Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Burmese Daze

(With apologies to George Orwell)
A stevedore near the docks with a load of bananas he unloaded from a riverboat. 

Burma (Myanmar), or at least Rangoon (Yangon), exceeded all of my expectations. Yangon might be the best city in Asia for street photography, even better than Bangkok. The people, who have been locked in a sort of isolation by a xenophobic military dictatorship for more than 50 years, are witnessing freedom on a scale most have never seen. 
A monk on the riverfront. 

At the height of the dictatorship, contact with foreigners was, at minimum, discouraged. Now people will stop you on the street to talk about the changes sweeping their country (although there still isn't much direct criticism of the military). Photographing in the markets and on the streets, the biggest problem I had was people who wanted to be photographed.

I would be photographing someone, like the stevedore at the top of this blog entry, and his buddies would want in on the act. Sometimes they'd "photobomb" me, but most times they'd poke me on the shoulder and ask me to photograph them. 
Sule Pagoda, the 2nd most important pagoda in Yangon.

People followed me through the markets, trying to catch a glimpse of the LCD on the back of the camera to see what I was photographing. Every once in a while, I would stop and show the crowd the pictures and people would burst out in laughter, occasionally running to find the subjects of my photos and drag them back to show them the pictures. There were lots of "thumbs up" gestures and smiles.
A tea shop in a Yangon market.

The architecture of Yangon reminds me a little of what I saw in Havana when I was traveling to Cuba 10+ years ago. Yangon has some of the finest colonial architecture left in Asia and, thanks to Myanmar's political isolation for the last 50 years, it's in pretty good shape - it hasn't been touched in 50 years and is in desperate need of a coat of paint, but it's still standing. Many parts of the city, especially in central Yangon and along the riverfront, have the air of grand old society dame, her fortunes are waning but she's still proud and she just knows that better times are ahead. 

Passengers get off a river taxi. Foreigners are not supposed to ride the small cross river boats. 

I've been meaning to travel to Burma since I read Emma Larkin's captivating book, "Finding George Orwell in Burma." Then I read Orwell's "Burmese Days" and I was hooked. Since then I've read Aung San Suu Kyi's "Freedom From Fear" and "Letters from Burma" and Thant Myint-U's "The River of Lost Footsteps" and "Where China Meets India." Now that I've been, I can't wait to go back. 
A river freighter docks in Yangon.

A Yangon barbershop. 

A street portrait. 

Monks on their morning alms rounds. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Train Around Yangon

Burmese teenagers sit in the doorway of the Yangon Circular Train as it passes through a market near Yangon. 

The Yangon Circular Train is a slow train around Yangon. A train leaves the main Yangon station every few hours and takes three hours to make the approximately 40 kilometer circuit. It's a third class only train that shakes, rattles and rolls through the countryside. It's not air conditioned and it's not particularly comfortable. It's the best way ever to spend an afternoon in Yangon. 

Burmese pay a few pennies for a ticket, tourists pay $1. There is a special car for tourists which is cleaner than the other cars, has fans and hard seats. It's also relatively boring. The views are there but the experience is lacking. 

The ride with the Burmese is a lot more interesting. The cars are dirtier and the seats, when a seat is available, are a lot more uncomfortable, but the views are just as good and the experience definitely not lacking. 

It took me about 2 minutes to realize I didn't want to ride in the tourist car, so I moved to the coach behind the tourist car and enjoyed the "real" Burma. It was a great way to spend the afternoon, riding in a Burmese coach as we rolled through the countryside. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Most Famous Gate in Myanmar

This is the first photo I made when I got to Yangon. 

It's not much. It's just a photo of a gate, with a small black and white photo above it. But this gate is loaded with symbolism. It's the main entrance to the family home of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's democracy icon and a revered figure in modern Myanmar. The black and white photo is a portrait of her father, Gen. Aung San, credited as being the father of Burma's independence and to this day a national hero in Burma/Myanmar. He was assassinated in July 1947, six months before Burmese independence. 

