Historic pictures from Myanmar on display at the Yangon Photo Festival in Mahabandoola Park until March 19. Photo: Ron Gluckman
Historic pictures from Myanmar on display at the Yangon Photo Festival in Mahabandoola Park until March 19. Photo: Ron Gluckman

AIDS and prostitution, corruption and ethnic violence. Such topics dominate award-winning photojournalism, and Myanmar, long among the world’s most isolated and repressive regimes is often the focus.

That was the case again this month, but the lens was delightfully reversed, as dozens of exhibits and projections were shown at the Yangon Photo Festival. And the setting wasn’t the only surprise, as most of the documentary projects were the work of Myanmar’s own photographers.

Credit this country’s pivot towards democracy, breaking from over a half-century of reclusive authoritative rule. Since then, former Burma has claimed global buzz. Visitation is soaring, and investment pours in after years of crippling embargos. Critics justifiably note the immense work still needed to clean up cronyism in industries, advance civil liberty and end the military’s grip on the economy and government.

Yet freedom is clearly ringing, and this photo festival (until March 19) offers another encouraging example. The best work from Myanmar, and around the globe, are boldly on exhibit in downtown Mahabandoola Park, overlooked by gleaming Sule Pagoda, right across the street from City Hall.

Lest there be any doubt about Myanmar’s commitment to new openness, the mayor of Yangon, Professor Muang Muang Soe took the stage opening night, March 4 to proclaim: “The situation in Yangon has changed. This festival has no censorship.” Then, after the cheers subsided, he added: “I repeat, no censorship!”

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi presents the top prize for best photo essay to Kachin local Hkun Lat, 21, for The Forgotten War. Photo: Ron Gluckman

Now in its ninth edition, the Yangon Photo Festival always offers challenging exhibits, along with workshops and vital training for fledgling Myanmar photographers.

French founder Christophe Loviny keeps pushing the bar, most notably with public presentations and exhibits seen by an estimated 40,000 viewers. By day there were displays in the park, and for two nights, rare outdoor screenings of the World’s Press Photo Awards.

However, more than ever, local work dominates. And much of it is surprisingly good.

We can give a voice

to anybody, any community. It’s magic

Among projections viewed by 4,000 people each night, were a stunning expose of jade mining, a trade often compared to Africa’s blood diamonds. Myanmar is by far the largest producer of the world’s finest jade, nearly all bought by the Chinese. Mines sit in war-torn northern Kachin state, and the gems only fuel the fighting.

Thousands of poor migrants scavenge for slivers of jade left behind in muddy pits, and are regularly buried alive in landslides. Drug use is rampant, HIV at epidemic levels.

The Curse of the Jade a world-class exposé, has propelled Minzayar Oo into the ranks of Asia’s hottest young photographers. Winner of the top prize at last year’s Yangon Photo Fest, his craft has been featured in the New York Times, Time, Geo and National Geographic.

Other compelling stories focused on Myanmar’s rampant poverty, children forced into begging, the sex trade and ethnic conflicts. Other stories were hopeful, personal tales of discovery, or focusing on unique facets of life in this unspoiled Asian country.

Hip fashion in Yangon in 1979. Photo: Bellay Studio/collection Lukas Birk

Yet the top prizes both went to exposés in Kachin areas: Hkun Lat in the professional category for front-line report on the conflict with the Kachin Independence Army, while Seng Mai took first for emerging photographers for her story on women addicts in the jade trade.

The amazing quality of the work is a tribute to the training and workshops that are the backbone of the festival, supported by sponsors like the bank KBZ and AMGR, the local Canon distributor. Aun San Suu Kyi, after her release from house arrest, became a patron of the festival, and presented awards at Photo Night on March 11.

One increasingly important facet of the festival is its enormous reach in a country that abounds with inequality. Loviny has held workshops around the country, mobilizing in effect an entire army of new citizen photojournalists. “We can give a voice to anybody, any community,” he says. “It’s magic.”

Minzayar Oo, for instance, was training for a career in medicine, before an early festival helped refocus his life upon photography.

Some images from a local studio that had never been seen in public before showed local women in fashion outfits one would expect to see in the streets of San Francisco. In Myanmar in the 1970s, the only place where Myanmese could dress up in western outfits during the restrictive years of the socialist regime was in these studios.

The clothing was sourced from merchant seamen, the only people allowed out of the country. This exhibit, which was popular with locals and an amazing time capsule, was put together exclusively for the Yangon Photo Festival.

Yangon fashion 1979. Photo: Bellay Studio/collection Lukas Birk

Exposing long-isolated Myanmar, one of the last countries to allow the internet and private phone service, to global photography, is another accomplishment. Loviny draws on the support of Hossein Farmani, founder of the Lucie Awards, often likened to the Academy Awards for photography.

Farmani, an Iranian immigrant to the United States, now lives in Bangkok, where he recently opened the House of Lucie photo gallery. A lifelong philanthropist, he’s a supporter of the Yangon festival and many others worldwide.

He brought a selection of his award-winning photography to Yangon, while other exhibits showcase many rare treasures from the country’s past.

These include historic portraits from the early 1900s shot by James Harry Green, a British officer who traveled widely around Burma recruiting soldiers. Green later became both an accomplished photographer and anthropologist. Burma Frontiers showcases his fascinating black and white portraits in an exhibition showing for the first time in Myanmar.

Also on display is In Search of Dignity, a project of Günter Pfannmüller and Wilhelm Klein, who traveled around the country in the 1980s and 1990s. This was when Myanmar was shut tight to most visitors, but the German pair gained unusual freedom, producing several books, as well as this mesmerizing collection of medium-format photos.

High praise. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at the Yangon Photo Festival for the sixth time on March 11. Photo: Ron Gluckman

Never before shown in Myanmar, the pair returned to present the historic exhibition at the festival. Klein detailed years of rugged travel, by rickety boat and elephants, to every part of Myanmar. Still there are always new sights, even for longtime Myanmar hands. Klein marveled at the scene: locals in longyis, the Myanmar wrap, with tinted red hair, snapping selfies in front of his exhibit. “This is a new era for Myanmar,” he beamed.

The Yangon Photo Festival ends on March 19, admission is free. The program is online at www.yangonphoto.com