Michael Bialecki: Documenting the Changes in Myanmar

Michael Bialecki was raised in South Florida where he was given his first camera by his father, a photographer, in high school. He grew up skateboarding and his interest in street photography blossomed when he went to college in San Francisco. After graduating with a degree in cultural anthropology, he moved to India to work as a photographer. Michael is currently based out of Bangkok, where he’s been for the last seven years, and works at an American university. He uses his free time to travel, especially to Myanmar. He shares his love for Myanmar below and says, “as far as photography goes, Myanmar is where my heart is.”

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I enjoy walking around the streets and interacting with my subjects if it is possible. I prefer to be alone when I am out taking photographs and I am very interested in working in Southeast Asia, especially in the country of Myanmar. I prefer to get off the tourist trail, to explore remote regions in this area and photograph the people that I meet who live and work there.

Q: You mention that you are interested in shooting images in Southeast Asia, and Myanmar in particular. What is it that draws you to that region, and what do you find special about exploring the remote regions of Myanmar and its people and culture?

A: Myanmar has been going through a very interesting change over the last couple of years, and as it continues to open up and allow access to its remote areas. I find it very interesting to see how a country can adapt and handle these changes in such a short time. Myanmar is a very ethnically diverse country and each region is unique in its own way. I like to explore those areas and talk to the people, learn from them and hopefully take some nice photographs of them and their country. Things are changing incredibly fast over there, and some traditions are dying out. As more and more of the people become exposed to the influences of the outside world, I feel that it is important to document the changes that I see and to talk to and learn from the locals.

Q: What does photography mean to you?

A: Photography is very important to me; it allows me to interact with people that I probably would not stop and talk to if I didn’t have a camera with me. Photography has also allowed me to travel around the world and be in some interesting situations, meet amazing people and experience some unique cultures.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: My main camera is my Leica M6 TTL. I carry it with me everyday and take it with me everywhere. I also own and use an M6 classic, an M2 and an M3, but my M6 TTL gets 90% of the use. As far as lenses go, I own a 90 mm Summicron, a 50 mm Summilux, a 50 mm Rigid, a 35 mm Voigtlander, a 28 mm Elmarit and a 15 mm Voigtlander.

Q: What is it that you find especially compelling about the traditional medium of film rather than digital capture, and what are some of its advantages for your kind of work? What film do you use most often, and have you ever considered using, say, a digital M9 or Leica M that provide a similar shooting experience to your Leica M6 TTL?

A: I don’t think there are any advantages to shooting film, I just prefer it. I like the simplicity of film and I actually like the fact that once I put a roll of film in my camera I am sort of dedicated to 36 shots. I also enjoy working in my darkroom and developing negatives and making prints. It is something I grew up doing and I continue to find pleasure in it today. I only use two types of film, Kodak Tri-X and Kodak Pro Image 100 and I am content with the results that I get. I have used an M9, Monochrom and the new M many times in the past. Most of my photographer friends here in Bangkok use these cameras and I play around with them whenever we are out shooting. They are wonderful cameras, but I just prefer my M6 TTL. For some reason, I feel like I shoot differently when I am shooting film than when I am borrowing one my friend’s digital Leica cameras. It is hard to explain, but I guess I would say that I think different when I am shooting film. It slows me down and I am more aware of what I am doing.

Q: Several of the subjects in your Myanmar portfolio have their faces daubed with white paint, can you tell us more about that? And why did you choose to focus on this distinctive cultural feature?

A: The white paint that you see in some of my photos is called “thanaka.” The Burmese people use it on a daily basis. It is actually made from tree bark. They grind it on a stone and add a little water to it and apply it to their faces and sometimes their arms as well. I have been told many different reasons why they use it, some of those reasons are that it protects the skin from the sun, another reason is it makes the skin soft and smooth and then I have been told it is used as a cosmetic, like how people use make-up. I don’t really think there is a definitive answer to why they use it; I just know that I have not seen it used in any other country and that it is unique to the Burmese people. There are many different qualities of it and it is a delight to watch the local people shop for it at markets. I like to watch them test it out — first they usually smell it, then they apply it to their skin and I have even seen some taste it before deciding on whether to purchase it or not.

Q: There is a striking image of a young girl in a bright orange shirt. It is masterfully composed, beautifully lit, and the shallow depth of field and soft background draw the eye to the main subject. Do you typically shoot portraits at wide apertures? And can you tell us where this was taken, some of the technical details such as lens and f/stop, and what was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This photo was taken in Amarapura at U Bein Bridge, which is a very popular bridge close to Mandalay. This young girl and I talked for about 20 minutes and she asked me lots of questions about America and my personal life. She was very inquisitive and curious about the world outside of her small town. After our talk, I noticed how perfect the light was and I asked her if I could take her photo. Everything just lined up really well and as I was taking her photo I knew already that I had something special. I used a 35 mm Nokton and I believe I shot it at 1.2 or 1.4. After a couple of photos, she took me to meet her family and we all sat down together, enjoyed some tea and talked some more.

Q: An image in this portfolio shows a monk in lotus position, and arrayed next to him are beads, bells, and other items. Can you tell us more about this fascinating picture?

A: This photo was taken at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the most sacred place in all of Myanmar. People come from all over the country to visit this pagoda. It is a very special place to visit and you can see people who have come from faraway places to pray here.

Q: This image is a straightforward but remarkable picture that seems to convey the cultural continuity of traditional concepts of beauty. Is this correct, and what do you think this photograph communicates to the viewer?

A: The Padaung people have sadly been exploited in Myanmar and in Northern Thailand. It is well-known that they are hired by shop keepers to bring in customers who want to see them. I don’t go to those shops nor do I support the practice. I took this photo when I was at an early morning market one day in Shan State and I saw this old woman shopping for food. I asked a local shop keeper where she came from and he told me Kayah State, which is a bordering state, but due to ethnic fighting, many of the Padaung have escaped to live up in the hills peacefully. I was instantly intrigued by her and I waited for her to exit the market area where there were not any people around. Then I approached her and I politely asked for a photograph. Since this photo was taken, I have been allowed to visit Kayah State and have befriended some Padaung who have invited me to their house for dinner. I have learned a great deal about their situation. It is very rare to see young girls with the brass rings on their necks; it is mostly a tradition that is dying out.

Q: Another picture that strongly evokes the continuity of traditional cultures is one showing a line of novitiates in some kind of religious order lined up along an urban street. The spiritual aspect of this image is highlighted by shallow depth of field, giving it a timeless quality, and the striking colors of the subjects’ garments. What do you think it says about Myanmar and its culture?

A: This photo was taken in Yangon in the early morning. These young female novices walk the streets very early in Yangon to collect food and donations; it is a really remarkable thing to witness. I have seen them numerous times, but when I shot this particular image. It had just finished raining and the lighting, the background and the novices just all lined up nicely for a photograph. It is amazing how you can see these old traditions in the early morning on the streets of Yangon.

Q: One image shows a man and a woman on a wooden bench. He is seated and facing the camera, she is reclining and turned away from the camera and the bag of possessions and flip-flops in the foreground. What does this image mean to you and why did you include it in this portfolio?

A: This image was taken inside a train at the train station in Yangon. It is one of my favorite places to photograph in the world. People from all over the country come to this train station and you can see and meet some very interesting people there. This couple was waiting for the train to depart to take them back to their village. The train wasn’t going to depart for a couple of hours. The woman was sleeping and the man was watching over her and their possessions. I included this photo because I think it shows love and humanity at its finest.

Q: What do you think you accomplished in creating this Myanmar portfolio and do you plan to expand it into a book or perhaps use it as the basis for an exhibition? In short, what are your plans for getting people to view these images, and is that important to you?

A: I plan on producing a book with my photos from Myanmar and perhaps an exhibition at some point in the future. As of now, the country continues to open areas that have been previously closed to foreigners for over 60 years due to ethnic fighting. I am exploring these areas as much as I can, and I am trying to photograph the country and its people as best as I can. I think it is important for people to see photos of different cultures and different countries, regardless if the photos are from Myanmar or anywhere else. I just happened to focus on Myanmar and its people and I would like to show how one of the most isolated countries on the planet is slowly opening up. I will continue to travel and take photographs in Myanmar for as long as I am allowed too.

Thank you for your time, Michael!

- Leica Internet Team

See more of Michael’s work on Flickr.