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.

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Thailand Day 20: Bangkok Dangerous… and no Batteries!

Back in Bangkok and an early start making my way from Mo Chit to the airport to drop off my bags whilst I spend the last day running the rule over the red shirts. The day I arrived some 6 weeks ago was the first day of their demonstrations against the Thai Government and now as I am about to leave it seems we are merely moments away from civil war. Make no mistake when it comes (and it will come) it will be bloodier than what we have seen already. The red shirt encampment is now more tense than before – not surprising seeing people have died on both sides – but the walls of tyres and bamboo spears prove a menacing sight especially in this area more famous for farangs, fake DVDs and sex shows. There is a heavy military and police presence and there is a very different atmosphere now – eery and often tense at times.

Click HERE to view more photos from the red shirt demonstrations

All of the shopping centres are closed… still… it’s been over a month now and they must have lost millions. No last minute presents for everyone back home then! But there’s only so many times you can wander around MBK (which is the only place open) – I don’t think even a nuclear bomb would close it down. It epitomises the commercial side to Thailand. I head over to Ari to Wawee coffee where I know I can get internet access, good coffee and a break from the rain showers before meeting up with Thar Nyunt Oo – my final portrait to take before heading to the UK for a few months. Killing time once again, the only other thing I have to do today is an interview with Amnesty International UK for their magazine. They want to put U Win Tin on the cover and do a feature article about when I met him as a lead in to launching their involvement with me and political prisoner issues. Another front cover and now I feel the hard work is paying off for us all – this is a big one on Amnesty’s magazine as almost half a million people will see this magazine.

I meet up with Thar Nyunt Oo slightly later than planned, but not surprising considering the current situation here. He works for Voice of America (VOA) Burmese section and actually lives in Washington DC but is here in Bangkok for 3 months so its a lucky meeting for me. The light is fading fast and my time is also running short as unfortunately I have a plane to catch this evening so we head to the nearest place to sit down and have a chat before taking a portrait. He has just been informed by his office that its too dangerous to work anymore as the situation is so volatile – days after handing out helmets and bulletproof vests to everyone. He was arrested in 1990 as a leader of the ABFSU and was sentenced to 5 years in prison – spending it in Insein, Pyay, Thayet and Monywa before being released in 1995. In Thayet prison he shared a cell with Tate Naing (Secretary of the AAPP). Upon his release he resumed his political activities but was forced to flee in December 1996 when the authorities tried to arrest him for his involvement in the student demonstrations. We headed back out on to the overhead walkway that runs over sections of Sukhumvit and prepared for the portrait… soldiers in the background this was looking good… until I pressed the shutter and nothing happened. Battery dead and the spare one too – both totally drained due to the heat and a forgetful memory as I had been shooting all day yesterday too back in Mae Sot. There was nothing else to do but go for a beer and charge a battery enough to get the shot. Luckily I not only had my charger but also we found a Japanese restaurant right next to us that had a socket under our table… it was as though it was a sign that it was meant to happen! We carried on chatting over a few beers and it was great to hear more about his experiences but with the clock ticking away and the light almost gone we had to take the shot  and I had to catch that plane! Luckily we just about managed and I jumped on the Skytrain to ‘On Nut’ before catching a taxi the final tense miles to the airport and just made it in time before the desk closed. What is it with just making connections in time? It’s happening everywhere we go and can only be a sign that we are meant to keep moving forward on this incredible journey. And that’s exactly what we will do… after a few months rest mixed with lots of editing both photographs and video before planning the next stages. Where next? who knows… but for now it’s thank you Thailand. You have delivered.

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Interview with VOA (Voice of America)

Interview with VOA (Voice of America) to discuss the project, the recent award from the Foreign Correspondents Club in Thailand and the current situation of political prisoners in Burma.

To listen to the interview click this link VOA interview 10 Dec 09

Interview reproduced here with kind permission of VOA

Established in June of 1943, the Burmese Service is one of the oldest language services in the Voice of America, an international multimedia broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government. The VOA Burmese Service broadcasts to Burma ninety minutes per day, with three broadcasts in the morning, evening, and night, Rangoon time.

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

PRESS: RFA, VOA and BBC airing skyful of interviews

“RFA, VOA and BBC airing skyful of lies”. That’s the usual propaganda broadcast daily on state controlled media both on MRTV and in the New Light of Myanmar. However, they might like to change it now to a “skyful of interviews” as in the last 48 hours I have done telephone interviews with all three. What can now be deemed an award winning project has now gained the attention of exiled media across the world. First up was an interview on VOA with Zaw Win Hlaing in Washington DC. Accompanying this interview they also spoke with former political prisoner, artist and also my good friend Htein Lin who’s portrait was included as part of the winning submission. Next up was another interview with Washington with RFA followed finally by a more local call with the BBC. It’s incredible to achieve such attention in the exiled media and the best news is that all of the interviews will be broadcast not just around the world, but also back into Burma. The exposure for the project is immense and it brings the issue of political prisoners back into the forefront of people’s minds (not like it ever goes away). Time will tell if I’m able to get a visa again…