Nic Dunlop on not trusting photography alone and a brave new Burma

May 16, 2013

By Sally Ashley-Cound

Bangkok-based photographer Nic Dunlop, in conversation with BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane, previewed his new book Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 15th May. Twenty years in the making, Brave New Burma explores the country from the ongoing civil war to its deceptively tranquil cities, using both photographs and words by Dunlop.

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Fergal Keane (L) and Nic Dunlop. Photo credit: Sally Ashley-Cound

Keane started off by asking Dunlop: why spend 20 years photographing Burma? Dunlop explained:

“I understood so little about Burma and I felt the only way to really get to grips with it was not only to read about it but to travel. . . . It grew out of a quest to really understand how a deeply unpopular regime could hold on to power. . . . I thought that if I was really going to get under the skin of what was going on in Burma I needed to really bide my time.”

Until recently the Burmese regime was considered to be in the same bracket as North Korea, but Dunlop said that initially he got little sense of that:

“Everything seemed normal, any sign of oppression – what I was expecting – was not there. It was a country that had been sealed off from the outside world for many years, steeped in tradition; it was almost like it was trapped in the 19th Century.”

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Dunlop said that he has a difficult time trusting photography so he felt that putting words to his images helped to contextualise his work and, in turn, the oppression of the Burmese people:

“What journalism in general has a difficulty with is trying to uncover or follow ongoing oppression. . . . When people talked about oppression I didn’t know what they meant. I didn’t know what it looked like so I resolved to take photographs and try and describe something of what was happening on a daily basis.”

Of a photograph showing the distribution of newspapers, Dunlop commented:

“Images like this are very deceptive. Without the context that I’m going to give you now, you wouldn’t know what this photograph says. Many journalists were in prison when this photograph was taken . . . they were heavily censored. Photography for me has always been a difficult and complicated medium, I’m not sure I entirely trust it. That’s why I felt that contextual information was important, hence the idea of the book.”

Keane asked whether Dunlop is hopeful about the future of Burma:

“I think an opportunity has been missed. I think that Suu Kyi’s continued silence on the violence that has been perpetrated by many different groups, and the silence about the militaries role in all of this, has dashed any hopes of any sense of reconciliation between enemies that have been enemies for many years.”

“We have to look at Burma for the complicated place that it is and not see it as being this polarised idea. I think if we can engage in Burma in the complicated, fascinating, diverse and dynamic country that it is, then yes [I am hopeful].”

Dunlop continued:

“2007 was a landmark event, not so much for Burma, [but] in the way the West understood what was going on. The monks took to the streets and protested against the regime . . . within days the army and the police, with rifles and live ammunition, opened fire and it was quelled within a matter of days. I think it really confirmed to many people throughout the world that the regime was brutal. . . . It became a major media event and Aung San Suu Kyi became the embodiment of everything that was right about Burma, and the military was everything that was wrong.”

“It’s become almost impossible to talk about Burma without talking about Aung San Suu Kyi herself.”

Keane then added:

“She is taking the stick [for not doing anything about the oppression], when she actually has no real power to effect any change.”

Burmese civil war has been ongoing since it attained independence in 1948 and it is the longest-running civil war in the world, involving over 135 ethnic groups. These ethnic diversities are reiterated in Dunlop‘s photographs:

“The first thing you notice is the look of everyone; how rich and diverse. . . . It’s these [portrait] pictures that defy the national image that the Burmese regime has tried to impose – that there’s only one original ethnic group.”

Nic Dunlop’s new book Brave New Burma is available on Amazon now.

Sally Ashley-Cound is a freelance journalist based in London.

Watch Nic Dunlop discuss his photographs in full or listen to the podcast below: