Humanitas III: The People of Burma

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9780789211095: Humanitas III: The People of Burma

Following the success of Humanitas and Humanitas II: The People of Gujarat, photographer Fredric Roberts now turns his lens to the captivating and controversial country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). The result of eight years of travel throughout the region, the one hundred twenty-four photographs in Humanitas III focus on the spiritually rich lives of the Burmese people. Featuring temples, portraits, scenes of everyday life, and incredible landscape, Humanitas III offers a rare view of a country that has been closed to or avoided by many photographers due to its social isolation and reputation for political repression.

Cicero coined the term humanitas (literally, human nature”) to describe the development of human virtue in all its forms, denoting fortitude, judgment, prudence, eloquence, and even love of honor which contrasts with our contemporary connotation of humanity (understanding, benevolence, compassion, mercy). The Latin term is certainly a fitting book title as we are struck with respect and awe for Roberts’s subjects’ individual fortitude and eloquence rather than pity for their plight: each photograph tells us a compelling story.

Edited by Britt Salvesen, the department head and curator of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Teri J. Edelstein, principal of Teri J. Edelstein Associates, Museum Strategies and former Deputy Director of The Art Institute of Chicago, many of the images present subjects looking directly at the photographer and at the reader, effortlessly prompting a cross-cultural dialogue. An introductory essay is written by Emma Larkin, an expert journalist/author covering Myanmar, who provides context for Roberts’s photographs by describing the lives of the Burmese peoples. A second essay, on the nature and spirit of the photography, is written by Ms. Edelstein.

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About the Author:

Fredric Roberts’s work has been honored with numerous international photography awards. His previous books include Abbeville’s Humanitas and Humanitas II: The People of Gujarat. His photographs are displayed at Stanford University and San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts. He lives in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CIRCLES OF LIFE
Emma Larkin


On my first trip to Burma in the mid-1990s, I was naively surprised by how normal everything looked. I had read the news articles and human rights reports on the tyranny of Burma’s military rulers but saw and heard no evidence of atrocities being committed, and I came across only a handful of soldiers during my three weeks there. Instead, I found myself wooed by the country’s supreme beauty from the postcard-perfect scenes of gilded pagodas set against a backdrop of coconut palms, to the dilapidated splendor of the mildew-stained colonial buildings of Rangoon. The beauty of Burma took me by surprise, as did the people, who went about their daily business talking, laughing, farming, shopping, chewing betel, reading, going to the movies As a Burmese friend later chided me, What did you expect? That we would all be sitting around on the pavements crying?”

Since that first trip, I have come to understand more about the mechanisms that so effectively hide the oppressive nature of the Burmese government. The central plains of Burma are surrounded by seven ethnic states, many of which have been involved in armed struggles against the Burmese government for decades. It is in these remote mountainous landscapes that the worst human rights abuses take place, and foreigners are forbidden access to these so-called black areas”. The parts of Burma where foreigners can travel freely ( white areas”) are governed by a different set of rules, and the government employs tools that have been tried and tested by dictatorships across the world to protect the status quo; namely censorship, propaganda, and surveillance. As the military in Burma has been in power since 1962, this process is well honed. The truth of events is systematically deleted through censorship; everything that is printed in Burma from magazines to song lyrics must first be approved by a rigorous press scrutiny board. The government then produces its own version of the truth through propaganda in the form of daily newspapers, government-controlled television, and billboards promoting distorted images of reality, such as soldiers smiling alongside ethnic minorities in traditional attire. Surveillance is perhaps the most insidious of these control mechanisms; through a vast network of spies and informers, the government is able to keep tabs on most Burmese citizens, and people aware of hidden eyes and ears control their actions and conversations accordingly. As a result, you can travel around Burma for the full four weeks allowed on a tourist visa and have no idea that you are in a military dictatorship.

I have returned to Burma many times since that first trip and have come to understand, too, that life goes on, even within the confines of Burma’s severely constricted political environment. And it is this indomitable sense of life that is so evident in the following pages. These photographs document life as it is lived in Burma; against great odds (political, economic, and social). Here is life in the wet markets, in paddy fields, in monasteries, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, by candlelight, and in shadow.

For me, one of the most compelling themes that recurs throughout these images is that of circles. Notice the circular patterns replicated in picture composition and content the formation of elliptical teacups on a teashop table, the burnt-sienna sun of a monk’s umbrella, a group of novice monks encircled for study around books opened on a scuffed wooden floor.

The form and concept of the circle pervade life in Burma, from the curvaceous Burmese script to age-old and ingrained spiritual beliefs. As a predominately Buddhist country, the majority of Burmese people believe in the karmic cycle. If a person commits good acts the accumulated merit will hold him or her in good stead, if not in this life than in the next. In the same way, bad acts are repaid in kind. There is a Burmese phrase that says wut leh deh, which describes negative impact circulating on a wheel and translates roughly as what goes around comes around”. This phrase is often used to describe the grim fate awaiting Burma’s military rulers; it is a fact merrily cited by many that few generals have ever been left to retire in peace instead, they have been disgraced, imprisoned, or died in mysterious accidents or from unusual illnesses. The explanation is simple: wut leh deh. Even for the most powerful and tenacious, there is no escape from the elemental karmic circle of life.

Buddhist belief is writ large in circular form in the countless pagodas that have been built across the land from ancient times to modern days. Worshippers remove their shoes to perambulate the structure barefoot in clockwise direction, mapping out meditative circles around the pagoda and passing shrines that are symbolically linked t the planets of the universe. As these planets represent the days of the week and control the life cycle, individuals make offerings of flowers, incense and prayers to the shrine that represents the day they were born in the hopes of appeasing the fates that hold sway over their lives.

Circles also resonate in the more earthly rituals of daily life in Burma. Roberts captures an image of a Ferris wheel powered, not by electricity (which is a rare commodity throughout most of the country), but by human energy as a team of men clamber up the rusting metal spokes and use their combines weight to move the wheel and create a spinning circle of delight for the children and adults onboard.

A different kind of circle can be found in the teashops, which are veritable institutions of Burmese social life and act as a meeting point where people can gather to exchange news, collect the latest political or neighborhood gossip, down a morning caffeine hit before work, or while away the humid endlessness of a tropical afternoon. The teashops are often furnished with low stools and small tables around which groups of friends and colleagues huddle together in what is referred to in Burmese as a waing (a gathering, or a circle). When inviting an extra person to join them, it is common teashop parlance for someone to pull up an extra stool and say, Sit, join our waing.”

So, as a teashop companion might say, sit. Turn the pages of this book, and join the waing.

EMMA LARKIN is an American writer who was born, raised, and still lives in Asia. She studied the Burmese language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has been visiting Burma for more than fifteen years. She is the author of Finding George Orwell in Burma and Everything is Broken (also called No Bad News for the King), both published by Penguin in the US.

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