Founded in 2013, Myanmar Deitta is the country’s first dedicated photography and filmmaking non-profit organisation. Deitta is a Pali word for ‘in front of one’s eyes’, a nod to its documentary focus.The gallery and photobook library are housed in a heritage building in Yangon’s highly atmospheric downtown. Their events often operate at full capacity. We chat with Matt Grace, founder and director, about the group’s programmes and photography in Myanmar.
What is Myanmar Deitta?
It is a non-profit organisation that was set up in 2013. We try to provide a space and assistance to people making photography and film projects loosely based around story-telling, whether photojournalism or artistic documentary work. As long as there is a story there.
What sparked the idea of setting up Myanmar Deitta?
I’ve been living here for awhile. Obviously the political climate and media freedom has changed a lot in the past few years here, and it meant that there was nothing like this here. I worked with a similar project in Thailand in 2012, and when I came back here, it felt like it was possible to do that here now. It will take a long time for things to develop in terms of the entire education system, so starting from that level of providing photography education, that’s a long way into the future. But right now, it’s important to have this space and outlet for young photographers and filmmakers who can come and show their work, and see other people’s work. It seemed like it was possible to do it, so why not?
The fine arts and performing arts have a strong following in Myanmar, how does photography fit into Yangon’s art and cultural scene?
The fine arts, especially painting, theatre and music in its traditional form, have always been very strong here. Because photography was seen as a journalistic form of documentation – more so than poetry or writing, which were all heavily censored as well – but because of the situation at that time, it was very difficult to become a photographer. There was the stranglehold of the media, and there was also the practical side of things, like getting equipment and maintaining a darkroom in a country that was very isolated; you needed very good connections to get things in and out. One of the reasons why photography was stunted here was because resources were very hard to come by.
Photography still existed here. There is a long history of portraiture. People were going to salons to have their portraits and family pictures done. But all media was controlled, and if you were doing photojournalism or documentary work at that time, it was very easy to have your camera taken away.
When you set this up, were there any risks involved in doing so?
We didn’t really know. And that is true for anyone working in media or in the arts. There is a lot less obvious censorship but the boundaries are not clear at all. So we never really know if what we are showing is sensitive or not.
Have you had any trouble?
The most trouble we’ve got into wasn’t even one of our projects. The gallery was used for a report launch, which named certain people in terms of corruption in the extractive industry here. We did get quite a lot of calls and low level harassment following that. But we never had anything too serious. Even yesterday, the talk we had about architectural preservation and cinemas, we had government representatives and four members of the special branch sitting in. So yeah, it’s hard to judge. But we haven’t had any problems thus far.
One of Myanmar Deitta’s objectives is to further education programmes. Can you elaborate on this?
So far we’ve done more on logistics support for people coming in. Some of the main ones we’ve done is a reporting workshop in collaboration with the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA, Norway) and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute (Bangladesh) in 2014. We organised teaching space, hotels, visas, translators and assistance, and scholarship placements for six Burmese students to take part. We’ve also worked with Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA). Kevin’s come over a couple of times to do workshops and we provided teaching space.
But what we want to do is develop a set, on-going education programme. It will start off as a part-time programme, bringing in photographers to teach but also have an on-going programme with local photographers teaching journalism and photo-editing. But that’s about funding at the moment. Unfortunately, until the election happens, anyone you approach about funding will say, “Come back after the election.” Everyone knows that there will be changes, so all the agencies, all the international, cultural and funding agencies, all the photographic groups are waiting to see who their ministers will be, whether the MOUs they have signed are still in force in a month’s time. It is likely that a lot of the ministries will be shuffled around, some even shut down. So everyone is kind of waiting to see what happens. We are working on a proposal, so hopefully once the new government is sworn in, once the new president is sworn in, we can present it. We’ll see.
It would be great to have a dedicated education programme.
It is important to have this. There hasn’t been a lot of photography education, and there still isn’t in a lot of places, which I think is not a problem at all when it comes to taking a photograph. Technical skills can be learnt, but when it comes to photojournalism work, things like captioning, learning about copyright, that’s what I see as an issue here. There are a lot of young and good photographers but they have never been shown how to write a journalistic caption. I think it is important for photographers who are going out and doing photojournalism or documentary work to have a background in journalism ethics.
And also to know their rights as photographers.
And also, the repercussions of taking photographs of people in certain situations. Like when you’re doing a story on a sensitive topic, you really need to understand the implications of your subject and not just ‘I want to publish this story.’ So when it comes to technical tuition, I don’t necessarily think that people need to have an educational background, but I think there are areas of photography that would need instruction.
How about job and training opportunities for Myanmar photographers?
