August 5, 2014

Sean McGann Discusses Myanmar: The Cusp of Globalization

This fall, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops is excited to offer a workshop in the exotic locale of Myanmar. The ten-day workshop, The Golden Land: Myanmar Photo Expedition, runs from October 21-31, 2014 and will be led by photographer and travel expert Sean McGann. We sat down with Sean to discuss Myanmar, photography, and his upcoming workshop. For details on the Myanmar workshop, visit out website here.



Hi Sean. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, your photographic style, and how you got started in photography.

I think when my brother and I were probably 10 and 8, my dad got us each a Pentax K1000 because he was into photography, so I got started with that. I went to school for something completely unrelated; I thought I wanted to work with the State Department so I studied International Relations and Spanish. But in my third year, I realized I wasn’t going to be happy working for the State Department, so I moved to Santa Fe and started shooting fine art nudes. The Ernesto Mayans Gallery picked up my work and Ernesto really taught me everything I needed to know about finishing a fine art portfolio. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. Ernesto’s guidance was much like what I’d imagine a couple years of art school would have been like.

I did that for a few years, and I think I started to miss political science, so I applied to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Then I interned with Steve McCurry in New York and I think everything came together for me. I realized I could be interested in politics and policy and also be interested in images, so I applied to Missouri School of Journalism.

We hear it called Burma and we also hear it called Myanmar. We're confused; which is it?
Both names are derived from the Burmese language, however Burma is the name the British used for its colony, and the name the country was given at the time of independence. Burma is a derivative of Bamar, the largest ethnic group in the country. However, the government officially calls itself the Republic of the Union of Myanmar to indicate that it's a united government inclusive of the many different ethnic groups living in the country.

You’ve been working in Burma since 2007. How did you first become interested in photographing there?

A 92-year-old shaman works the fields.
Right after completing the coursework for graduate school, I worked as Director of Photography Programs for a company that did high school travel. In any given year, they had eight to a dozen programs around the world. It was amazing because I was traveling around the world, photographing all the time, and teaching. I loved teaching and I felt so lucky. I’d wonder ‘How did I fall into this?’

In my role as director, I actually opened up Burma for them. We weren’t going there my first summer, but they sent me in to develop programs. So that was my first time there, for six weeks in 2007, setting up the initial programs. I think I’ve been back a dozen times, and I’ve spent something like 8 months total in country.

You’ve said Burma is your favorite place to photograph in the world. That’s a big statement! What makes Burma such a special place?

Attend the workshop and I’ll show you! It’s just amazing. Burma has been rather inaccessible to the rest of the world since the end of World War II. Up until around 2010, their government was extremely isolationist. So today you have a country that’s pretty much the way it was in the 50’s.

As much of the rest of Asia has modernized to different extents, Burma is still something of a look at pre-globalization Asia. Men are still walking around in the longis, there are ox-drawn carts rolling down the road, buses that look like they fell out of a 1960’s movie, nothing’s really been painted since World War II … the patina of the place alone is unbelievable.

There aren’t Coke cans anywhere, and the little foreign advertising that exists is in the cities. In the rural areas, you have tribes that have hardly been seen in decades. There are Long Neck women who still live the way their parents did, not because tourists pay them. There are indigenous groups that have not traded their traditional clothing for shorts and flip-flops. And the light is spectacular; even at noon you can make a gorgeous photograph.

Really? Even at noon?
Inside a monastery in Myanmar.

Yeah! You go into a monastery, which are generally made of oil stained teak.  They are pitch black, and then you’ve got a window cut out and the noon light spilling in from the side into darkness, so you’ve got these gorgeous pools of light everywhere.

As you’ve said, Myanmar has been isolated until very recently; a lot has changed in the past couple of years. Do you think globalization is on its way?

It’s definitely the type of place that’s not going to be around much longer, or at least it’s not going to be the way it is now. So if you’re going to go, do it in the next few years. All the factories and international companies will be there soon. Right now, it’s just really pristine, and the Burmese are the nicest people in the world. You could stick your head in a total stranger’s door with a camera and within 10 minutes you’d be in there having tea with them. Forget your camera, now you’ve got friends! I’ve been a lot of places in my life and Burma just drips amazing photographs. You pretty much just have to point your camera somewhere and take a picture. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.

