. Without further delay we quickly chatted with Jimmy and then took his portrait at a great location just outside the station before he had to dash back to work. This is so symbolic of the lengths that people are going to for this project/campaign. Jimmy @ Aung Myo was imprisoned in Insein for 5 years in 1990. He was jailed again in 1999 for his involvement in the 9999 operation. He fled to Thailand in 2000 upon his release from jail and began working for Khit Pyaing newspaper until 2004 when he relocated to Norway. He currently works on the Burma Foreignen Gjovik website.

We headed back to Kyaw Soe Lin’s house and were treated to the usual Burmese hospitality of a superb meal followed by much talk – full interviews with all four of them will be available here in the coming weeks but in brief another 30+ years in jail was accumulated today for all the usual reasons… There are no reasons. A former NLD member from Yee township in Mon State, U Zaw Win spent 6 years in Insein prison, Moulmein prison, Tharawaddy prison and a labour camp in Southern Shan State. Yin Min Oo was jailed in 1994 under the usual section 5J and spent 5 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. Kyaw Soe Lin was sentenced to jail in 1989 again like so many under section 5J. However, what is different to so many is that he was only 14 years old at the time. At aged 14 he was hauled before a military court and within 30 minutes was sentenced to 3 years in jail having been refused any form of representation. His crime? Handing out leaflets. The SPDC will stop at nothing, even regardless of age, be it with child soldiers or even jailing children who they deem to be instigating instability in the State. There are such things as standards in international law and society with regards to the treatment of people – it’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and where article 9 states quite clearly that “No-one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. But for Burma there is no law and time and time again the abuses continue under the watchful eyes of the UN and the international community. Kyaw Soe Lin spent a total of 10 years in prison. Whilst a full interview with him will be published here soon, in the meantime you can read more about his story on the Irrawaddy website. The prisoner’s name written on his hand is his brother-in-law.

With what light there had been today slowly fading away in the haze of the constant snow showers, we all headed outside into the freezing temperatures to take the portraits. Finally I get the portraits I wanted to show the global nature of this project and the images are amazing and will be posted back here very shortly. Indoors, outdoors, in the sun or the snow, nothing is stopping this campaign take shape and the overwhelming strength of character and belief instilled in every former political prisoner I have met is starting to rub off on us all. I think 2010 could be very, very special indeed. The final act of the day is played out in front of the TV – another great Burmese tradition… Karaoke!!

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Norway Day 2: Plans underway for 2010

It has snowed. The Secretary General is happy with this. A good start to the day.

Oslo is a beautiful city and I’m only sorry that we don’t have enough time to enjoy it properly – perched on the edge of the fjord with beautifully scenic countryside around, it’s a very long way from the madness and mayhem of London or New York… and about 6 million people fewer too! Aside from the cold it’s the light thats going to be a major issue on this trip – or rather the lack of it. There’s only really a handful of daylight hours at best and with snow clouds overhead it’s even darker so it’s more than likely that most of the portraits shot this time will have to be indoors. This is not ideal as I’m choosing not to work with a mobile studio of lights and umbrellas etc and so is more challenging that I have to work with what’s available in the person’s house or at the location that we are at, but that’s documentary photography for you and that’s what this is… a reality.

So it’s back to DVB for the day to plan the next few days ahead and contact former political prisoners in Gjovik and Lillehammer – two cities a few hours north of Oslo and easily reachable by train or bus. The Secretary General @ Jacquelin San has her work cut out today ringing around Norway. We carry on filming the documentary with Than Win Thut and make plans for a studio interview that they want to do next week when we’re back from Lillehammer. Another main reason for being at DVB today is for a meeting we have to photograph Myo Min Naing, former political prisoner and now working at DVB. Myo Min Naing spent 11 years in jail at Insein, Tharawaddy and Myingyan prisons. Like so many he escaped to Thailand to be able to continue his activities and is now the man in charge of DVBs reporters inside Burma. These undercover reporters are the men and women who keep the world up to date with images and video secretly smuggled out of Burma to the world’s media… but at great personal risk and currently one of their cameramen ‘T’ (winner of the Rory Peck Award with his colleague ‘Z’) faces up to 15 years in jail as he was arrested by the military four months ago. Khin Maung Win, Deputy Executive Director of DVB joins us as we spend most of our time discussing plans and what might happen next year which naturally can’t be discussed here on this blog… it’s unlikely Than Shwe reads this but you never know (you can check back here for full details when the time is right to announce them).

The hardest thing is not just getting in touch with people and then trying to explain the idea, but actually finding enough time to spend with everyone. There is so much to hear from every single former political prisoner that I meet. Stories that have you spellbound in so many different ways. But there is never enough time to hear them all and unfortunately this is too often the case – especially as much of the time we have to catch up with people during their working day.

The travel plans are starting to look good for the next few days and we head off from DVB late in the afternoon to meet up with Moe Maung Maung at Central Station – he has kindly asked us to stay with him and his wife… everywhere we go and everyone we meet we are welcomed with this typical gesture of warmth and kindness. I only hope that one day I can repay it to everyone of them and their colleagues in prison. The filming continues as we make our way from the DVB office to Central Station and meet up with Moe Maung Maung. He lives to the western suburbs of central Oslo and has the most stunning view over the city from his apartment.

Moe Maung Maung had been involved in the democracy uprisings in 1988 as one of the leaders of the Rangoon Arts & Science University Movement and was detained several times in 1988, 1989 and 1990. On 20th February 1995 he was arrested for his leading role in a student march at the funeral of the former prime minister U Nu. Along with 50 of his colleagues (including Moe Myat Thu & Yee Yee Htun both already photographed for this campaign) he was detained in interrogation centres and then sentenced to 7 years in prison under 5J for “Agitating the people” against the military regime. He spent 6 years in Insein and Taungoo Prison. He fled Burma with his young family in 2002 and settled in Norway in 2005. He continues to work tirelessly for the democracy movement, like so many mainly through the underground network that they were once part of inside the country and now still continue to be part of despite their new life in the outside world.

We spend the most wonderful evening with Moe Maung Maung and his wife – we get the portrait done despite a serious lack of light which was of real concern at one point but a reflector and a little thought has hopefully produced a really strong shot… and the help of the Secretary General of course! You can catch the whole process in the DVB documentary when its released – it’ll be posted on this blog when available. The rest of the evening is spent listening to stories and discussing political prisoners and looking at old photos including so many of 88 Generation Students and Saffron Revolution that won’t have been seen. Whisky and Burmese food of course makes up the rest of the evening and sets us up nicely for the trip ahead to Gjovik early tomorrow morning.

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Norway Day 1: 9am and minus 9

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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