But this is just part of the story I want to discuss. What I want to talk about is my last trip to Burma—the journey that led me there and the place in which I now find myself.
In April 2011 I was in New York for work. I was there on my birthday, and Anthony Ruotolo and Scott Alexander—the Associate Publisher and new Editor in Chief of American Photo, respectively—took me out to lunch. During the course of the meal, which was also a working lunch to discuss my Alaska project, the conversation turned, as it frequently does, to where was my most favorite place to shoot, what is my favorite type of photography, color or black-and-white, and am I working on any new projects?. The answers, for me, are: the country of Burma (Myanmar), black-and-white digital infrared, and the project I was working on was a self-assignment that I had titled In the Heat of the Light, which was a collection of infrared black-and-white images that I had taken while teaching workshops and on assignments over the past six years. When I showed Scott and Anthony some of the images, Scott asked if I would be interested in doing a feature for AP on Burma and, specifically, in digital infrared. It took me a few moments to answer, not because I had to think about it, but because I had just been offered my dream assignment for the magazine I have always dreamed of being asked to do a feature for.
What wound up happening is that my Alaska assignment for American Photo—one in which I spent two weeks by myself just shooting a Princess Cruise land and sea excursion—ended 36 hours before I had to be in Burma. The Alaska assignment marked the first time that I had gone out shooting in an environment like that, without a small army of either students or crew; it was just me and the camera. Then, 36 hours later I was on a plane. So I went from freezing cold to boiling hot. From nothing but landscapes, snow, and cold rain to people, monsoons, and humidity. Just me, a guide, and my camera.
Through the course of negotiating the logistics of the Burma shoot, one of the things I decided for this article was that I needed to photograph Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Medal of Freedom recipient, who was at the time just released from 20 years of imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi. I figured, what was the worst that could happen? I’d be told “No.” If that was the case, I was no worse off than I would be if I did not ask. So I sent out an email talking about how I would love to do this formal portrait of “the Lady” (as she is referred to by the Burmese people), for this article. What I got back was, “I do not see myself as a movie star or a model.” Which, when I looked back at the email that I wrote, was basically what I was telling her I was going to do for the portrait. So her response back was a polite “no.”
“No” has never really stopped me before. So I kept writing back and forth and back and forth. Eventually what I got back was, “Informal access can be granted if you promise to do right with the pictures.” “Right” was however that manifested itself for me. What I believed at that moment what “right” was, was to do right by her and tell the story. To tell the story as I was taken by the experience of being there.
So I landed in Yangon. As I left the airport, I was informed that we were going to photograph the Lady (Aung San Suu Kyi) at the home of her father’s best friend. It was his birthday. Now, I have been flying for 27 hours. I’m not all in Burma just yet.
I showed up on time, but she was two and a half hours late to the birthday party. It was 107 degrees, 98% humidity, and I was rained on twice through monsoons. When she finally arrived, I experienced something I had never seen. I’ve photographed a lot of people in my career that have the “it” quality but I have never experienced in my life the ability to take the “it” quality and put that quality in the other person. To make that other person become the person that has the “it” quality.
Whenever someone was talking to her and she was talking to them, that person in front of her became the “it” person. And the more that they tried to put her on a pedestal, the more humble and more open and more receptive she became to connect with them.
One of the great advantages of being a photographer is that you are allowed to see a world that many people walk by. You are allowed the privilege to bear witness. I believe, as the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “an interesting plainness is the most difficult thing to achieve.” I have really worked in my career to make my job to be about finding interesting plainnesses. From a flower to the steps you walk by, I see my job as to bear witness to the world and to say with my images, “Stop for a second, check this out, take pause.”
To say that I have led and lead a blessed life is an understatement by anyone’s measure.
In the course of my life I felt a prayer be heard, witnessed a prayer answered, and have felt something greater than myself move through me. I have seen people have the power to do extraordinary things, and have seen the force of greatness move through someone and touch others. What I know from these experiences is that I am just a small part of a bigger thing.
I need to go a little way out to come back to the point of this piece. So bear with me.
In addition to having gone to film school, I am also a conservatory-trained actor. It is that training that is the core of my skill set as a photographer. One of the major parts of my training was in Behavioral Effector Patterning, which is the study of the biomechanics of emotion. The training is about understanding how you physically feel individual emotions. One of the outcomes of the training is that you are very aware of the feeling of emotions and the physicality that they cause. One of the things that I have frequently felt as I shoot is something greater than me move through me. Which is the only way I can explain what it feels like to take a picture; it is also why I don’t think that whatever credit I get assigned for images I have taken has much to do with me. It has to do with connecting into something greater. Some images express greater connection than others. Another way to express this: being completely present in the moment. When I witnessed the experience of Aung San Suu Kyi with people and witnessed the way in which, no matter how many people came at her, she was always centered, present, and humble, it was always about the needs of those in front of her.