His daughter, Suu Kyi, became an important figure in modern Burmese history in 1988 when she stared down Burmese soldiers ordered to put down student pro-democracy activists in Yangon. She was sentenced to house arrest in the family home, behind the gate, for more than 20 years. 

I didn't plan to stop at Daw Suu's (Burmese call her Daw Suu. Daw is a Burmese honorific for older woman, like Aunt) gate. I was in the taxi going to the hotel and we passed Inya Lake. I asked the cabbie if it was Inya Lake, he said it was and I said that means Suu Kyi lives nearby. Next thing I know, we're pulled up at the modest gate as traffic whizzed by. 

I made a couple of photos of the gate, got back into the taxi and we went to the hotel.

This isn't much of a picture. It's a snapshot really. I didn't even give it any thought until I got back to Bangkok. Going through my photos from Yangon, I realized this is the first photo I made in Yangon, and the photo I made of Insein Prison, from the plane as I left Yangon, was the last photo. These are the only two "political" photos I made in Yangon. I don't know if it's synchronicity, fate, luck or what that the trip started with a photo of Daw Suu's home and ended with a photo of the place where she was imprisoned.

A market vendor in Pathein with a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi in his shop. 

Daw Suu's picture hangs everywhere in Myanmar now. Her books are sold openly on the streets and in bookstores. The changes that have swept Burma in the last two years are mind boggling. Until recently, just stopping to photograph Suu Kyi's gate could get you arrested in Burma. Displaying her photo was taboo. There are still some restrictions on speech (criticism of the Burmese military is a tricky subject) and the permanence of the democratic reforms remain in doubt (though the doubt lessens with every passing day). But the winds of change are blowing and Burma (or Myanmar) will never be the same. And that's a good thing. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Shwedagon Pagoda

A monk (in foreground) walks around Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. 

Shwedagon Pagoda is an awe inspiring place. It's the most important religious site in Myanmar. The 99 meter tall (well over 300 feet) gilded spire towers over Yangon and is visible in almost every corner of the city. 

Burmese believe the Pagoda is more than 2,600 years old. It's one of the oldest religious sites in the world. Built 500 years before London was founded by the Romans, Shwedagon was a site of religious pilgrimage while London was not even a wide spot on an unnamed river on an unknown island. It predates New York by more than two millennia. 

Shwedagon serves as more than "just" a religious center. It also has a powerful political history. It was occupied by British soldiers for 77 years while Burma was a British colony and featured prominently in Burma's struggle for independence from the British. In 2007, monks from the monasteries around Shwedagon, led the pro-democracy marches that rocked Myanmar. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi comes to Shwedagon to pray. 
Monks at Shwedagon. 

The complex is called Shwedagon, named after the main pagoda on the site, but hundreds of smaller pagodas and several prayer pavilions ring the main pagoda. Relics from four Buddha's including eight strands of hair from Gautama, the historical Buddha, are at Shwedagon. 

A steady stream of Burmese come to Shwedagon to pray and make merit. 

I was there at sunrise when a family led a procession around the pagoda stopping to pray at several points. I was there at sunset and saw women lighting tens of candles to make merit. Every couple of hours, volunteers pick up brooms and sweep the marble floor of the pagoda, making it nearly spotless (like all Buddhist temples in Thailand and Myanmar, visitors remove their shoes before entering the temple). 
People bathe and make merit at a statue of a Buddha at Shwedagon. 

I've been to lots of Buddhist temples and shrines throughout Southeast Asia. I've seen the Vatican, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. None of those places prepared me for Shwedagon. It's a humbling and inspiring place. To put it into a Western perspective, people were praying here nearly 1,000 years before the Vatican was built. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Slow Boat to Dala

A woman on the Yangon - Dalla ferry. 

Myanmar, especially lower Myanmar, is a country defined by water. The Irrawaddy River is the nation's lifeline. Water from the Irrawaddy irrigates the fields, boats move people and freight the length of the river. It's celebrated in Burmese history and mythology.

Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, is on the Yangon River, a tributary of the Irrawaddy. Boats, everything from small rowboats to huge ocean going freighters, move up and down and across the river. Yangon's riverfront is one of the most intriguing places in a very intriguing city.

Dala is a working class community across the river from Yangon. The fastest, cheapest and easiest way to Dala is on one of the ferries that run continuously across the river. In the morning crowded ferries bring workers into Yangon and in the evening they return them home. All through the day shoppers, students and visitors use the ferries to get across the river. For the Burmese, the fares are dirt cheap - roughly the equivalent of .04¢ US.
A teenager jumps to an arriving ferry while Dala bound passengers wait to disembark. 

The ride across the river takes about 15 minutes. I spent the better part of an afternoon riding the ferry, back and forth across the river time after time. No two trips were the same. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

That's Insein

Insein Prison near Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar (formerly Burma). 

The most feared place all of Myanmar is just outside Rangoon, a musty colonial era complex known as Insein Prison (fittingly, it rhymes with "insane"). Over the years it became the Burmese junta's go to place for imprisonment of political prisoners. 

It's a place where beatings and torture were common. It's a place where people went and never came back from. In 2008 more than 100 prisoners were shot by guards after they started a fire to warm themselves. 

Thousands of people have been imprisoned there. Aung San Suu Kyi has been locked up there three times. Ngwe Soe Lin, a young journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, was locked up for recording and distributing video of orphaned children after Cyclone Nargis. 

Insein is still a hell hole, but Burma is changing. Suu Kyi is in parliament and could run for president. Ngwe Soe Lin, and many other political prisoners, have been released as Myanmar continues down the road of political reform. 

To me, from this angle, the prison looks like a Buddhist Dharma Wheel. The Dharma Wheel, or "Wheel of Life," is symbol that has represented the Buddha's teachings since the early period of Indian Buddhism. The prison was built during British colonial times and I doubt that the concepts of Buddhism played a role in British design of the prison. I can't help but wonder if the Burmese generals in the junta saw a Dharma wheel in their prison when they sent people to their house of horrors. 

This is the last picture I made in Yangon. I was reflecting on my time in Yangon from the window seat on my flight back to Bangkok when the prison came into the view I made a couple of frames, the plane banked and the prison was behind me. In a way it was karma that I even had a chance to make this picture. I normally sit on the left side of the plane and normally in an aisle seat. (I am predictable in that way.) But for some reason on this flight I took a window seat on the right side of the plane. I would have completely missed this photo if I had been sitting where I usually sit.  
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Lightroom 5 in the Wild

Lightroom 5 was released Monday

The new version of Lightroom was released Monday. This brings Lightroom up to version 5. I use Lightroom for 100% of my photo needs. I use its cataloging database module to maintain my archive, its editing module for all of my post processing needs, its mapping module (along with my iPhone) to keep track of where I was when I made a set of photos. Honestly, Lightroom has changed the way I maintain my digital archive and I can't imagine photo life without it.  

Lightroom 5 has some new tools in the develop module that will improve my workflow, like an automatic straighten function (handy when I have an accidentally crooked horizon photo), improved spot cloning (for removal of those pesky dust specks). For my purposes, those tools alone make it worth the upgrade. It also adds support for some new cameras (not a big deal for me) and improves the book module. I don't use the book making components of LR but I've been toying with the idea of making a book of my photos from Thailand, so I may tinker with the book module. 

There's a fly in the ointment though. Adobe, the company that publishes Lightroom, is changing its business model. Rather than "sell" software in the conventional way, they're moving to a rental model. You join Adobe's Creative Cloud service and pay a monthly fee to use your software. You download the software in the traditional way (so it still sits on your hard drive) but it pings Adobe every month or so to make sure you've paid to use your software. You stop paying and your software stops working. Adobe is taking away the choice of paying for your software outright and using it at your discretion. 

