A journal of TMI

Three pictures I didn’t take on my first day in Burma: Burma part I.

The first day I was in Burma there were three photographs I wasn’t able to take.  I went to Burma, or Myanmar as it is also, and officially known, to take pictures, write in my journal, buy gifts , and participate in other typical enjoyable traditions of traveling. The pictures that I did take felt good for the most part, the best ones I experienced almost as an act of Kung Fu, I can count on it being a good photo when I have that feeling, but the ones I missed I felt as a deep visceral ache inside. I then strove to let the feeling go, to be ready for the next thing.

I met my brother at the train station in Mandalay. We had made this plan in advance and he commented that our success in meeting there had been a triumphant throwback to the time before cellphones, where meetings were arranged at public places, and you had to be there, or that was it. We both remembered the tail end of this era, having grown up in the 70’s and 80’s, where public pay phones were also used, as well as the family phone at home.  I rode in a shared taxi from the airport, asked to be dropped off at the train station, strode across the street with my bags, and scanned the many-storied structure for an obvious meeting point. Although there was a porticoed pavilion indicating the entrance to the building, there was also room after room devoted to waiting, the exterior-facing curtain wall of each such room absent, save for some type of roll or fold-away grate to lock in the off hours. And so waiting rooms like open cells lined this side of the building that was opposite the train track, and no doubt the track side as well. Worried eyes from half-vacant benches glanced back at me, wondering, as I vaguely was, what I would do next. I was about to enter the building, from the myriad of open paths in front of me, when I heard someone yell my name, my brother of course, who revved up his scooter from his perch and came over to meet me. Apparently I had chosen the correct place. A security guard expressed mild concern at our reunion in what appeared to be also the taxi circle, my brother uninterested at the moment in observing the customary traffic flow. I motioned to the guy first with my index finger, that we would soon be gone, and then with a circular motion of my wrist and a nod of my head, that I understood that we needed to turn ourselves around before we left. We went through our greetings, fist-bumps, what have you, I adjusted myself onto the bike with my bags, and with the guard conducting, we somewhat clumsily u-turned out of the vehicle reception area and were on our way. Our mission at that point was to make our way to the nearby neighborhood across the railroad tracks, where the motorbike rental shop was located, so I could get outfitted with my own bike, as the plan was to leave almost immediately that day, at least right after lunch. My brother took the first side street past the station, but the tracks looked difficult to cross there, so we came back to the main road and went to the next street, a nice comfortable bridge. When we took that turn bells and horns seemed to go off from gesturing cops? Passersby? We weren’t sure, but motorbikes were prohibited on that bridge, as everyone knew, even my brother I believe, though he suppressed that knowledge from himself enough to express surprise and worry that we would be stopped. But we were given the ‘foreigner pass’ by whatever forces were on alert there that time and we made our way to the shop. After meeting the proprietor and gabbing for a while I had my own bike, and we were off in search of a lunch spot. It was then that I saw my first missed picture of the day.

The motorbike guy had given us directions to a good Chinese restaurant he knew of, and judging from the circle we had just gone in we had already abandoned that and were redirecting  ourselves to a cluster of restaurants my brother had already been to and thus had more confidence in finding. With him zooming ahead I found myself beside a strange bicycle carriage, the likes of which I had never seen before. Unlike the various bicycle taxis I had seen in Vietnam, China, and Cambodia, it was a rickshaw with a side-car, a single wheel supporting the car. A grandmother had just plunked in, as the passenger it seemed, and popped open her ancient looking parasol as an old grandfather began pumping his still strong legs to take her to her desired destination. As it was the first tricycle of this design I had ever seen, and because of the way that I happened to perceive them as a couple, I half supposed that this might be their private family vehicle they were tooling around in. Traffic seemed calm enough for me to risk taking a picture while driving (something I don’t think I’ve ever actually done before) so I reached towards the pocket that had my camera phone (an iPhone 4 with various camera apps), looked ahead at my brother turning out of sight at the next intersection, and adding the various risks all up, put aside my photo plans for the moment, and raced to catch up, losing an opportunity forever in the process (sob!).


Different day, different bike.


