Marc Erwin Babej: Capturing The Soul of Burma

Marc Erwin Babej has an abiding passion for Leicas and “introspective” photography, abhors what he dismisses as “Effekthascherei,” a marvelous word in his native German that can be loosely translated as “superficial effects at the expense of authenticity.” True to this view, the images he captured on his most recent shoot in Burma (also called Myanmar) evoke a timelessness that delves into the essence of a people rooted in age-old traditions. They reveal the understated spiritual serenity at the core of an ancient society at the cusp of fundamental transition. To explore Babej’s motivations, techniques, and creative goals, we spoke with him about his impressions of shooting in Burma.

Q: The last time you shot in Burma was three years ago, before the country had begun opening up to the outside world. You commented that Burma is rapidly evolving and you were jumping into the place to document it before it changed too much.

A: This is a divisive moment in Burma’s history, full of uncertainties and potential. It is also the kind of decisive moment that is being recognized as such by all involved as it is happening. After three decades of isolation imposed by successive military regimes, the current government under President Thein Sein has embarked on a policy of reform. Thein Sein appears to have taken to heart a famous dictum by Alexis de Tocqueville: “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it tries to reform.” Most observers inside and outside the country view the current government as a significant improvement. In line with De Tocqueville’s insight, Thein Sein is walking that tightrope between enacting change while mitigating the danger inherent in change. The reforms are wide-ranging and at the same time deliberately paced (the deliberate part is not surprising, considering that Thein Sein and most members of the government are high-ranking officers). Press censorship has been lifted (though not legally abolished). With one notable exception, long-standing armed conflicts with ethnic rebel groups have ended. There is now a political opposition, headed by Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who after years of house arrest, finds herself leading the opposition in parliament. At the same time, the constitution of 2010 guarantees the military 25% of the seats in parliament. The military continues to play a significant and unique role in Burma: even Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of a general (the Burmese independence hero Gen. Aung San). The country is opening up rapidly to foreign investors, who are vying to jump into a potentially sizeable market. Some embargoes by the US and EU have been lifted, with the prospect of an end to embargoes. Barring a retrenchment, Burma is putting itself on the map.

Q: What does this moment amount to for a photographer?

A: More than anything else, it instills awareness that this might be the last chance to present an unadulterated view of a Burma that might soon be past. The changes are noticeable in the variety of news media, and the content in the news media. When I visited the country three years ago, most cars were from 1980s and 1990s models because of embargoes. Now, you see more and newer cars on the streets of Yangon. Cranes are sprouting on empty lots. But for the most part the changes haven’t manifested physically yet. You don’t have to search hard to find the authentic, isolated, solipsistic society. In a few years, Burma will look a great deal more like Thailand.

Q: When you went over there, which cameras did you bring with you?

A: I shoot only in black and white, so I brought my Monochroms. Since Leica equipment is compact, I err on the side of bringing more rather than less, so I brought my 28, 35, 50s and 90. My beloved 135mm Tele-Elmar from 1970 stayed at home.

Q: Not with the sort of coverage you had in mind.

A: Correct. Wildlife or events weren’t on the agenda, so the 135 and I made a mutual decision part ways for a couple of weeks. The two lenses I could not have done without on this shoot were my 35mm f/2 Summicron and 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron. It’s a function of the location: I do a lot of shooting in marketplaces, and in that setting those two lenses are particularly useful. I never go into a marketplace without my 35. It lets you move in close in tight spaces, with just the right balance between subject and environment. The 90mm is nice for portrait shots. In marketplaces, it allows you to cut out anything extraneous. And Asian marketplaces being what they are, composing an uncluttered image is a top priority.

Q: I am attracted to one image you have here labeled “Evening Rush.” It shows three people on some means of public transportation, an experience that one might have on the NYC subway or the London Underground. However it also has a wonderfully enigmatic quality. The only person whose face you can see is this woman looking off to the left. I find the picture enchanting. The subjects aren’t that sharp, but emotionally it succeeds very well.

A: Technical aspects are crucial, but they will only get you so far. My images are introspective. Pardon the reference to Leica’s tagline, but my aim is to share my point of view rather than journalistic objectivity. It’s about meaning rather than reality per se. I view myself as more of an art photographer rather than a documentarian or a photojournalist. The three people on this bus are everyman and everywoman. They read more clearly as everyman and everymoman because the bus window is opaque. The other insight I wanted to convey is that the buses in Burma say a lot about the country. For example, the bus window would be of little interest if it were shiny and new. This bus window becomes a symbol for the economic state of the country and its implications for the population. The patina – both literal and metaphorical – speaks volumes. Incidentally, this patina was one of the main reasons I wanted to return before the physical environment had changed significantly.

Q: The other bus image shows a man holding onto a rail, and there’s a person behind him looking right at you. It gives you the feeling of being packed in a crowded bus. It has a completely different feeling. The first one is dreamlike, while this one is kind of hyper-reality.

