Images of Myanmar Günter Pfannmüller

Pfannmüller - A mobile studio
© Günter Pfannmüller

What fascinates you about portrait photography?

Portrait photography allows us to trick our ephemerality, capturing for only a thirtieth of a second the essence of a person, preserving it for posterity to see.

When you study the people in your photographs, there is a sense of familiarity. Where does this familiarity come from?

This familiarity is created by engaging with the person being portrayed at eye level. You thereby meet on an equal footing, which requires respect towards the person in front of you.

What is the significance of colours in your work?

The interplay between the colours of the backdrop, the clothing, and the lighting only in plain daylight intensifies the pure and natural radiance of those portrayed in the photographs.

What objective did you have in mind when you set out on this photographic journey to visit the most secluded peoples of the world?

When the author Wilhelm Klein and I first set out on this quest, which incidentally has not yet concluded, our starting point was those people whose way of life and societal organisation has remained the same as that of their predecessors before the dawning of modern times.These people live in complete unity with nature and in dialogue with the spirits. They have a deep understanding of the powers of nature and of their place in the universe. They have been shaped by the impacts of the first globalization, and we wanted to partake in their knowledge, thereby perhaps gaining a better understanding of the chances and risks of the second globalization.

We found these traditional cultures in the inaccessible mountain regions in Southeast Asia. In rare isolation these people are living out the consequences of decolonization and decades of continual hostile confrontations.
So it was also amongst the Karo agriculturalists, the Hamar cattle breeders in Southern Ethiopia and the hunters and gatherers of the Rift Valley in Eastern Africa.
Another group belonging to these traditional cultures are the nomads of the Thar Desert on the border between Pakistan and India. Furthermore, there are some people in Myanmar and Bhutan who have resisted the influences of our time due to their strong belief systems.

You invited people into your mobile studio, thereby taking them out of their context, choosing to photograph them separately from the environment where they live and work. Why?

This is a style of photography which is inspired by the 17th century painters. They applied this stylistic approach when painting portraits of the nobility. I wanted to emphasise the dignity and humility of the people I met in these remote regions. Taken out of their daily environment - often poor living conditions when considered from our perspective -  the neutral background intensifies and draws attention to their authenticity. In the interplay with the modulations of the Northern light, an image emerges which allows the observer to truly read the photograph. A focus on their everyday world would have drawn the attention away from the person in the portrait.
Our main intention was to show the Bamar and the hill tribes of Myanmar in the present situation how similar they are and that from a human perspective they have all the pre-conditions for a united nation.

Your photographs focus on the individual. Is your intention to thereby emphasise that all humans are essentially the same, or that everyone is different?

Every person is their own universe! Everyone is unique!

The dignity of each human being is a key aspect in your work. What impact can such a claim have in a country like Myanmar which is marked by strong interethnic conflicts?

The photos can and should both inspire and demand reflection. They should make people realise that every person has a story, a network of relationships, and holds a place within a collective.

Your photographs carry a hint of exoticism. Is this your intention?

The mission Wilhelm Klein and I have set out on does not aim for exoticism. Rather, in their encounter with the photographs, people should be encouraged to consider what is being lost when inherited traditions are destroyed too fast without allowing for an indigenous acculturation. Modern times with its insights and methods cannot be stopped. However, what will be discarded must be known so its cultural content can be preserved in a healthy historical process.

You are continuing your photographic quest for traditional cultures, in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh. How has your project changed over time?

The changes are visible on two fronts: firstly, the political situation in several countries often makes the work with a daylight studio and half a ton of equipment a dangerous task. Secondly, not a lot of people still dress in their traditional clothing. Instead they purchase Western second hand clothing at markets and acquire cheap products from China. It is not the exotic that gets lost in the process. It is the lived poetry and this is what we are trying to capture before it is too late.