Photographing the Elderly in Myanmar
I've remember corresponding with photographer Rick Sammon prior to his trip to Myanmar (i.e., Burma) a few years back. Rick's a great bloke who I've been following through his excellent podcast the Digital Photography Experience since its inception. It's sad that particular podcast wound up back in 2016. His super positive attitude, hard earned experience and ability to explain otherwise quite complex topics in plain language is a great gift to his audience.
During our correspondence I started to think about my own trip to Myanmar back in December 1999 where the above photo was made with a Hasselblad 503cxi camera and Kodak Professional Portra 160VC film.
The Need to Depart from Reality
While originally made on color negative film I felt the colorful blanket that the elderly woman had draped over her was, while beautiful, drawing too much attention away from her face. I wanted to make an environmental portrait where all elements of the scene worked together to explore a simple, universal truth: the beauty and wisdom of the elderly. I never had any doubt about departing from reality, in this case into black and white, in the pursuit of truth.
It was Christmas morning 1999 and I had arranged for a local guide to find the four oldest people in the village and ask if it would be possible for me to visit their homes and photograph them. As they're Buddhist there was no chance of me interfering with any kind of Christmas celebrations.
I was welcomed and had one of the best mornings of my life photographing three women and one very hard working elderly gentleman. There was no common language between us, but they were kind and gracious and the photos I made remain a great memory of my trip to Myanmar. I was happy to make a series of prints which I sent back to be shared amongst their families.
I'm not sure if I'II get back to Myanmar in the near future. I'd love to, as it's changing quickly. One thing I'm sure that will remain a constant is the kind and generous spirit of the Burmese people. And that's something that, despite decades of recent turmoil, could not be taken away from them.