We soon came to the restaurant cluster and my brother indicated a vegetarian Indian restaurant that he already had enjoyed, a Thai restaurant (Myanmar shares borders with both India and Thailand, as well as China, Laos and Bangladesh) and a local Burmese restaurant, and said it was up to me to choose. “Burmese!” I exclaimed and rushed towards the place, disappointing him a little I believe, as he can seem a picky eater and had already found a safety zone at the veg place, Marie Min as it was named, which was a fine restaurant as I later found out. Nevertheless I was thrilled to try the local food immediately. The restaurant, as  is common in South-East Asia(and already noted), had no front wall on the first floor, so we parked the bikes in front so we could keep an eye on our packs, walked up the stairs which spanned the whole of the building and tried to get oriented with a table and the food selection and so forth. It was busy so we were seated at a large table with another diner already present and eating, the ad hoc foreigner table as it were, we later learned that he was Italian. Other patrons were gathered around the glass cases that barricaded in the kitchen section of the room near the back, examining the dishes within. My plan was to follow this behavior, point at a few dishes when I got someone’s attention (as the bowls seemed small, and I felt hungry) and then go sit down and eat with abandon. It’s an understatement to say that many people have used this foolproof plan countless times before in the history of the world both in foreign countries as well as at home (pointing at food to order it), but for some strange reason the staff at this restaurant didn’t seem to catch on. I’d point at a few dishes, the coterie of waitresses gathered around would strain their faces in concern, the cook behind the case would shrug, and little else would be done. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little impatient, but I was too happy to be there to get downright cranky so I just tried to put more flourish into my gestures and expressiveness into my face. A waiter arrived who spoke a little English. It seemed that they wanted to explain to me what the dishes were. “This is maize…” he told me, of the dish filled with sweet corn. “I know!” I smiled, “please can I have some?” He still seemed confused. I tripled my efforts with my nonverbal communications, miming as I also spoke, for his possible benefit, “please put these dishes into bowls for me and I will eat them back at the table” like that, with miming and pointing actions for each component that I could think of. The food attendant finally had had enough and in a matter of seconds whipped every single selection out of the stainless steel trays and into the little serving bowls in the entire section that she controlled, without regard to whichever ones I had pointed at. The waitresses were now cheerfully laughing at our affair, which we all seemed to mutually agree to just push pass our communication impasse, and get on with the serving and eating of food, with some lingering confusion notwithstanding. The one assigned to our table twirled a serving tray within our circle and now playing, I wrestled her for it, and we began loading it with food. Now openly playing with her, I insisted on being the one to carry it to my table, lest she get confused… My taunts made them roar with laughter as I continued my instructions in how to deal with the outlandish foreigners- bring rice, cutlery, and so on, in short, everything that every other table in the restaurant had, including a plate of raw vegetables such as cabbage and sliced cucumbers and basil leaves carefully arranged. They got the joke- we wanted to eat lunch! Why hadn’t they thought of that? – and then my brother threw a new wrench into our nearly resolved situation by refusing rice, an act in fact utterly foreign to them. One after another the waiters and waitresses tried to offer him a rice bowl, which he continued to refuse to their consternation until one of the ladies finally just placed an entire serving bowl of rice on the table across from him and backed away slowly. “I’m not eating carbs,” he explained to me. Conversations about nutrition and personal eating habits can be volatile affairs, able to split families apart, sever friendships, but did that stop me? We’d been through it before I guess, though never really in opposition to each other and I was primed after just having read a great book on the subject- The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, so I ploughed ahead exclaiming “That doesn’t make any sense!” He strengthened his fighting stance and spooned more of some delicious vegetable mush into his mouth. “Tell that to my gut” he said. “No no, I don’t care about what you want to eat, that’s not what I’m saying”. He had lost a lot of weight after all. The last time we went on a road trip together he looked almost like a water buffalo from eating pizza? I don’t know, in any case he looked much much slimmer. “But no carbohydrates? That’s crazy!” I continued on with my rant about how carbohydrates were an absolutely essential nutrient and if he was saying he didn’t eat carbohydrates he was basically claiming to consume only protein and fat, and nothing else (with the vitamins and fiber just part of that mixture)(I actually knew what he meant, ‘carbs’ being a neologism of the ‘just eat meat’ craze that seemed to refer mostly to processed foods made from grains and starches). Unimpressed, he finished a bowl of corn, which the waitress quickly replenished (a clue as to what the food ordering confusion had been about). “I don’t eat rice,” he elaborated, “It’s just filler. And I hate it when people tell me what to eat”. “Yeah, you said it partner, nothing worse than that, I remember all the bullshit we went through in our teens and twenties”, I went on, shoveling it all in as I went, “but if you think about it, there was hardly a single obese Vietnamese person known until about the 21st century, and the way they say hello is ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’ I doubt it’s the rice that’s starting to make them fat”, and so on, my reasoning utterly failing to make a dent in the triumph of the propaganda of the Atkins diet, where even a vegetarian can be a believer. No carbs!