When it comes to training, there is Yangon Photo Festival that conducts basic training every year that run for about a month. A lot of training is done on the job. Previously, the work you can do is restrictive but since things are starting to loosen up, there are more local journalists and photographers. Some weekly newspapers are becoming dailies. So that’s a big thing. AP’s always had someone here. But now the main wires have maybe two photographers here, they are still generally on stringer contracts, but it means that people like Minzayar and Lynn Bo bo are able to get a regular, reliable wage and access to equipment.
Now there is no problem in getting the latest camera equipment here?
Yes, Nikon and Canon, no problem at all. As well as all the big brands. Analogue film is very difficult to find here. Film like Kodak 400 and Fujifilm, you might be able to find here, but you can’t find Tri-X films. And there’s no darkroom facilities that I know of. But I did hear there might be a guy in Mandalay who has one.
Can you introduce some young Myanmar photographers?
You have a few very talented photographers. Minzayar has just won second place in Days Japan, and a few other international awards. He is one of the few to do extended documentary projects. A lot of the guys are into wire photography and they shot events and spot news, not many are doing story work. For any photographer anywhere, doing newspaper work is a lot more reliable than documentary work. Zarni Phyo of Myanmar Times has a lot of potential and I hope he continues to do more story work. Kaung Htet is also good, and he does issue-based projects.
What we are interested in here at Myanmar Deitta is story-telling and that’s currently under-developed here in Myanmar. Which is kind of strange because documentary film here have been quite creative story-telling type pieces. Story-telling film work is really popular but for photography, it is way behind news photography. A lot of it is because of the Yangon Film School, which has been around for awhile. A majority of the young filmmakers that we work with have come from this school.
As Myanmar opens up and more foreign journalists and photographers enter the country, has that increased competition for local photographers?
I don’t think so. I don’t think the speed in which the numbers of non-Burmese journalists working here has increased is the same as how much more media there is. You can say there are journalists who are potentially taking away jobs of the local photographers, but three years ago, those jobs didn’t even exist. There are a whole heap of new jobs, and the numbers are not high enough. The people who lost out on work during the elections because James Nachtwey or whoever was flown in to do the story, were actually foreign journalists who’ve been here for awhile. Overall, things are getting better. And with the new government coming in, international interest will start dropping off now.
What about yourself, Matt? What brought you to Yangon?
I was backpacking in SE Asia 10 years ago, and I lived in Thailand for awhile with a Burmese family. I didn’t know much about the country then, except that it was a military dictatorship and Aung San Suu Kyi had asked for a boycott. I decided I wasn’t going to come to this country until I found out more about it. I became really interested in the country but didn’t visit that time. I went back to the UK and did two years of photojournalism. In 2008, two huge news events from Myanmar reached the UK – the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis – and that really caught my interest. I decided after graduation I would spend some time in Myanmar. I came here in 2010, originally to stay for six months.
What were your first impressions when you first got here?
I don’t remember. It’s only been six years but so much has changed. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like back then. What the roads were like, the cars were like. There were only 5% of cars on the road then than now, and very few new cars. If you saw a car that was less than 20 years old, you knew that that person must be reasonably affluent. It did feel like coming into a country that has been stuck for 30 years.
I always thought it’s such a cliche statement to make that Myanmar was a country stuck in a time warp, but Yangon felt like it was just neglected. It felt like the people were very proud and looked after their own personal space as much as they could, but they had given up on looking after the places that were out of their control, like the roads, the pavements, the electricity and the water. It felt like these places were left to crumble.
And yet you stayed.
Yeah, I’m not saying it’s a negative thing. There is a strange beauty to it. I stayed because I find the place interesting. But if the political changes hadn’t had happened, and if it were still like it was, I wouldn’t be living here anymore. Although not all the changes that happened have been positive, and I know that there will be massive issues happening in the city, but things have always been different and changing. If it was left as a stagnant and decrepit city that felt like it wasn’t going anywhere, I wouldn’t have stayed for so long.
You are a photographer too.
(Laughs) I was just reviewing my career as a photographer. I moved here straight after graduating and was doing photography here the first two years. I still do some photography now, but after starting this, it has kind of grown and snowballed, and taken over my life. Now that the gallery space is now established, everything that we do now is a little easier than the last. The first exhibition that we did was so much work. You’ve got nothing, just a room.
You’ve done an amazing job with the space.
Thank you! We were lucky to find it. When we took it the second floor wasn’t here. There was a ceiling and you could climb up a hole on this rickety ladder, and look around with a torch. We were lucky to be able to do with the space as we had hoped. It all kind of came together, and it’s pretty much ideal for what we want to do.
What immediate plans do you have for this year?
This year we really want to push forward the educational stuff. The exhibition side of things are up and running now. We have a few interesting things lined up, the most immediate being the exhibition in conjunction with Yangon Photo Festival. It is about the student protests from 2014 to 2015. That one would be the most sensitive exhibition that we’ve done, so everything can be seen as pushing the boundaries at the moment. We are at the point where things have changed, but legally little has changed here. But I think I am hopeful.
*The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.