Htet T San is a young Burmese photographer based in New York. Her plan to become a doctor was derailed when she discovered her love for the visual arts; a scholarship to study photography in the United States completely changed her path. The conceptual artist uses photography to record her personal journey in the world, “My photography is mostly about the emotional experience of a certain situation and me trying to interpret it in a visual way.” Her latest series, U-ZA-KA, is a collaboration with artist Ankica Mitrovska about fear and anxiety.
What was your first experience with photography?
My first ever experience with photography was in 2006. I was a medical student and I attended a multimedia school for personal escape. There was a 2-hour lecture about photography that inspired me to pick up the camera. But my real education started in 2008 at University of Alabama-Huntsville.
What was your pivotal moment when you decided to switch from a career in medicine to photography?
To begin with, I didn’t enjoy my life as a medical student but I didn’t have many choices at that time in my country. I received good grades in high school and wished to fulfill my parents’ desire for me to become a surgeon, so I attended medical school. But I came to a realisation that it was leading me nowhere when I discovered the visual arts. It was in my final year when I received a scholarship to study photography in the US. It was a difficult decision to make but I decided to follow my passion. Looking back, I think I made the right decision.
What was your experience studying photography in the States?
It was a really great and memorable experience. I studied photography in a small town where there were only two camera stores. I was an international student dependent on stipend money and I didn’t have a car, so I remember one night walking for 45 minutes to the camera store to buy film. When I reached there, it was closed because I was five minutes late. But, fortunately, I had a great photography professor who supported my aesthetics, helped me develop my vision and skills, and gave me a lot of guidance. The best experience for me personally was making some life-long friendships there.
How did you get into photographing punks in Burma?
It was for a photography festival in my country. I was back in Myanmar at that moment and one of my friends connected me with the festival so I ended up working on a photo essay about exploring youth culture and got into taking photographs of punk groups. I was also working on a documentary of a tomboy friend of mine from high school who was like the first tomboy actor in the entertainment industry at that time as well.
When did you make the shift from documentary to conceptual work?
Actually, my photography started with a conceptual-based focus. It was part of my learning process to explore different categories of photography that I shifted to make documentary work. But I figured that my strength is based on conceptual narratives and experimental styles.
You’ve commented that your photography is a personal journey; an exploration between the self and society. Can you please elaborate on that?
To me, most of the photographic works, paintings, and art are more or less self-portraits, even street and some documentary work. As a photographer, we witness things, and we shoot pictures based on our emotions and how we experience things. Even if we get to know other people and hear their stories, our pictures are going to be more or less influenced by our own perceptions. What’s bizarre is sometimes in life, we don’t get to know things as they are because the reality is somewhat hidden from us. There are also times in life we are judged for who we are not and pushed into situations that are not relevant to us but in those circumstances, we know for sure how we feel.
My photography is a personal sentimental journey. All my life, I have this idea of wanting to be liberated. I would like to set my ideas out of the racial, religious, gender, and societal norms that we’ve been taught and I would like to explore life as the person I am. It’s a way of developing, declaring and searching for freedom. I would like to express life with my camera.
You are also interested in exploring the idea of dreams and memories. Can you tell us about that?
I am very interested in this invisible reality which is very real to us. That’s also another reason I like making conceptual work, so I can work in detail how I would like to visualise certain states of mind. Sometimes, the work is not just about the finished artwork but about the mediums that we choose to work with – the process itself is a way of making art. I am drawn to the idea of dreams and memories because to me, they are the main ingredients that make our souls rich and meaningful in the emptiness of life. Without dreams, there is no purpose. Without memories, life will be very hollow and shallow. Dreams and memories guide us to grow.
How have your formative years in Burma informed your photography or how you see the world?
A lot. It’s only been less than a year since I was back in Burma from my time of studying photography until now. Coming from a developing nation to live and work in a developed country, the way I see things is more like a comparison of two worlds, its ups and downs, pros and cons, advantages and side effects. As time goes on and I get older, I become more of an observer of both.
Your latest project is U Za Ka, made in collaboration with artist Ankica Mitrovska. How did the collaboration happen and what is the project about?
The project is about exploring the emotional states of fear and anxiety and examining the struggles from their overwhelming nature. The project started when Ankica visited my place in New York in 2014. It started with me taking an artist portrait of her and her work. In the process, we decided to make up a narrative story and collaborate on a project. The first part of the project, we did it overnight. For Part 2, it’s my personal solo continuation of analysis and overcoming of the previous struggle in Part 1. Part 1 and Part 2 has 3 years difference.
You’re going back to Burma next year to do some photo projects. What sort of stories do you hope to do there?
I have two or three projects in my mind that I would like to develop there but I cannot say for sure yet because it might change. I am working towards a photo book and I would like to create some conceptual works to be a part of it.
Published 1 August 2017