Conquering Fear: Christian Houge’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma

Rangoon, Burma Nov. 2011

We had just recieved word from a rather uncoordinated NLD (National League for Democracy) in Rangoon that all interviews have been cancelled for several weeks on. Our hearts sank as I had spent over a year working with the Burma Commitee in Norway to get an interview and portraits of “The Lady”, as she is often called.

I had been working towards this interview with her for over a year in Oslo, and having several meeting with the Norwegian Burma Committee and the Nobel Peace Center. Aung San Suu Kyi was at the top of my list in this personal project exploring natural leadership and how to conquer fear. An awareness project which can meet all ages of all people in which questions we need to ask ourselves to evolve and how to step out of a set of expectations in life and into something larger than oneself.

As the stubborn person I am, I would not take no for an answer. Not after all my planning to meet this seemingly unattainable leader. Therefore, I set my focus on letting her see me at an event where I knew she would be. As luck would have it, she saw me in the crowd and asked me who I was. I told her about my work with the Burma Committee in Norway, my project on natural leadership, and on how I wanted to celebrate her 20th anniversary on being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She asked us to come back in three days to have the interview and make some quick portraits.

After our 30 minute interview three days later, it was time to make the hasty portraits of the Lady. After painfully photographing her in a cramped office with neon lights, a huge refrigerator and steel bars on the windows, my courage grew to tell her that I needed to photograph her somewhere else, to do my work properly. She looked at me with a curious gaze. After hearing from several people that she is quite reluctant on being photographed in this way, I was not expecting a whole lot. To my surprise, she asked me to find a suitable location and meet her in 15 minutes.

My only option with any open daylight was a small back staircase where old chairs and boxes were kept. After clearing the one faded wall where any sky could be seen, I asked several secretaries to please tell her to come all the way to the back corridor of the NLD office. No one uttered a sound. Not one single person would ask this proud and highly regarded woman to go back there! When she suddenly stood in front of me again, I explained how important this faded wall with it’s natural light was. She just said: Well, what are we waiting for ?

“I have been free for more than a month. Some people may think that that is long enough. Others may think that that is not quite long enough.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi

In the previous interview, we had spoken about the iconic Leica-photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his large photo project about Mahatma Gandhi, who happens to be Suu Kyi’s big inspiration. Explaining to her how the new Leica S2 was both a homage and lineage to the classic Leica used to document her hero Gandhi, I had bought myself some time and hopefully an understanding in wanting to do this portrait session right. The Leica S2 was my first choice not only because of the history, but because of the crazy quality I knew I would have access to, when meeting one of my heroes in this unreal occasion.

When asking her if I could photograph only her hand, the whole group of curious secretaries and assistants gasped and wondered why on earth I would want to do such a thing. I had no time to tell them how the hands, like the eyes of a person, says a lot about who they are and what they have been through in their lives. Being one of the worst and most paranoid regimes in the world (next to North Korea), we had doubts if we would even be allowed into this country. The images of Suu Kyi had to be hidden in folders within folders and deleted off my main cards, along with all leads to contact persons that had to do with the lady.

Christian Houge photographing Aung San Suu Kyi with a Leica S2.

Monks I spoke to took great risks by even letting me interview them. Due to informers, everybody could have ties to the military junta (even other monks), they could be jailed and tortured for years. Amidst all this fear and uncertainty amongst the people, I felt a sense of hope lingered in the people of Burma. Stronger than anything I had ever felt in any other country. Like something was about to burst. A quiet uprising of hope and justice.

The people have a collective voice stronger than the strongest militarypower. All men in Burma are monks at one time or another during their lives and this sets a strong tone in attitude and duty. Imagine 600.000 soldiers who don’t really see the point, against 600.000 monks living and breathing truth and justice. Who will finally prevail in the long run? The monks have a huge influence in Burma and I felt I was part of something meaningful and profound.

“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi

Spending most of my time with these calm and holy men was just as strong as being in the prescence of Suu Kyi. An honest humbleness I seldom witness was constantly present in my meetings with these people. Despite of this, my paranoia grew still, when both hotel employees and random taxidrivers asked me why I went to the office of NLD, if I was planning to meet the Lady, who I was working for and what I was really doing in Rangoon. This freaked me out, and I saw an image of myself in interrogations as some kind of spy.