There have been a lot of changes in Burma in the past few years, and you’ve touched on some of the politics of the country. We have to ask: is it safe?

It’s absolutely safe. In 2010-2011, Burma finished a new constitution. They held elections, and they are now considered a constitutional democracy. Ever since this happened, The New York Times and other big papers in London and the U.S. have been touting it as the new Shangri-La. They’re saying, ‘You can finally go to Burma, it’s finally safe.’ But, really, it always has been safe. The last thing any government wants is harm to come to international visitors, and Myanmar is no different.

Do you think the people who are in power now are eager to industrialize and modernize?

I imagine that they only stand to gain from it.

So now that the country has democratized, there probably is a very small window of time before it gets completely globalized, isn’t there?

Exactly, and that's the key reason for this workshop. Now is the time to go. Because there have been trade embargoes for so long they haven’t had access to the tools they need to develop the land. But now that relations with the U.S. have warmed it’s a much more trade-friendly environment. In ten years, I probably won’t even be thinking about going back. The images you might make then, versus what you make now, will appear to be two different worlds.

What can people expect from their workshop experience in Myanmar?

As far as what you’ll see, it’s pretty much the highlights of the country. We’ll start off in Yangon, and go to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is one of the eight holiest sites in the Buddhist world. Then we’ll go up to Mandalay, where we’ll watch 1,000 monks have lunch at the same time. Literally 1,000 monks; it’s amazing.

Teeth stained red from betel nut.
Mandalay is a great city. One of my favorite places to photograph is this street where they carve marble Buddhas for shrines. So you have this entire street of these giant Buddhas in different states of completion. They're carved from white marble, so there’s white dust everywhere. It’s basically the worst place in the world for your camera, but then you see the pictures you’re making and you think, ‘OK, OK, I’ll get it cleaned when I get back to Bangkok,’ because there are white clouds of dust everywhere, and these Burmese guys who are dark, dark skinned are chewing on betel nut, which turns your mouth blood red. So they’re dripping crimson red, with white dust all over their faces and dark eyes peering through … it’s just a great place to shoot.

Sounds fantastic! Where else will you go?

There’s a few stops in Mandalay, then we go to Bagan. The temples there are 1,500 years old, and there’s something like 3,000 of them in 20 square miles—anything from a little stupa to a large pyramid. That may be my favorite place to photograph anywhere. It’s right along the Irrawaddy River, so you’ve got sesame farmers and palm sugar plantations, and people climbing up the palm trees on ropes with knives hanging off their backs. You’ve got people plowing ox carts right around these temples—people live amongst them, around them, and in them. Everything seems to be done in slow motion. An ox cart will go by full of sugar, and kids are running past you in school uniforms with their slingshots, shooting at the goats … there’s something around every corner.

So all the agriculture is done with hand tools?

Oh yeah, it’s all hand done. They use elephants, water buffalo, and oxen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen mechanized farming.  I’m sure somebody’s got one a tractor but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

That sounds very peaceful.
Classic fishing scene on Inle Lake.

Bagan really is. After Bagan we go to Inle Lake. That’s where we’ll see the classic scenes of the fishermen who are standing in their boats with the big nets. Everything is done on the water. The houses are built on stilts, so there are entire villages standing above the water. They create what they call floating gardens; the lake is huge, but very shallow, so they take long stakes and stick them in the bottom and they wrap weeds and plants around the stakes at the surface. Then they plant tomatoes and corn right in the water. It’s like standing hydroponics. The roots grow through the mat of weeds and everything grows literally right there on top of the water. Then they go up and down the rows of their garden in their canoes and harvest. They grow everything; eggplants, tomatoes, peas, beans. It’s unbelievable.


Floating gardens in Burma.

So how would you sum up the Myanmar workshop experience?

This is kind of the must-see highlights of the country, and it’s great for first-time visitors to get a sense of the place. I’ve been traveling there for so long that there are a lot of personal connections and little corners I know very well. So it’s the highlights but you’re doing it with someone who really knows the country and has a lot of personal connection to the place.

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