People are eager to tell their stories, and my biggest frustration is that I can’t do all of them.
Minzayar Oo was on his way to becoming a doctor when a visual story-telling workshop changed his life direction. He is now part of Myanmar’s new generation of photographers, documenting the transitioning country’s contemporary stories from Yangon’s punks to the persecution of the Rohingyas. His work is frequently featured in international news agencies and publications, and has been exhibited in Myanmar and around the world, including at photo festivals like Rencontres d’Arles and Angkor Photo Festival. Minzayar’s long-term project on the jade mines in Northern Myanmar recently won second place in Days Japan International Photojournalism Awards 2016.
You’ve done extensive work on the jade mines in the northern Kachin State, for which you recently won a prize at Days Japan. Tell us about your work on this series.
My colleague, journalist Andrew Marshall – whom I worked a lot with in Reuters and learnt a lot from – and I had talked about doing a story on the jade mines. He couldn’t go in the end because foreigners are totally forbidden to go into that area in Kachin State. For that assignment, I went in by myself for a day. But I wanted to go back again. I had found a place in my own country where I saw things I had never seen before – vast lunar-like landscapes, the conditions of people working there, the drugs.
We were the first media to report on this issue, as this story was not covered before. I really like going into less accessible places and telling a whole new story. I had to find ways to fund my project, so I approached NGOs interested in the issue, and a couple supported me going back to the jade mines. I worked with them while working on my own documentary projects. I’ve been back to Hpakant five or six times; sometimes spending up to a month there. I’ve been through the jade trail, which the traders use to smuggle jade into China. I’ve been to the shooting galleries.
As I get deeper into the issue, the biggest difficulty is dealing with all the stories that people want to share.
It is a big story with so many issues happening in one area, and I am one of the very few people who can go as a photojournalist. There were a few early photographic references, but not much else. So I looked at Sebastião Salgado and his work from the gold mines. I had an idea of some pictures, of what I was looking for, but the difficult part was after getting the photos, what story do I tell? About the drugs, the conflict, the smuggling or the Chinese involvement? I’m still struggling.
How did you gain access to the mines?
I had very good contacts who were community leaders in Hpakant. The local communities are trying to fight issues on their own, like drug use or big companies bullying them. Even though it is a billion dollar industry, mining there is considered illegal by law. So the mining community has to look after itself. One of the community leaders, who is also an NLD member, was helping me a lot.
As I get deeper into the issue, the biggest difficulty is dealing with all the stories that people want to share. People are eager to tell their stories, and my biggest frustration is that I can’t do all of them. Unlike the Rohingya Skype story, where I felt I had a very clear narrative, the jade mining story has been different. I think I’ve covered most of the issues at these mines – the drugs, the working situation, the conflicts, the refugee situation, the jade trade – so I think my next step is to go to China and try to understand what is jade to the Chinese.
That in itself sounds like a story.
Yeah, yeah. Maybe I will try to do a book on this one day. Now, there are media sending local journalists to the mines to take photographs but they spend only a short time. I think I am the only one who has given a lot of time to this story, that’s why I think I should make the work louder, more exposed and more impactful.
I remember coming across your Rohingya story, and was struck by the impact and the emotive quality of the photographs. How did you get started with this series?
I was on assignment with Reuters at a Rohingya camp. At that time, I was going around the camp doing another story when Andrew and I found a little Internet café in the camp. People were shouting so we looked in and found computers. It was surprising. It was our last day so I didn’t have time to make any serious pictures. I saw a young Rohingya woman chatting with her husband who was working in Malaysia. She was about nine months pregnant, and they were talking about their future and of their kid. They were laughing, crying and joking. It was the first time I saw something hopeful in the camp. That got me really emotional, and I wanted to come back to do a series of portraits of women talking with their husbands. Sort of like portraits of love from the Rohingya camp.
So it was originally conceived as a portrait series?
I’ve only been doing reportage work, and as I’ve never done a portrait series, I was looking at a lot of work. When I got back to the camp, I was trying to find a setting for the portraits. Then I realised that the rooms were really dark, and that the light from the monitor itself was amazing. And that was how I did it in the end. I was trying to find women who were coming to catch up with their loved ones, but more and more people were coming to try to communicate with human traffickers who had their family members in camps in the Thai and Malaysian borders. The conversations were really emotional – worries about debt, parents trying to find out about their children.
You can feel the hope with the Skype tune calling.
