Yangon

Portraits one year on by Savannah Dodd

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Last year, the Yangon Photo Festival coincided with Myanmar's historic presidential election. I photographed the streets on that day, and those images became my Election Day series. The series includes several portraits of people I met downtown.

I was impressed by the willingness of people to be photographed. Perhaps this is because Myanmar only recently opened to tourism and people are not yet fatigued by the onslaught of tourist cameras. But I worried that people would feel like I was taking their image and leaving them nothing in return.

So this year, as I packed my bags, I included a selection of prints from the portraits I had taken last year. With the immense help of a friend and translator, I was able to locate 11 of the 20 portraits I brought. Each time we located an image, we asked to photograph the individual with the print from the previous year and we gave him or her the print.

We were not always able to find the individuals pictured, but friends, family, and coworkers were happy to step in and accept the photograph on their behalf. I think people were happy with the images, and many were eager to direct us to the person in the next photograph.

Of course offering a photograph is a token gesture. But maybe the next time someone asks to take their photograph, they will remember this experience. Maybe this is a step toward a more reciprocal relationship. Maybe it is a step toward nothing in particular, but it feels good to give something back.

Yangon Photo Festival by Savannah Dodd

yangon-photography-festival

This year's Yangon Photo Festival was remarkable and inspiring in so many ways, but one of the most significant ways was that the exhibitions were presented in a public park without any censorship!

Last year Myanmar underwent a massive political shift when a civilian president was democratically elected for the first time in over fifty years. Aung Sun Suu Kyi, who could not legally run for the seat, was appointed State Counsellor of Myanmar following the presidential election of her proxy, Htin Kyaw.

Under the previous government, censorship was a major obstacle for events like this. Although there are still human rights concerns in Myanmar under Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the new government seems to uphold the freedom of speech, even when that speech highlights some of the ongoing problems in the country.

In addition to the exhibitions in Mahabandula Park, YPF hosted two public outdoor screenings of photo stories shot by local photographers. In previous years, censorship meant that screenings had to take place in private galleries. The public screenings greatly increased the potential impact of the images and were extremely well attended. 

The photo stories this year covered a number of social and political issues, including child labour, domestic violence, and internally displaced persons in Kachin State. Projecting these stories in a park offered a unique opportunity to raise awareness and to address these issues in a public space.

Aung San Suu Kyi showed her support for the photo festival's work by speaking at the awards night and sitting on the jury.