For some users this might make financial sense - if you use a lot of Adobe's high end products (Photoshop, InDesign, Premier) joining the Cloud will cost less than buying those applications outright. But then we go back to the stop paying and your software quits working gotcha. 

You start a project, like a book, in InDesign. You use Photoshop to prep your photos. You pay your monthly Adobe Creative Cloud fee. Everything is fine. But your circumstances change and you can no longer afford the fee (several hundred dollars a year). You stop paying and you can no longer use the software and, more importantly, can no longer access your book project (because it's saved in InDesign's proprietary format). That's a soul crushing option for a lot of creative people.

In the past, you bought and paid for an application. The choice to upgrade when a new version came out was yours. If you don't want to spend the dollars on an upgrade you didn't have to. But you could still access your work in the software you bought and paid for. This money grabbing move by Adobe changes all of that. Adobe's cloud model doesn't even get into privacy concerns, which in light of news that the US government is sucking up just about everything on the internet, may be a big deal for some people. 

I am not a fan of the Creative Cloud. I don't want to get hooked into paying Adobe every month for the "privilege" of using my software. I don't use many Adobe products. I use Lightroom a lot, Photoshop a little. That's it. (I don't plan to join the Creative Cloud. I haven't seen the need to upgrade Photoshop past the version I have and I will not upgrade because I won't pay for software on a rental basis.)

If Adobe had offered the choice of outright purchase, (what they call perpetual license) or the Cloud, I would probably continue to purchase Photoshop upgrades but not join the Cloud. By taking away the choice, Adobe has convinced me to move beyond their products. I'm trying to kick the Photoshop habit completely. I'm using Pixelmator for more and more of my individual photo editing needs. It's not Photoshop but it's also only $15 and doesn't require a monthly use fee. (Pixelmator is a far from perfect alternative to Photoshop but it's a start.)

Because Adobe has positioned Lightroom as both a professional application (so it's in the Creative Cloud) and an amateur or enthusiast's application, is still available for purchase as a stand alone product. I downloaded LR5. But I am concerned that Adobe will move the next version, LR6, into the cloud and make it a Creative Cloud only application. If/when that happens I will move away from Lightroom and onto a competitive application, probably Apple's Aperture

The issue I'm wrestling with now is that Lightroom and Aperture are incompatible. If I move my archive into Aperture, I will lose all of my edits, captions etc. (The same thing happens if you move an archive from Aperture to LR.) That's a pretty unpleasant scenario. What I will probably end doing is maintaining two archives. I will keep the last version of Lightroom that offers a stand alone purchase with my past archive and going forward everything into Aperture. It's not a perfect solution but it's better than paying Adobe a monthly fee to use my software. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

I am going to Myanmar for a couple of weeks and will have only very limited internet access while I'm there. I probably won't be updating the blog on a regular basis until I get back to Bangkok. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

In the market for clothes

A woman carries her jeans mannequin through Bobae Market in Bangkok

Where do you go when you need a gross (144 pairs) of jeans in a hurry? Or a case of mixed graphic tee shirts? Or a shipping container of men's underwear? That's easy. You go to Bobae Market, a rabbit warren of clothing shops in "old" Bangkok, off of Krung Kasem Road. 

In a city that has a market for everything, Bobae is the market for clothes. Provided, of course, you're a wholesale buyer looking to ship to Russia, South Korea or Uganda. Or most anywhere else in the world. 

I've been reading about Bobae Market for years. It shows up in a lot of tourist guides and it's a landmark for central Bangkok. But I never had much interest in going there. It's a clothing market. How interesting could it be? It turns out, I shouldn't have been so dismissive. It turns out, Bobae is really interesting. It turns out, I've been twice in two weeks and I can easily see myself going back again.

I "discovered" Bobae during an early morning taxi ride to Sanam Luang. Bangkok traffic is light at 5.30AM so my cabbie took surface streets rather than tollways and we cut through Bobae on our way to Sanam Luang.

