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Out of Time

Burma missed most of the 20th century, but the 21st is coming on fast.

44 americanphotomag.com january/febraury 2012

© Vincent Versace

A view across the Bagan Archaeological Zone in central Burma, the country’s ancient capital and home to more than 4,000 active temples and pagodas.

© Photographer’s name

Words and pictures by vincent versace

January/february 2012 americanphotomag.com 45

Out of Time hen you arrive in Burma, you aren’t just visiting another country. You’re visiting another century. Thanks to a sustained series of inhumane policies by a sustained series of oppressive leaders, a boot has been kept on the Burmese people’s throat for the past 50 years. With the rest of the world kept out, the country has become a de facto time capsule. Now, as the green shoots of democracy sprout and the walls come down, Burma is poised to enter the 21st century having barely experiencing the 20th. I will leave the political ramifications of all this to those more qualified. What I’m qualified to do is frame and click, frame and click. When I visited Burma in early November 2010 to lead a photographic workshop, getting a visa could take months, Internet access was tenuous at best and owning a satellite phone could get you ten years in prison. Any mention of “The Lady” (Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy leader who had been under detention for much of the last 20 years) could cause a deafening silence in a crowded room. Less than a year later, in September 2011, my visa was processed on arrival at the airport, where I bought a SIM card for my cellphone. My hotel had free Wi-Fi, and The Lady had been released. Freedom was coming. But with it also comes all the calamities of modern life. While I rejoice for the people, I also know that untouched Burma will not remain that way for very long. Burma is where I felt the true meaning of the oft-repeated statement “Don’t take pictures. Be taken by your pictures.” I have never taken a photograph in Burma; they have all taken me. There have been times when I lived my life as if it were an action movie, other times as if it were a comedy. The Burmese live life as if it’s a poem. There is no word for please in their language, because please and thank you are implied in every action. The Burmese equivalent to you’re welcome loosely translates to Don’t thank me. That is what I must do. When I asked her assistant if I could make a formal portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, the response I got back was that she does not see herself as a model or movie star. In other words, no. Still, informal access could be arranged, as long as I was willing to agree to “do right” with the photographs.

From top: Pagodas line the stairway to a sacred cave. A triptych of a woman of the Ann tribe as she tells a joke, her teeth stained black from betel nut.

© Vincent Versace (5)


I sincerely hope that I have done right here. In Burmese, the word for thank you is reserved for times when something truly remarkable or lifechanging has occurred. To Burma, its people and The Lady, I offer a deeply felt kyeizu tin ba de. AP

46 americanphotomag.com january/febraury 2012

A woman displays traditional facial tattooing, an ancient custom that is no longer practiced.

Out of Time

The images in this story were taken from Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, edited by John Maloof and published by powerHouse Books. $40

© Vincent Versace (3)

“when you arrive in burma, you aren’t just visiting another country. you’re visiting another century.”

Clockwise from left: A young monk walks through the ruins of Paleik temple near Mandalay. A ginger, peanut and garlic farmer at his home in Kalaw hill station. A welder in South Dagon Industrial Park, one of Burma’s many industrial zones.

January/february 2012 americanphotomag.com 49

Out of Time

Left: A boat on the Lay Myo River in Mrauk U Archaeological zone. Right: “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, speaks to a group of her followers at a luncheon for the opening of a library dedicated in memory of her late father, General Aung San.

50 americanphotomag.com january/febraury 2012

© Vincent Versace (2)

“The burmese term for you’re welcome roughly translates to don’t thank me, that is what I must do.”

January/february 2012 americanphotomag.com 51

Profile for Vincent Versace


January/february 2012 americanPhotomag.com 4544 americanPhotomag.com January/febraury 2012 Words and pictures by vincent versace Burma misse...


January/february 2012 americanPhotomag.com 4544 americanPhotomag.com January/febraury 2012 Words and pictures by vincent versace Burma misse...