Crossing Signals

Myanmar Travel Photography

I don’t fancy myself a street photographer in the traditional sense. It’s just not a style I have ever been taken by. My editors have never asked me for street images, and I don’t particularly feel like running around shoving my camera into someone’s face in a provocative manner. Not that I have anything against the style – some street photography is interesting and some street photographers are brilliant – but it’s just not for me.

When I shoot a portrait of someone on the street, I look for a connection, however faint or brief it may be, that tells me something about that person, or the place that person inhabits. I don’t look to provoke them just so I can get an “honest” or “authentic” image. In fact, if you were to use those words to reference photography in my presence, I might hit you in the nose with my camera. Yet I digress – all this is a preface.

Wandering around Rangoon last year, we met many people who wanted their picture taken. I didn’t have to try hard to make a connection in most cases – it was often made for me. But in this particular case, a few wires were crossed, and I felt uneasy about the image I had created for quite a while after.

The man in the photo waved at me as we came out of a noodle shop on Sule Pagoda Road. He wanted my attention; I presumed he wanted me to take his picture. People in Rangoon rarely beg or ask for money, so I didn’t think he was after my loose change. As I crouched down and raised my camera, a forlorn look fell upon this man’s face. His shoulder’s sagged and he became one of the saddest people I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think much of it – it reminded me of all those times I was asked to take a photo of a smiling person in Korea, only to see their smile disappear when the camera came out. After I took the photo, the man started tapping on the sign in his little basket. The sign read “”HIV Positive, Help Please,” in English and Burmese. I was shaken up when I read that. I know that Burma has one of the worst HIV problems in all of Asia. I know that people all over the country are struggling mightily with this virus. If I had been shooting photos for a story on public health, this might have been the kind of image I was after. As it stands, I wasn’t shooting a story on public health. I was reminded of a quip my friend Nate Keirn made about shooting disadvantaged people – “War casualties can be seen throughout Cambodia and I consider it hackneyed to take a picture of them. I certainly don’t want to exploit them or gawk at them.” I believe that the same applies in this situation. I try hard to focus on the positive side of place and space when I visit a country – I wasn’t looking to make a statement or capture the brutal reality of the dark side of Burma. I’m careful about what I shoot and what I post because I don’t want to give people the impression that Burma or any other country is dark, dangerous, or vile – truth be told, I could wander around a big city in Canada or the USA and find someone with HIV, take their picture, and make the same case. I’d much rather give people a reason to visit someplace new. I have no interest in warning them away.

That’s why shooting this sort of stuff, without a good reason to do so, makes me uneasy. I would certainly never try and profit commercially from this image, include it in a book, or submit it to one of my editors. This image exists as a part of a larger narrative that I’m currently ill-equipped to explore.

What about you?

Have you ever had to step back and think twice about an image you created? Has something you took a photo of ever kept you up at night?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.