Even through the window of the passing taxi I could see that this was a place worth coming back to. Imagine scenes of New York's "Fashion District" cut with a Bangkok market. I bookmarked the location on my iPhone's Maps app and promised myself to return as soon as I could.
A Bobae traffic jam

I've been back to Bobae a couple of times since. The place is huge. It sprawls across blocks and blocks of Bangkok. Krung Kasem Road, just west of the railroad tracks that come out of Hua Lamphong train station, is more or less the heart of the market but its tentacles spread out from Krung Kasem leading you on an adventure with every turn. 

The sois (alleys) off of Krung Kasem are mostly covered, so once you're off the main road, you're into a world as dark and mysterious as any Middle Eastern souk or Latin American mercado. The good news is that even if it's pouring (we're into the rainy season in Bangkok) you're not going to get too wet. The bad news is that even at 9AM, it's as dark in the market as it as 5.30AM. This is a place where you're going to enjoy the high ISO capabilities of modern digital SLR cameras. 

You can of course try to shop in Bobae. This is Bangkok after all and shopping is practically an art form here. But don't be too surprised if you leave empty handed. Almost all of the merchants are looking to make big sales. Buying 144 pairs of jeans is no problem. Buying one pair might be. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sunset From My Roof

A very brief time lapse video I did with Canon G9. The G9 has a tiny sensor and it's image quality has been eclipsed by subsequent G series cameras. But it has one things the new ones lack: a built in time lapse function. Turn on the time lapse and let it roll. This fifteen second video was recorded for about 25 minutes as the day ended today. I dropped it in iMovie and sped it up 400%. The music is a GarageBand loop. More than anything, this was an experiment. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Who Was That Masked Man?

A legless man leads a protest march down a flight of stairs in the Bangkok skywalk system during the White Mask protest Sunday. The marchers were protesting alleged corruption in the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. 

There's a new anti-government protest movement in Bangkok. A group calling themselves the "White Mask" protesters and sporting the "Guy Fawkes" mask made famous by the movie "V for Vendetta" and the hackers' group "Anonymous" are taking to the streets to protest against the government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They allege that her government is corrupt, is a puppet of exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra (Yingluck's older brother) and has anti-monarchal views. In Thailand's color spectrum of politics, the White Masks are very closely related to the "Yellow Shirts."
Marchers in the skywalk between BTS Siam and Chit Lom stops

Thailand is an incredibly wired country. Almost everyone has a smart phone or tablet computer. The higher you are on the socio-economic ladder the more devices you own. Many of the White Masks are from Thailand's upper middle class and they are well equipped with digital devices. They spread the word about the protest on the internet and are threatening to use the internet and social media to harass the Yingluck Shinawatra government. 

Thai protesters are very media savvy. Whether they're Yellow Shirts, Red Shirts or White Masks, they know the value of a good "photo op." Which maybe explains why their march through central Bangkok Sunday, which included going up and down several flights of stairs, was led by a legless man who "walked" ahead most of the march using his hands. 
White Masks sing the King's Anthem at the end of their protest march

I photographed the march with my tiny Panasonic Lumix GX1. I'd met Scott Mc Kiernan, the founder and CEO of ZUMA Press, the agency that licenses my work, for brunch. Scott is in town for a newspaper conference and we spent a couple of hours talking about the state of the photo industry and ZUMA's role in the industry. (The state of the industry is not too good, but Scott has some exciting plans for ZUMA, so I'm optimistic.) We took the Skytrain over to the conference and ran into the protesters marching through the skytrain system. 

This is why I always carry a camera in Bangkok. I had no expectations of doing any photography when I left my apartment. But something almost always comes up and the GX1 is a perfect take anywhere, carry about camera. My entire GX1 kit (camera body, 14mm f2.5, 20mm f1.7 and 45mm f1.8 lenses) weighs less than a 5D Mark III body and one lens. The GX1 is a Micro 4:3 camera with a 2X crop sensor, so the 14 is more or less equal to a 28mm in full frame or film terms, the 20 = a 40mm lens etc.   

There are more photos from the march in my archive or available from ZUMA
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.