A: And because of the “hyper” aspect, this image has a dreamlike quality as well – it’s just a different kind of dream. The images are two sides of the same coin. The previous image is ethereal because it is shot through the softening screen of a grimy window. In this image, the screen is removed. Instead of a softening effect, the viewer is confronted with the subjects as individuals. The confrontation, here, is also literal: the primary and secondary subjects are looking at me as I look at them. It was an instant of tacit agreement to let intrusion take a back seat to curiosity about each other’s alien-ness. I remember thinking: “he is scrutinizing me with the same”cold curiosity” as I scrutinize him.” It was a trade between strangers, and there was a tacit understanding that each of us served a means for the other’s contemplation, without expectation of verbal interaction. The image speaks because it freezes the moment the trade was made.

Q: What also works well in this image is the limited depth of field. The main subject is quite sharp; then the depth of field trails off. It makes it almost like the eternality of the moment.

A: I shot this image with the 50mm Noctilux at f/1; 1/190 at ISO 1600. One reason for shallow depth of field was practical: shooting even slow-moving objects after sunset requires a fast shutter speed – and hence a shallower depth of field and higher ISO. That said, I like manipulating depth of field to change meaning. I’m a writer by background, and what drives my images, like my sentences, is content. Controlling the depth of field is a way of determining how much information you need in order to convey your meaning, and to place an emphasis on the subject.

Q: For ISO 1600 the image quality is outstanding. You were talking about using depth of field. Well, a classic example is the image with a boy and the background is really blurred with a beautiful bokeh. You can hardly tell what it is but it’s really charming. It has a natural look to it.

A: That boy is a Buddhist novitiate at Shweyan Pyay Monastery near Inle Lake. This monastery is famous for its beautiful Shan architecture and oval windows. It’s midday, and I found him looking out, with light on half his face. This image was shot with a shallow depth of field (ISO 800 with the 50mm Summicron at f/2.8) solely for design reasons. The background would have been a nonsequitur.

Q: What does this image say to you?

A: He was reflective beyond his years. A kid, but at the same time a mind immersed in, and already visibly formed by, a philosophy. That pensive expression is not something you commonly see on kids that age.

Q: To me it’s beyond thought. To me it’s pure consciousness.

A: Precisely. The flip side of the coin is the image of three young novitiates at Ah Lai Kyaung Sar Thin Taik Monastery (in Dala Township, across the river from Yangon). They’re pals, and I love the variety of expressions: three individuals. The boy on the left is the leader of the pack. The boy in the middle is thinking probably still on his studies. The novitiate on the right is reacting to the boy on the left, clearly amused that his friend is hamming it up a little bit. It’s a very universal moment: three little boys in a moment that reveals them as distinct personalities that would be familiar the world over. In the first image, the novitiate’s robe is essential to the narrative because the narrative is about Buddhism. In the second image, the robes are important because they are incidental.

Q: There is another image here you might see in National Geographic from 1926: the fisherman on Inle Lake. He is on a long boat with nets or traps and the mountains are in the background. It’s an image that could fall in the genre of a classic travel image but it is somehow more than that. The life of these people in doing their daily work is almost like the contemplation of the monks doing their work. There is this character to that society. Everything seems to have a quotidian and a spiritual aspect at the same time.

A: This image, in terms of content, is probably my favorite from Inle Lake. It could have been taken now, ten years ago or fifty years ago. Fishermen on Inle Lake have been photographed enough to have generated visual clichés – leg rowing, or dramatic shots of the nets. I am trying to draw the line between portraying a timeless way of life without crossing over into exoticism.

Q: Let’s move on to the picture labeled “Mud Diggers” that shows a man on the left flinging something with a spade. There are people working in the field doing something maybe agricultural. It has the same kind of National Geographic 1926 quality. It could have been taken at any time. The juxtaposition of the figures is really amazing.

A: This image has a very particular reference. You’ve actually seen this kind of image before – in Socialist Realism from the USSR, or in Maoist propaganda. Seeing this group of people standing on a mound of mud, shoveling it into a truck, brought out the history buff in me. I’ve seen so many Socialist Realist images that I knew right away what to do: go to the bottom of the mound and shoot up from an extreme angle. So there is the young heroic worker. You see the muscles on his arm, the sun is shining on him just right. He is bursting vigor, and shoveling mud is the most thrilling, fulfilling thing he’s ever done in his life. This being a parody of socialist propaganda the ideal laborer is better shown in a group, lest any viewer get any thoughts about our shoveler as an individual hero rather than part of a heroic collective. And alas, you include three other people who are also having the time of their lives shoveling mud. Finally the all-important angle, to fill even the most phlegmatic viewer with a burning desire to find the nearest shovel and join these heroes of labor. The truth is an entirely different matter: the people in the picture are dredgers and mud diggers by the banks of the Irrawaddy river in Mandalay – among the poorest of the poor in a poor country. ”Hovel” is almost a euphemism to describe their living quarters – corrugated metal as roofs, no walls. The image is a biting criticism of totalitarian propaganda, because it is such a flagrant, deliberately manipulative fabrication.