Anyway I later figured out what I believe the confusion had been that day in the restaurant. Inspired by T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, in part an epidemiological report showing the healing properties of a plant-based diet, and in concert with my brother, who was a vegetarian before me, and stuck with it after I had abandoned my stint avoiding eating meat, which lasted at least a few years if I remember correctly and which I now only intermittently practice, by that meaning sometimes only once a month, and getting my bike and being rigged and ready to go out to the countryside, infused with all that, I had decided to go veg that day in the Burmese restaurant upon arriving in Myanmar. It was in an arc of activities and enthusiasm so to speak. The problem that so confused them was that I was standing in front of the selection of food that essentially, for the mode of cuisine that they were engaged in, were condiments, or natural accompaniments of the meal, and it didn’t make any sense to them for me to ‘order’ them or ask for them. It would be like ordering salt and pepper and ketchup off the menu in an American diner, or fish sauce in a Vietnamese restaurant, or… something like that. Everyone else was over deliberating between chicken livers or stewed sparrows, or boiled pork belly and so on. But we wanted to eat lima beans and eggplant and corn and food like that that day, and thank god we worked it out, because it was delicious.

The second picture I missed that day occurred after we were not very far out of town and were approaching a teak foot-bridge that was quite long, at 1.2 km the longest such bridge in the world. We were driving with the Irrawaddy River to our left and a thatched fishing village to our right.  Fishermen waded along in the shallows with nets and other gear, gathering their catch, and the village itself was quite active in a way that would have required a long scrolled panoramic painting ( like Along the River During the Qingming Festival ) to capture it, or in this era, a lengthy photo spread. We were just whizzing by however, and I was not equipped for any distance photography. In fact for the most part, with the equipment I had, if my pictures were to have any value, they would need to be snapped at close range, with all the apparent connections to the subject matter quite visible. In other words I would have to get up in people’s faces in order to take their picture. Probably anyone who has ever contemplated taking a stranger’s picture in public has felt the same trepidation and anxiety that this can provoke, although obviously there are ways to get over this and just do it, many ways I’d say. Some also back away from the task, either at key moments, or altogether. It’s something worth discussing. I have found, for instance, that a lot of people will smile and indicate that they’re quite happy to have their picture taken, while others will show no hesitation in refusing. I have my own ad hoc rules about this, and I’m not sure I even always follow them, but how about this: let’s just keep talking about it and I’ll promise to do the right thing in the best possible way that I can. One of my rules for instance is that someone participating in a public display, such as a parade or some other performance, has pretty much licensed themselves to be photographed, and you’d have to tell a pretty intricate story before it started to be problematic to take their picture. However, to tell such a story, one thing I’ve enjoyed doing in the past is that when I come across people posing for pictures in public places, if I think I can get away with it (because the photo subject is occupied with smiling and posing for their intended photographer) I’ll snap a shot of them posing, either including their photographer, or not, depending on where I’m standing, or what looks better. Although it passes some of my tests, I at least feel it’s a little ethically strained. I could call it a ‘freebie’ as they are posing in public, though I’m well aware and possibly the subjects feel this also, that they are posing only momentarily, and not for me. I could imagine that they, if aware of my actions, might be thrilled in some way at the extra attention, like it’s all part of the fun of being on vacation or at leisure. I could also imagine them moving away from this pole passing through a place where they would just say ‘fair enough, you got me!’ and then start drifting towards lands of greater vulnerability, where they might wish I hadn’t taken their picture at all. It seems fun anyway when I capture a smiling person, maybe flashing some hand jive, and I’ve mused even about presenting a series of such shots in a show, but I haven’t been doing this too much lately, either because it’s a thing that I did, and I’m over it, or because of all the ethical dimensions of this practice. My brother and I talked about the whole wider subject of taking pictures of people on this trip and I brought up three different standards that I was aware of, none of which I am completely conversant in. The strictest I would think is in the world of anthropology, where there is a developed ethical protocol, at times known as the Human Subject Protocol which was developed in response to the wider problem of scientific researchers abusing their human subjects while conducting research upon them , of which there are all too many examples. The basic standard is informed consent, with a conscientious weighing of benefit and harm, in a bureaucratized environment, where scrutiny and oversight are established. For example, a graduate student in anthropology typically would develop a proposal with their advisor and then have to submit an ‘Ethics Review Protocol Submission Form’ to a committee and would not be able to engage in fieldwork without final approval from a ‘Research Ethics Board’. So, if they wanted to take a picture of someone in the village we were traveling past (or anywhere in the world) and use it in any way, they would first have to go through all that. Another relevant standard, especially for photography, would be the Model Release Form. This is similarly a measure of consent to give up privacy, tailored for legal and commercial interests, rather than academic ones. But it’s not clear exactly when it’s required. Certainly if you’ve appeared in a Pepsi ad, you’ve signed a model release form. George Clooney no doubt has signed a model release form. What about the Afghan girl with haunting green eyes from National Geographic? Is there some document somewhere establishing her consent? Or was it all done with a wink and a nod of the head? There’s no way that news photographers get model release forms, for example, when shooting a battle, a natural disaster, a political rally, or anything of that nature, so obviously there is a wide range of editorial content considered exempt from any standard of consent (the third standard I presented while discussing this with my brother) because the public nature of the acts renders them ipso facto not private. Actually, even anthropology acknowledges exemptions for situations based in the public arena. Imagine if you will however someone looking out their window in contemplation. You can dress them in pajamas or formal gowns or their birthday suit if you will, as this is a thought experiment. They are staring out their window, you are on the street, with a lens powerful enough to frame them, and you yourself are not hidden in any way. Is this consent? Who’s asking, really? How many pictures are we ourselves part of around the world without even realizing it? When my brother and I got to this part of the discussion, we both recalled situations where we had actually found pictures of ourselves published, without any direct awareness of the picture having been taken, albeit in very small magazines.