I had to change my idea of doing love portraits. I found myself at the heart of this whole trafficking operation. The Internet hut was where they would come and try to talk to relatives; it was also where they would negotiate sums with the traffickers. Very few people have it all pre-arranged. For some of these young girls and boys, they went after persuasion, and I doubt they had any idea they had to pay this money. So the people who are left in the camps have to struggle to find the necessary funds for their passage. It’s about USD1,200 to USD1,500, which is a great deal of money for them. They don’t even have enough money for meals. So they have to borrow or sell their tent in the camp. It’s a struggle.
With a story as big as the Rohingya issue, it can be difficult to cover it in its entirety; your project takes a really good look at one of its central components.
Yes. At that time, there were reports of many Rohingya boats leaving Myanmar. Many people were trying to tell this story, but it is difficult to gain access. The amazing thing is that I found myself at this Internet café, which plays a very important part in the story.
Was there any difficulty in reporting on this issue here in Myanmar?
No. It’s not the easiest story to be done, but you can at least go into the camp if you have the proper accreditation. There are rules, like you can’t stay late. But it is not very risky. The most difficult part, I think, was enduring all the raw emotions inside that hut. It’s a very dark room, and from morning to evening, different people would come with all their problems. They would be having very intimate conversations in front of me, as I was at the other side of the computer.
Did they mind your presence?
No, I had my translator with me. We explained to everyone what we were doing and they didn’t really seem to care. Usually, when you’re walking around the camp, they get really attracted to the big camera. But once they sit in front of the computer and the Skype tone starts, they get disconnected from the outside world. Their concentration is 100% on that call. You can feel the hope with the Skype tune calling. It’s amazing. From time to time, at least once a day, there would be a very sweet conversation about love. That moment is a great relief for me because that’s what makes my presence there meaningful. To show there is still some hope.
Being in Myanmar now offers a whole lot of story possibilities. What type of stories interests you?
I like telling intimate stories – stories about people in rarely documented areas, like the stories I’ve been doing in the jade mines. I love to do stories.
As for work, you freelance for news agencies?
Yes, I’ve been working with Reuters for the last four years. (Update: Minzayar has left Reuters and is now fully freelance). I also freelance for other newspapers, mostly foreign media like The New York Times. I try to sell my stories out of the country.
Has it been challenging working as a freelance photographer?
Yes (laughs). I was going to become a doctor. I was studying medicine when I started doing part-time work for Reuters. I tried to do both, but couldn’t manage so I had to let go of becoming a doctor.
I couldn’t have been a photographer 10 years ago.
Was it your personal ambition to become a doctor?
We don’t really have much choice here. The top two universities here were the medical and engineering schools, so many parents would encourage their children to become a doctor or an engineer. I finished high school with good grades and my mother encouraged me to go to medical school. We don’t have a photography school or anything like that.
How did you come to do the photography workshop at Institut Français in Yangon?
I was already doing basic stuff like scenes of Yangon and landscapes. I sold my piano to buy a camera. I learnt how to work the camera on my own, but I got into story telling through the workshop. I found out how you can use photography to make stories. My first photo essay was about women giving birth at the hospital where I was a medical student. I could do it because I was a student, but I won’t be able to do it now because of the access.
What was your first big break?
The real break for me was when Aung San Suu Kyi went campaigning around the country in 2012. A couple of friends and I decided that this time we should pick up our cameras and go wherever she went, to witness this event. I’ve never met her before that and we wanted to see how people responded to seeing her in person. We went to several towns all around the country. When she got back to Yangon, there was a by-election; through a friend’s contact, I was offered to string for Reuters. I took a few good shots. One of them was published on the front page of the International Herald Tribune the next day. Those early shots encouraged me to do more and more.
These are interesting times for the country, particularly with Aung San Suu Kyi’s incoming government in April. As a young photographer, how do you view the changes Myanmar is going through?
There is a lot to be dealt with, so many important issues to be addressed. But compared to 10 years ago, it is really positive. I couldn’t have been a photographer 10 years ago. It would have been a very difficult job with very strict censorship and security. Even street photography would have been difficult. In 2010, I was taking a long exposure shot of the street, when I was questioned by the police and was asked to leave because there was a VIP car coming along.
So we are getting better. You can now at least tell stories. That’s why I think it is important to promote young, upcoming photographers from Myanmar, and to get them into story telling. News is also great, but a few photographers should remain on some issues that have to be told and spent time on.
What are you working on now?
There is a place I want to go to that I won’t talk about right now. I like to go to challenging places and walk around. There are a lot of such places in Myanmar that people think are hostile, especially to journalists. But once you get there, among the locals, it is not that difficult.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.