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The Picture Show
Wed October 2, 2013
A Long-Standing Love Affair With Myanmar
Photographer Geoffrey Hiller made his first foray into Myanmar — also known as Burma — when he was traveling around Southeast Asia in 1987. At the time, he could only get a seven-day tourist visa, and the best method for changing currency was to arrive with two cartons of cigarettes and two bottles of Johnnie Walker, then trade them for cash outside the airport.
"I'll never forget flying in from Bangkok — there were no lights at all, and all you could see was the Shwedagon Pagoda," he says of his initial arrival.
"It was very, very isolated. The people would see pens in your pocket, and they would stare at them because they didn't even have ballpoint pens. They were hungry for very basic things."
At the time, Hiller was working as a professional photographer and selling images to international stock photo agencies. Despite his extensive travels, something about Myanmar deeply moved him. In 2000, he was working as a Web designer for Xerox in Portland, Ore., and simply felt drawn to return, even as taking photos there became more restrictive due to the military regime.
"I went back for three weeks — it was very risky," he says. "I went with 90 rolls of film, and I was lucky to get it out of the country. There were plainclothes people who approached me and asked what I was doing. It was obvious that they were with the government. It was a very different time."
After that trip, Hiller designed a Web documentary with the images, called Grace Under Pressure, which was shown, among other places, in Ireland for the 10th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize that had been awarded to democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. Hiller says it was even shown in Myanmar.
"At the time, if you were caught with a modem you could be put in jail for 20 years," says Hiller. "There was very strong censorship. Photography was illegal. It was an extremely brutal military regime."
Fast-forward to 2011, and Hiller was hired by the U.S. State Department to teach photojournalism in Yangon. Landing at the airport, he was worried he'd been blacklisted and would face immediate deportation because of the publication of Grace Under Pressure. Instead, he was allowed back in, and then made two follow-up trips in 2012 and 2013.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hiller's photos that span more than 25 years is the apparent lack of visual change in the country and the people. In fact, when I first viewed the images without captions or dates, I couldn't tell which images had been made 25 years ago, and which were from last year.
Hiller says that's exactly why he is drawn to the country and its people. "I'm interested because they haven't been influenced by outside culture. There is something very unique about the place."
But, with the easing of military restrictions, he acknowledges that the country is rapidly changing. "It's going to be like a different country in the next few years," he says. "I can see the changes in the way people are dressing. Social media is huge [there]. But I want to portray the country where it is right now."