Q: It works very well. “Ngapali Sunrise” is beach setting. It’s very low contrast. There are palm trees and a boat in the foreground. The quality of the light is really the subject. You do have quite a tonal range. The feeling is kind of murky. It has a visceral quality to it. You can imagine yourself standing there.

A: That image was shot shortly after seven in the morning. It was shot during the short interval when the sun is rising but people aren’t out yet. Ten or fifteen minutes later they will be. The light shining through the palms trees creates the effect like a spotlight on an empty stage. You are expecting a person to step into that spotlight. That serves as a metaphor for what was going to happen – soon, the actors will step into that spotlight.

Q: There is a feeling of anticipation, and the very lack of detail gives an air of suspense to it.

A: I had walked along the beach to the village for 45 minutes at the crack of dawn and was excited about what I was going to find. This was my way of capturing the anticipation.

Q: The other image I want you talk about is of a young woman holding a net over her head standing by the water. It’s a charming picture. The shadow of the net is over her face and you can see the beads on her dress. It’s one of those “everyday” scenes like the fishermen. She is very beautiful and engaging. There is a certain expressionless yet expressive quality to it.

A: She is the daughter of an ocean fisherman. I was shooting a group of young people, but this girl was a bit shy. So I asked her to put the net in front of her face. She immediately felt safer and transformed into a different person. I like this one because of the shadow and the lines the veil creates in this image. The effect of the veil on her behavior inspired me, so I’m now doing a series of shooting women with veils. It’s working out nicely.

Q: “Bounty of the Beach” is a really amazing picture. The shape of the woman is almost calligraphic. She is slim and bent over, wearing a hat. It’s beyond symbolism. It stands for a way of life and an orientation to the world. It has a transcendent character.

A: You hit the main points right there. The image is related to the picture of the fisherman on Inle Lake. This lady lives in the fishing village and is collecting seashells to craft into jewelry. It was taken around 4:30 PM when the sun was starting to set.

Q: There is another one called “Model Student” This one is a picture of a mother and son. The mother is wearing glasses and the son is dressed very properly. In the background, you see a Buddhist monk. The feeling you get from this is she is a person who is strong and is going to help her son succeed. You feel this boy is well cared for and his mother wants him become someone in the world. She doesn’t look like a peasant or farmer or fisherman. She looks middle class.

A: She has the air of a teacher or professional. You can tell there is a quiet determination to succeed in both of them. The monk adds a layer of meaning: he stands over them as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom and education in a rising nation with an ancient culture.

Q: The fact that he is not as sharply focus is perfect. It’s the presence of a spiritual philosophy and tradition behind them. Visually speaking they almost seem to derive strength from that.

A: He represents what they come from as they head into the future.

Q: There are actually past, present and future planes in this picture.

A: That’s the idea. It’s the opposite of my visual joke about socialist realism. There is a broad message here, and this message becomes powerful because we register them individuals, not off-the-shelf archetypes.

Q: That is brilliant. Do you know that famous picture by Edward Weston of the pepper? He photographed many peppers but there is one that is considered a masterpiece and it’s like the eternal pepper. Your picture of the fish has a similar. It’s like the eternal fish. It’s a dried fish, but it has a lot of life in it!

A: The Burmese eat a lot of dried fish, and also use it as a condiment. What appealed to me about the fish were a couple things. If you go closer into the image you see a cut on the side of his face. There is a very silvery texture to him even though he is dried, so there is an unexpected play on shadows and light. And also the way that the body was cut into strips while still remaining one unit makes for an interesting shape. As soon as you were talking about the Weston’s pepper I knew you were going to be asking me about the fish.

Q: The last picture I want to talk about is the picture of the candles. It’s a beautiful picture. The smoke in the middle almost looks like a dragon. This happens to be Buddhism but it could be any religion, really. You could photograph a similar scene in the Cologne Cathedral. For some reason it makes you smile because it captures something that you’ve seen before but in a unique and different way.

A: This image was taken at one of the busiest places in Burma, Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. They light oil lamps in a huge circle around the pagoda only on special holidays. It was a stroke of luck that on one of our visits to Shwedagon the lamps were lit. The most unusual thing is you don’t see a single person — that is a result of waiting around long enough and playing with light and exposure, and doing some work in postproduction. Showing the creations and actions of man without showing people underscores the message about a universal search for meaning that encompasses many other forms religious worship.

Q: Do you plan to go back again?

A: Absolutely. Burma is a fascinating and multifaceted country, and there’s still a lot I haven’t seen. I want to go back within the next 24 months. Burma is coming onto the global grid. Finally! But if you want to see it in its pure form, there’s no time to waste.

Thank you for your time, Marc!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Marc’s work, visit his Facebook page.