Luckily, after deleting all available cards and contacts, my travel companion and I were able to calm each other down from the spiralling dramatic images running through our heads, and the consequences of all the journalists and monks who had helped us out in Rangoon.

My main goal with this humanitarian project is to raise an awareness amongst people by showing examples of humans who have been brave enough to stand for something they believe in. Thus inspiring not just their own nation, but the rest of humanity. In my work throughout the last 20 years, I have always had private, self financed projects on awareness. Be it my work on Tibetans in refuge and the Dalai Lama, child labour in India for Save The Children or an installation on torture and it’s psychological effects with Amnesty International as the exhibition ‘Year Zero’. This is purely humanitarian work and stands apart from my work as a fine art photographer, where I work conceptually on Mans condition and his shadowsides in culture. These shadowsides are everything from death to sexuality. Identity plays a large part and I often explore Mans relation to nature. That which is within us, but yet alienated from in many ways.

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi

My mission in the project on exploring natural leadership is to try to inspire people. Every thought, feeling or voice is both real and valuable. To stand up for something you believe in could be the most valuable thing you do in life. For yourself and others. Be it in politics, at school, at your workplace or in relations. To step outside of ones ego and into something larger than oneself is one of the hardest things to do. The consequence can be fatal, but can most likely make you whole and inspire many people around you.

People need not just icons and heroes, but someone humble and respectful enough to be able to see that there is something larger than ourselves which is more important. For one being to take a step into something trecherous, knowing that there exists something more important than fear itself. Something outside of their own ego. This is why Suu Kyi was on top of my list of individuals to include in my ongoing project.

“Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi

Some of my questions to Suu Kyi: Where are this inner strength and courage coming from? And how can other people find this courage in themselves in their own daily lives? What is fear and how does it corrupt Man? Which forms can it take hold of us in? Who and what was her main inspiration in life to have the fundament in which she stands on with the choices she makes? Which questions should Man ask himself to further evolve? Where did Man stagnate and how does our ego often get in the way for larger ideas in the evolution of Man?

To find courage and confidence to go outside the predictable/expected, against something so overpowering, with such persistancy and will to be able to go forth as an example that non-violence and peaceful methods will prevail. Courage is not the lack of fear, but to know that something is more important than that fear. The brave may not live forever, but the scared will never live at all. Aung San Suu Kyi has this courage. She has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for this and the world listens to her actions with humility and optimism.

Suu Kyi has finally been set free from her housearrest and will recieve the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her over 20 years ago.

When we think of the state of the economy, we are not thinking in terms of money flow. We are thinking in terms of the effect on everyday lives of people.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi

My work in this project has gone far beyond of just being in Burma. The project started with another personal work exploring Tibetans refuges in India and Nepal for over one year in total. By spending time with H. H. Dalai Lama and working with the whole Tibetan community, I wanted to find out how this small group of refugees could have such an empowering feeling of identity and willpower to keep their faith and traditions alive. Dalai Lama helped me to get access to the most difficult areas to do my work and I am forever grateful.

Suu Kyi and His Holiness have a great deal in common, as well as big differences. They were both born into politics, but in different forms. Suu Kyi was the daughter of the most respected democratic leader Burma had ever witnessed. After he was assasinated, the people needed Suu Kyi to step up for the people as their only hope.

“I think by now I have made it fairly clear that I am not very happy with the word “hope.” I don’t believe in people just hoping. We work for what we want. I always say that one has no right to hope without endeavor, so we work to try and bring about the situation that is necessary for the country, and we are confident that we will get to the negotiation table at one time or another. This is the way all such situations pan out – even with the most truculent dictator.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi

Dalai Lama was found as a reincarnation when he was a young child and has filled his role ever since as the 14th Dalai Lama, Bodhisatva of Compassion. They have both been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts against huge powers and stand as symbols of hope for freedom and democracy. Living icons and inspiration to mankind. A reminder that one individuals voice does count in the larger scheme of things in a cynical and brutal society.

Recently I have had the same interview and questions to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the world famous Indian guru who works solely on how love can conquer all.

Christian Houge and Aung San Suu Kyi.

-Christian Houge

To view the online portfolio of Christian Houge, visit christianhouge.no. This story is also available on the Leica Bresson blog, leica.bresson.no.