From all that I have read about her, the job of being the imprisoned ruler of Myanmar and the sprit and voice of her people is not a job she asked for. Prior to this she was the wife of an Oxford professor and was busy raising two children. Who would ask for the life she leads now? It’s a job that she has to do because she has to do it. It’s the right thing to do. And when I witnessed that, I started to realize what doing “right” meant and what she had asked of me in that simple request.
One of the great fears of being a photographer is to miss the shot. To be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to grab the wrong piece of gear or to be so wrapped up in the moment you forget what you are there to do. Each and every one of these fears was realized for me the first time I photographed her. Rarely if ever are you given a second chance, and rarely if ever does the second time around surpass the first. But two days later I found myself again going off to shoot “the Lady.”
It’s interesting how a small moment in time can have a lifetime of ramification. Or how long the journey to change is, but that the moment of change happens in an instant, which was a conversation I had with her, my guide, and her assistant.
Every time I have traveled to Burma, I have asked, “What is the word in Burmese for ‘please’?” No matter who I have asked, what I always get back is a polite but blank stare, and no one knows what to say.
So here I am at the second Aung San Suu Kyi shoot; this time it is at a luncheon for the dedication of a library in her father’s honor. So I ask once again, “What is the word in Burmese for ‘please’?” After a moment she says something in Burmese to her assistant, her assistant says something in Burmese to my guide, and the guide then says to me, “We don’t have a word for ‘please’.” I say, “You don’t have a word for please?” Again, after a moment she says something in Burmese to her assistant, her assistant says something in Burmese to my guide, and the guide then says to me, “Well, no, nor do we say ‘thank you’ as much as you do. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ in our society are implied in everything we do. The only time we say ‘thank you’ is when a person does something that is so life-changing, so profound, that it warrants comment above and beyond what you should do, which is right. And then the response is basically something to the effect of, ‘Why are you thanking me? I’m just doing what I’m supposed to.’”
And so, again, after a moment she says something in Burmese to her assistant, her assistant says something in Burmese to my guide, and the guide says to me, “You might want to consider doing that for a day. Have ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ implied in every action and to try and do right with everything you do.” While this is being said to me with the kindest of smiles without malice or ego, she looks at me. In that moment I have never felt so heard or been so present.
In that moment, I realized that it was not “right by her” that she was asking me to do; I was asked to do right, always. Since then, I go out of my way to try and have “please” and “thank you” implied in everything I do. I try to have “please” and “thank you” implied in my pictures, and to recognize that my job now is to do right by everything I photograph.
And that really changes the way you spin things. It started with that moment, and I was damned if I was going to let this person down—this person who I doubt remembers me. All that, just from the experience of that energy, that presence.
It is like when an actor is on stage with an another, more talented actor; the more gifted actor pulls you up because you have to step up to the plate to be able to match their level. And when you are done, you have been changed. You are better for the experience, and that experience echoes through the rest of your career until the next time that you get pulled up to a different level.
What I try to do when I shoot is open myself up not to what it is that I think I should shoot, but to what it is that there is to shoot that will take me, which means slowing down and getting out of my head and having as little of my ego in the photograph as possible. I have never been accused of being a man of small ego, and I will not argue with that. But what I can promise you is that what you’ll never see in my photograph is that ego. Everything happens at the speed of life, and what I try to do is record the experience of life. The camera works in fractions of a second, life occurs in continuous time. So within that limitation, what I try to do is right by the moment as it unfolds in front of me.
Another thing that changed for me from my experience in Burma was the belief of knowing who you are as good as, who you are better than, and who is better than you. I know I will never be as good as Cartier-Bresson. I know I will never be as good as Josef Sudek. I know I will never be as good as Karsh. I know I will never be as good as Ansel Adams. I will only be as good as Vincent Versace. And that’s the only person that I need to compete with. Should I remove the Bresson qualities from my photographs, should I remove the Wynn Bullock qualities, the Sudek qualities? No, all of those things should exist and they exist as a harmonic. I’m only as good as the images that have moved me.
Will I ever be as good as them? No, and that should not matter. Everybody has something valid to say, and if you are so moved by a moment to have to take a picture of it, then that need in you is important enough to be seen and heard. It should be heard. What I ask all of you who read this post to consider is this: in everything you do, imply “please” and “thank you” in the doing. With everything you do, with every image you create, simply consider doing right.