On the History of Photography in Myanmar
The first photographs in Myanmar were taken more than 150 years ago. With the colonial rulers came the first cameras. Bringing the new technology to the country, the Europeans soon began to use it for commercial purposes. The photographic perspective on the newly conquered colony was necessarily that of foreigners. The photos they made matched their interests, preferences and expectations, and of course those of the viewers and buyers of these pictures, especially those ‘at home’ in Europe. The photos were steeped in the search for the exotic, the bizarre and the alien in the Asian “possessions”. The foreigners saw and captured what they wanted to see, and projected their own wishes and desires on the land and its people. In this regard, the photographic “mapping” of Burma was a small part of the colonial appropriation of the world by the European powers. Even today, the effects of a perspective oriented towards the exotic are evident, be it in the brochures of travel agencies, in the many nostalgic photobooks (including those of Myanmar photographers), or of course, in the uncountable pictures brought home from Myanmar by tourists year after year.
Whereas the early photographs from the colonial period are relatively well preserved and documented, unfortunately the same cannot be said of the first works by Burmese photographers. They too soon discovered the new medium and began using it to capture their view of their country. Since around 1910, a small scene of Burmese photographers emerged. They developed their own definition and photographic interpretation of Myanmar’s reality, and hesitantly their works broke away from the powerful standard set by the “colonial gaze”, replacing it with their own perspectives and motives.
Lukas Birk’s extensive research traces exactly this slow, but growingly insistent emergence of an autonomous Burmese imagery, and represents the first attempt to systematically address the topic of independent Myanmar photography. The young curator neither tries nor wishes to raise a claim of completeness in his collection. Yet, to date, no one else has searched as many archives and private collections for especially significant and valuable photographs. This way the first outline of the history of Myanmar post-colonial photography has taken shape.
As Lukas Birk is himself a photographer, he has a distinct sense for quality in his historical research. Over the years, he has undertaken similar pioneering works in other Asian countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, China). The expertise gained from these experiences has enabled him to uncover this highly interesting, yet barely researched, photographic treasure of Myanmar. This has not only resulted in this grand exhibition in the so-called Secretariat in Yangon, but also in a comprehensive book. The latter will initially be published in Burmese and is later to be followed by an English publication.
Both - exhibition and book - are another contribution of the Goethe-Institut to a culture of collective memory in Myanmar. The show takes place within the framework of the Yangon Photo Festival 2018. It is a collaboration with the artist collective Pyinsa Rasa and the Anawmar Art Group and represents the first step in an initiative to use the Secretariat as a permanent cultural space for the future benefit of the city.