For my brother’s part, he boiled it down also to three different stances you could take. One is the set-up mentioned above where you have your camera out in a near ready, but not absolutely ready position, and you smile and nod and wink at your subject and mime taking the picture, using similar basic language if such language is shared or understood, encouraging the subject to indicate consent to have their picture taken. If they refuse, you walk away, and try to think no more about it, if they consent, you snap away, and hope you’ve taken your lens cap off.

The second way is what he described as ‘pretending to be their friend’, where you spend time building trust with your intended subjects, however long it takes, until you’ve passed some sort of test, and then you carry out what had been your plan all along, and take a lot of pictures.

The third way is to just take pictures whenever you can and decide later whether it was appropriate or worth it when deleting and publishing said pictures (in our case on Facebook and our own personal blogs).


Thatched bamboo wall.


In any case, that afternoon, while driving along with the Irrawaddy River to my left, and a small, bustling, sprawling village to my right, I spied an older gentleman in a hat and jacket seated in an alert but relaxed manner, entirely on a small platform built at about waist height above the ground around the base of a tree. He was reading a newspaper and so had the double position of both being at rest, as well as participating in the business of attending to and holding up the world. I don’t recall whether he was wearing trousers or the more typical longyi sarong, as it was the hat and jacket and newspaper, and the overall poise that captured my attention. There’s nothing else to refer to, as I didn’t stop my bike, put down the kickstand, walk over to him, and after some or no negotiation, take his picture, I just kept driving along, with some tearing and longing in my heart.


The third picture I did not take occurred I am not sure where. After we finished at the teak bridge we began heading in a West South-Westerly direction, hoping to somehow make our lodgings in the archeological city of Bagan that night, despite our late and meandering start. My brother drives faster than I do, and the bikes we rented, while great bikes, were actually cheap Chinese copies of a great bike (the Honda Wave) that itself had limited power and suspension. The roads were fine, but not without some pitting, so I soon found myself skipping through town after town with just enough control to not really worry, but with a sense that going a little bit slower would be infinitely more sensible. The towns were all similar, and all different, all with some market activity near the road, some with more beautiful tree glades than others, some with more active urban pursuits. The men for the most part all wore longyi sarongs, some tied up higher if their thighs were directly involved in their work or play, such as when they were kicking a rattan ball around, the women also wore longyis, though more brightly colored, and tied at the hip rather than at the center. The women and boys and an occasional man wore a yellow paste-like single-colored yellow make-up on their face, sometimes in squares or rectangles on their cheeks, for example, sometimes in fierce stripes, occasionally in circles or any other design. I saw a sixteen year-old boy with a semi-circle of dots going across his forehead, meeting at the two larger circles on his cheeks. Somewhere in the midst of this kaleidoscope of market items, melons and fruit, fish and knives, and men and boys at work and at play, of cool creek oases at low points in the road where the largest trees would grow, amidst the dust and approaching golden hour of sunlight, I saw a little girl with a full face of the traditional sandalwood make-up, the ghost-face as I termed it for myself, as it is striking to behold, I saw this tan-faced girl somewhere on one of these roads in one of these towns, with two bright-yellow marigold-like flowers in her hair, one above each ear. I saw her right beside me it seemed, in front of me and beside me at the same moment, as I was in motion. She was looking straight at me, and I didn’t take her picture. Instead I slowed down just a little bit, and then kept on driving.


On the road in Myanmar.


One response

  1. Thoa Lê

    March 2, 2013 at 12:05 pm

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